Raw chef Matthew Kenney is a busy man.
When I catch up with him on an overcast fall day at the spacious apartment he keeps in bustling downtown Belfast, he tells me he’s been in five states in the past five days.
Before touching down in Maine, he hopscotched across the country to attend to business in Oklahoma City, Dallas, Chicago, New York City and Boston.
Unlike most trips to his home state, this visit doesn’t afford Maine’s signature serenity. Instead, a handful of workmen fill the modern, high-ceiling rooms of his Vacationland home with the buzz of power tools. Renovations and change are the order of the day at Kenney’s coastal retreat.
But for Kenney, who grew up in Searsport, change is something he’s accustomed to.
Trained at the French Culinary Institute and twice nominated for the James Beard Rising Star Chef award, Kenney began his career cooking for and owning high-end restaurants where meat- and dairy-centric dishes were the order of the day.
Among these restaurants was the Commissary at the Public Market in Portland, which eventually closed as a result of financial woes at Kenney’s New York restaurants following 9/11.
A few years later, a friend dragged a reluctant Kenney to a raw food restaurant, where he experienced one of those life-changing “aha” moments and soon decided to take his career in the direction of raw, plant-based cuisine. He opened Pure Food and Wine in New York with Sarma Melngailis in 2004, but is no longer involved in that venture.
These days, the trim and fit chef’s focus is the Matthew Kenney Academy and the nearby Matthew Kenney OKC restaurant. Both celebrate artfully prepared raw cuisine, and both are located in the unlikely setting of Oklahoma City, which is known for its stockyards and meatpacking industry.
“I always liked the idea of doing something cool in an unusual place,” Kenney says. “Oklahoma is consistently ranked at or near the bottom in obesity and health and fitness. We thought it was important to change dining habits from the inside out.”
In May, Forbes magazine named Matthew Kenney OKC one of America’s Best New Restaurants. Last year, The Oklahoman wrote of the restaurant: “While the concept may sound foreign, the tastes that emerge are quite exciting.”
Current offerings on the 80-seat restaurant’s seasonally-changing menu include kimchee dumplings, green curry noodles, sweet corn ravioli and pizza bianco. All the dishes are made from vegetables, beans, seeds, nuts, sprouted grains and fruit. Nothing in the restaurant is cooked above 118 degrees, which preserves the food’s natural enzymes.
Kenney intends to open a raw food restaurant in Chicago this fall, and has plans in the works to develop raw restaurants in Singapore and Florida.
“It’s a relatively new phase of growth,” Kenney says. “I’ve been focusing my energy on the academy.”
The Matthew Kenney Academy has taken off in the last year, with demand for spots in the four-week culinary programs outstripping supply. According to Kenney, it’s the only state-licensed raw foods culinary school in the nation.
Many of the students hail from foreign countries. Students in the current class are from South Africa, Switzerland, Brazil, Belgium and the United Kingdom.
“Eventually, I envision our company expanding into vegetarian and vegan (restaurants), but without textured vegetable protein” or other processed foods such as white sugar, Kenney says.
He’s also the author of a number of cookbooks, including “Everyday Raw,” “Entertaining in the Raw,” “Everyday Raw Desserts” and his latest, “Everyday Raw Express.” In February, Kenney’s “Raw Chocolate” will be in bookstores.
Following a quick tour of his home, Kenney and I sat down in turquoise upholstered chairs at a glass-top table to chat. His partner and fellow raw food chef Meredith Baird supplied us each with fresh juice made from beets, celery, carrots, kale, ginger, parsley, cilantro and lime. The raw juice’s sweet flavor was well-balanced by the zing of ginger and the zest of cilantro. It was also filling; it was hours before I was hungry again.
When he’s in Belfast, Kenney can be spotted at foodie hot spots around town including Chase’s Daily, the Belfast Co-op and the Belfast Farmers Market.
“The ingredients here are as good as anywhere in the country,” Kenney said. “There’s so much good product all over the state.”
While Kenney aims to spend as much time as possible in Maine, this celebrity chef’s business ventures keep him on the road and in other states for much of the year. Next month, in addition to travels for his culinary ventures, he’ll be in Santa Barbara, Calif., to give a talk about raw foods at the TEDxAmericanRiviera gathering.
For Kenney, the demands on his time speak to the skyrocketing interest in health food in general and raw food in particular.
“Raw food is really at a tipping point,” Kenney said. “It’s growing rapidly everywhere. I think it’s finally caught on and hit the mainstream.”
Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: [email protected]