Matthew Kenney is one of the top vegan chefs in the world and he’s focused on elevating plant-based cuisine into the most relevant way to eat.
Today, he’s building a vegan empire with 17 restaurants, including Kanu Cafe in Edmonton that he opened with developer Sherry Schluessel and which gives him an undeniably Canadian connection.
In addition, Kenney has 15 more restaurants under construction, has published 13 cookbooks, operates a thriving cooking academy, and is building a hotel in Costa Rica that will feature vegan cuisine, a culinary school and yoga studio.
All this busyness is underlined by a simple philosophy of serving clean, healthy food transformed through classic cooking techniques into a delicious experience.
Growing up in Maine, Kenney experienced a healthy food lifestyle focussing on local and accessible ingredients. Hunting, fishing, foraging and gardening made an impression on him as a kid, promoting the notion of clean, organic eating.
“In my teens I was very active – running, skiing and other sports,” Kenney says. “I never heard a word about a plant-based diet but I was making fresh, clean lunches for myself in high school.”
Kenney didn’t set out to be a chef. In fact, his first job as a dishwasher in a fast-food restaurant completely turned him off the food industry. Instead, he planned to become a lawyer, but after moving to New York city, he changed his mind.
Exposed to the lively food scene in New York, Kenney abandoned his plans for law school and instead, enrolled in the French Culinary Institute. After graduating, he spent the next decade running his own restaurants.
“For a few years, I was so busy I couldn’t keep up with the wellness part of my life,” Kenney said. “So when I turned 30, I joined a gym and started doing yoga. I had been cooking clean, organic food using seasonal produce and I started thinking I could easily be a vegan.”
A friend took Kenney to a New York vegan restaurant and although the food was mundane, he noticed the restaurant was full and that people were excited about what they were eating. By 2002, Kenney had switched to a vegan diet and in 2004 opened his first vegan restaurant in New York.
“My goal was to make cool, sexy, fun, and most of all, flavourful vegan dishes,” he says. “There’s an alignment between sustainable plant-based eating and the health of our bodies. I want to take plant-based eating to a higher level.”
Despite being the source of so many gourmet, amazing vegan dishes, Kenney eats very simply. His favourite food is avocado and he loves a plain pasta dish with truffle oil, spinach and basil. He’s not above having a treat once in a while either, like organic French fries.
Something new is always on the horizon for this plant-based wizard who says his favourite restaurant is always “the next one!” For right now, that means Ladurée, the 150 year-old French pâtisserie chain where he’s collaborating on a plant-based conversion of the menu in the Beverly Hills location.
There’s no telling where Matthew Kenney will go in the future but if the past is any indication, more success is on the way.
Lead image by Adrian Mueller