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How I Got a James Beard Grant to Work at Matt Jennings’ Townsman

James Beard Foundation Women in Culinary Leadership grantee Courtney Segal '15 with Townsman Boston chef Matthew Jennings.
Courtney Segal '15 in the Boston, Mass., kitchen of Townsman with chef-owner Matthew Jennings. Photo: Matt Jennings

When Courtney Segal ‘15 first heard about the James Beard Foundation Women in Culinary Leadership (WICL) Grant, an accelerated mentorship and training program for women in food service, she knew immediately that she had to go for it.

Applicants were asked to choose one or all from a list of renowned chefs. Again, this baking & pastry grad didn’t hesitate to pick her two favorites: Momofuku Milk Bar, Christina Tosi’s pastry juggernaut, and Townsman, Matt Jennings’ new Boston brasserie.

A few short months later, Courtney found herself in the Townsman kitchen, working alongside Jennings and his crew.

Townsman is Jennings’ second restaurant and first in his native Boston. He and his pastry chef wife Kate ran their beloved Providence cheese shop-and-bistro Farmstead for 11 years before making the difficult decision to return to their Massachusetts roots. (The two met working at Cambridge’s heralded Formaggio Kitchen.)

In her own words, Courtney tells us what it’s like to learn from a James Beard Award-nominated chef like Jennings.

How did you hear about the WICL Grant?

Courtney: I saw the post on Eater National. Right away I knew I wanted to work with Matt Jennings.

The grant [awarded annually] sounded amazing, and Eliza Martin, the first year’s grantee, did fantastic things. I thought there was no way I was going to get it, but I knew I had to try.

How did you connect with Matt Jennings?

I found out that Matt was doing Eat Your Heart Out [local charity event benefiting Future Chefs and Girls Rock Boston] and I bought a ticket.

He was there with his beef heart pastrami. I introduced myself and told him I’d applied for the grant. He said, “Email me — even if I pick someone else for the grant, get in touch about internships.”

We have enjoyed ... watching Courtney grow from quiet and unassuming student to confident, focused cook.” - Matt Jennings
A selection of dishes from the Townsman menu: Matt Jennings with the shellfish plateaux; beef crudo with confit egg yolk; charcuterie platter with pickles and condiments.
A selection of dishes from the Townsman menu: the grand shellfish + charcuterie plateaux; beef crudo with confit egg yolk; charcuterie platter with pickles + condiments.

You definitely weren’t the only applicant vying for a WICL position at Townsman...

I am a VERY persistent person, so much so that I don’t let stuff go.

I kept emailing Matt [Jennings]. Eventually I sat down with Townsman’s co-chefs, Matt Leddy [a JWU alum who also served as Farmstead] and Brian Young [who has since moved back South] and pastry chef Meghan Thompson to talk about doing an internship.

Halfway through the interview, Chef Young said, “Are you nervous? Relax, because we’re sure we’re going to bring you on somehow.” I was so relieved!

As far as the grant was concerned, the whole team reviewed the 18 grant applicants. The chefs actually made the decision together, which is great.

After my interview, I kept after them. In February I was in my car and my phone started ringing. First thing I hear is, “Hi Courtney! This is Matt Jennings!” He proceeded to tell me that he’d had a lovely conversation with Shelley Menaged from the James Beard Foundation and had decided to award me the grant! I totally flipped out, I was so excited. Later I found out that I was on speaker phone with the whole kitchen!

JWU alumni working on the line at Townsman
JWU alumni on the line at Townsman. Courtney is on the far left, in the T baseball cap. | Photo: Matt Leddy

You’re working in the back- AND front-of-house through the grant — really getting to learn the ins and outs of managing a restaurant.

At Townsman they’re rotating me through all the stations: crudo, garde manger, bread, etc. I’m working 4 months in the back of house, two in the front.

Tell me about an average day in the Townsman kitchen.

Everyone does some production. 5 days on, 2 days off (generally).

They have SO much fun on the line. It’s more like a family than a team. Everyone eats staff meal. “A happy cook works harder than a hungry one.”

We sit at the end of every shift and do the general prep list for the next day. They are so supportive and extremely level-headed — even when something goes wrong. I am constantly in awe of how balanced they are.

Chef Jennings is always there. If I have a question about a recipe I can generally just ask him directly, which is kind of amazing!

Working with him is like working with a big kid — he has so many ideas! He’s extremely creative and is constantly excited about new ingredients. He still has a sense of wonder and is the first person to crack jokes.

Being part of such a supportive team has completely changed my outlook. I’ve pushed myself farther than I thought possible.” - Courtney

Biggest lessons you’ve learned so far?

I haven’t just learned about being part of a culinary team but about myself.

“One team, one dream” is very much the Townsman motto — they’re a team in every way. When one person is out, EVERYONE helps out, no matter how much they’ve got to do.

Yesterday I had a lot on my mind and I was quiet. Chef Jennings came over and said, “Do you need anything? You know we’re here for you.”

One night I was closing and trying to lift a heavy stock pot — Sean [Frederick, bar manager] came right over to help me. He reminded me to ask for help, and that everyone was more than willing to lend a hand when needed.

Just being in that environment, being part of such a supportive team, has completely changed my outlook. I’ve pushed myself farther than I thought possible. I’ve developed a better attitude about making mistakes — learned how to accept them and move on.

I’m also eating better, getting sleep, having breakfast and just taking better care of myself. I’ve learned so much about handling myself!

Where do you want your Townsman experience to take you?

I prefer pastry — I can’t imagine doing anything else, but I want to always enjoy cooking dinner and experimenting with flavors. [Professionally] I would love to do both sweet and savory.

Last word: We asked the Matts (Jennings + Leddy) to sum up their experience with Courtney.

Matt Jennings, chef-owner: Working with Courtney has been a very beneficial experience for our restaurant. We have enjoyed guiding her through her first foray into the restaurant world, and watching her grow from quiet and unassuming student to a confident, focused cook.

Matt Leddy, co-chef: Courtney has shown an incredible drive for personal progression while at Townsman. She has grown in leaps and bounds from where she started — and I think that is the important part. She is a ‘heads down’ type of cook now and we are happy to have her at Townsman.

Related Reading
James Beard Awards, Twitter Edition

Courtney Segal with one of her cakes. Top right: Courtney puts the finishing touches on a cake display at JWU’s Cuisinart Center for Culinary Excellence. Bottom right: Courtney’s buffalo chicken danishes with pickled celery.

Courtney Segal with an assortment of her cakes, display pieces and danishes.

Topics: Careers Internships James Beard Foundation