Maine native Matthew Kenney oversees a plant-based restaurant empire that spans the globe. Photo courtesy of Matthew Kenney Cuisine

From Bahrain to Buenos Aires, Doha to Dubai and Sydney to San Jose del Cabo, Maine native Matthew Kenney’s plant-based empire now spans the globe.

Next month, his Los Angeles-based company, Matthew Kenney Cuisine, is scheduled to turn the landmark former Boston BeerWorks space across from Fenway Park vegan. Last month, Kenney was splashed across headlines for his role in the 2004 founding of the trend-setting New York City raw vegan restaurant Pure Food and Wine, which is the setting for the buzzy new Netflix true-crime documentary “Bad Vegan.”

Matthew Kenney Cuisine operates more than 50 restaurants in more than a dozen countries, and every month this year, more are scheduled to open. I last interviewed Kenney in 2015, so when I reached him by phone in Los Angeles, we had a lot to talk about. We started with his most recent projects.

“Last month, we opened Mudrá in Madrid,” said Kenney, who has also written 12 cookbooks. “The month before, Adesse in London. Next month, Fenway, Plant Food + Wine Lima and Plant Food + Wine Miami. We have restaurants opening all the time.”

Each restaurant serves exclusively plant-based, vegan food. The Matthew Kenney Cuisine concepts range from fast casual to fine dining, and include bakeries, coffee shops and even a gourmet vegan chocolate maker Casse-Cou in New York’s East Village.

KENNEY CLOSE BY

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These days, Boston is the nearest city where readers can taste Kenney’s signature plant-based food. The Double Zero pizzeria on Newbury Street and the PlantPub in Cambridge’s tech-heavy innovation district Kendall Square both opened last year; now both are part of the Matthew Kenney Cuisine brand. When Kenney reopens the former Boston BeerWorks space as a giant PlantPub, it will seat close to 300 and offer a greatly expanded menu that builds on the core dishes at the 20-seat Kendall Square original.

The original PlantPub was opened last fall by chef Mary Dumont and plant-based beer expert Pat McAuley.

“Pat and I opened PlantPub with the idea to scale (up) and to scale as much as we possibly could,” Dumont told me by phone after returning to Boston from spending her birthday weekend in Ogunquit. “When we started talking with Matthew, it became apparent that scaling up and bringing PlantPub to a larger audience would be faster and more efficient with the supportive environment of a bigger company around us.”

Boston Globe restaurant critic Devra First described the food as “totally comforting pub grub.” Dumont attributes PlantPub’s success to exactly that sort of food, as well as a surge in interest in vegan food.

“People understand pub food,” Dumont said. “It communal. It’s celebratory. It’s casual. Bringing plant-based food into the pub environment is very appealing to people who might have otherwise not gone to a plant-based restaurant.”

The busy Double Zero pizzeria opened last summer in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood and is one of seven Double Zeros operated by Matthew Kenney Cuisine. Photo by Cheryl Richards

The Double Zero pizza place in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood is one of seven Double Zeros operated by Matthew Kenney Cuisine. The first opened to acclaim in 2016 in New York’s East Village, with a menu of plant-based pizzas featuring house-made vegan cheeses. Other locations include Providence, Baltimore and Los Angeles. Last year, the East Village location landed a spot on Michelin’s Bib Gourmand list, which highlights excellence in more affordable restaurants.

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By May, Kenney is hoping that a project years in the making – a frozen line of Double Zero pizzas – will be ready for direct-to-consumer sales and a later roll-out to retailers.

PLANS AND PLANTS, EVERYWHERE

Another New England hub of Matthew Kenney Cuisine is in Providence, where he partners with Kim Anderson and Frohman Anderson II of Everhope Capital. In 2019, Kenney launched, with the Andersons, one of his most ambitious projects yet: A two-story, 10,000 square feet, 225-seat all-vegan food hall called Plant City. Inside the brick building, 175 staff members serve diners at four restaurants, three bars, a coffee shop, a bakery and an event space.

Matthew Kenney Cuisine also operates three Plant Food + Wine restaurants, three Make Out restaurants and six Folia restaurants, the last all located in Four Seasons hotels. Kenney created the Folia concept with Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud, who is a member of the Saudi royal family. “Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed is a very passionate vegan who loves plant-based food,” Kenney said. “His family is a significant shareholder with the Four Seasons Hotel, and they made an introduction.”

Other notable Matthew Kenney Cuisine restaurants include Adesse, in the Selfridges department store on Oxford Street in London, and Althea, in Saks Fifth Avenue in Chicago.

Kenney’s new culinary academy, the Food Future Institute, launched as a remote school in June 2020. Today, it has 3,400 students enrolled from 80 countries. A brick-and-mortar campus is under construction in Venice, California, and scheduled to open this summer.

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Other Kenney initiatives include a test kitchen, a consulting business with major hospitality brands, an encapsulated indoor growing system called Nome, and a number of food products.

WHERE IT BEGAN

Kenney opened his first restaurant, Matthew’s (which wasn’t plant-based), in New York City in 1993. The following year, he was named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine. Other early restaurants included Commune, Canteen and Mezze, all in New York City.

I first met Kenney in November 2000 at a reception for “business leaders” hosted by WGME-13 in Commissary, the sleek restaurant Kenney had just opened in the Portland Public Market building. The invitation enticed attendees with a promise to “meet world-renowned chef and Maine native Matthew Kenney.” But by early 2003, the Portland restaurant – as well as all the New York restaurants – would be gone. Regarding the Portland restaurant, Kenney owed a “significant amount” of back rent, according to the Public Market, as reported in an April 10, 2002 Press Herald story, as well as money to a number of vendors.

As Kenney writes in his fast-paced 2015 memoir “Cooked Raw,” in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks (which he watched unfold from his West Village apartment), “revenue dropped as much as 80 percent in our larger restaurants, and soon, my company was in serious financial trouble. We had gone from running powerhouse operations and a growing company to having trouble meeting payroll.”

As fate would have it, the post-9/11 closures set Kenney on a path to discover raw, vegan food. This discovery led him to found Manhattan restaurant Pure Food and Wine in 2004 with chef Sarma Melngailis, his girlfriend at the time. The influential vegan restaurant is the setting for the new documentary “Bad Vegan,” which chronicles the saga that engulfed Pure Food and Wine years after Kenney had left the business.

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Pure Food and Wine, in New York’s Gramercy Park neighborhood, attracted rave reviews and high-profile diners, including Alec Baldwin, Tom Brady and Bill Clinton. But when Kenney and Melngailis split up, she got the restaurant, and her subsequent career was not pretty. The Netflix show reveals a tragic, disturbing story of brainwashing and coercion by scammer Anthony Strangis, whom Melngailis met in 2011. Strangis pressured her to transfer the restaurant’s money to him until its accounts were drained and the employees left unpaid. By summer, Pure Food and Wine closed for good, and in 2017 both Melngailis and Strangis were sentenced to prison for fraud. (Kenney has had his own troubles with bankruptcies, lawsuits and the IRS at a few points in his career.)

After leaving Pure Food and Wine, Kenney opened ever more plant-based restaurants, including the Blue/Green juice bars throughout New York City and in Darien, Connecticut; Heirloom on the Lower East Side; The Plant in Brooklyn; Cafe 118 in Winter Park, Florida; and M.A.K.E. in Santa Monica. (All have since closed.)

In 2009, a partnership with Dara Prentice of Oklahoma led to the launch of his first culinary academy. Soon, campuses in Venice, California, at the Evason resort in Hua Hin, Thailand, and in Belfast, Maine, joined the school’s network. Food & Wine magazine in 2016 named Kenney’s academy to a list of the 17 “Best Cooking Classes Around the World.”

In 2013, Kenney opened The Gothic in Belfast. Three years later, he rebranded the restaurant Arata and switched it to an exclusively vegan menu.  That winter, the restaurant closed for the season and never reopened.

PAST CHALLENGES, FUTURE ADVENTURES

It turns out that 2017 would be a tough year for Kenney. In July, the Miami Herald reported the landlord for his Miami restaurant Plant Food + Wine had taken control of the business and sued him for back rent, sales taxes and lawyer fees while also alleging he violated a noncompete agreement by helping open Plnthouse, which operates independently of Matthew Kenney Cuisine inside the 1 Hotel South Beach. By the end of the year, Kenney was also facing foreclosure on his Belfast loan for the building at 121 Main Street.

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On social media at the time, Kenney took responsibility for the decisions that led to the Miami lawsuit, saying he failed to listen to the counsel of experts and signed a lease with too many “up charges,” which went “against the advice of my inner circle.”

“We are now involved in 70 entities, and we do not comment on the many challenges we encountered to develop a brand in an emerging market, other than to note that there were many inaccuracies reported in most of this past narrative, especially Miami, which we successfully resolved in MKC’s favor,” said Michaela Best O’Malley, spokesperson for Matthew Kenney Cuisine.

O’Malley points out that Kenney has opened more than 100 restaurants within a career spanning three decades and such challenges have been the exception rather than the rule. Today, Kenney’s company is preparing to open a new Plant Food + Wine in Miami.

Also in 2017, Kenney sold his PlantLab culinary academy – with all its many locations – to entrepreneur Adam Zucker. The next year, Zucker was suddenly arrested on money laundering and embezzlement charges, stemming from a previous job. The PlantLab academy quickly folded, leaving students with thousands of dollars in vanished tuition. Many of them said they were unaware that Kenney was no longer involved with the school and blamed him for the company’s demise.

Kenney, for his part, isn’t focused on past missteps or scandals within his orbit. He hasn’t watched “Bad Vegan” but said he wishes Melngailis the best. His attention is focused on the soon-to-open PlantPub, a project he describes as near and dear to his heart.

“Growing up in Maine, Fenway Park was always the most iconic sporting stadium I ever experienced,” Kenney said, “and I love the culinary scene in Boston and am really happy to be there. It’s an opportunity to bring plant-based to a different segment of the market, even if it is probably the last place you’d expect to see a vegan restaurant.”

This summer, if all goes according to plan, PlantPub’s vegan burgers and ice cream cones will be scoring a home run with a new crowd of diners.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:
[email protected]
Social media: AveryYaleKamila

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