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From ‘Bad Vegan’ to restaurant closures: Inside Kenney’s crumbling raw food empire

By Daniel Miller and Roger Vincent, Los Angeles Times
Published: January 26, 2024, 6:05am
4 Photos
A co-owner of the Venice property that housed Plant Food + Wine surveys the restaurant&rsquo;s former space.
A co-owner of the Venice property that housed Plant Food + Wine surveys the restaurant’s former space. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times) Photo Gallery

LOS ANGELES — The unmistakable stench of rotting food filled the space formerly occupied by chef Matthew Kenney’s trendy Venice restaurant, Plant Food + Wine.

It was coming from the walk-in refrigerator, where spoiled sprouts, garlic and other vegetables had been left to fester after Kenney — an acclaimed vegan chef and cookbook author — closed the restaurant in May.

Plant Food + Wine had been the flagship of Kenney’s culinary empire, which, by one count, included more than 50 eateries in a dozen-plus countries as of spring 2022. A fixture on social media, the Abbot Kinney Boulevard restaurant was a favorite of lifestyle influencers who touted dishes like Kenney’s signature raw lasagna with heirloom tomatoes and zucchini.

Now, that was all gone. Kenney’s restaurant had been evicted. But even as the produce moldered at the shuttered vegan eatery, he was opening a new version of Plant Food + Wine at the glitzy Four Seasons Hotel near Beverly Hills.

Handsome, media savvy and prolific, Kenney, 59, has a knack for opening restaurants that make a splash — and then quietly close not too long after with a pile of unpaid bills. Since September 2022, six of Kenney’s L.A.-area spots have shuttered, among them Double Zero in Venice and Hungry Angelina in Long Beach, along with at least six others across the U.S.

“A close-down was inevitable,” said Jack Darling, a former server at Kenney’s Sestina in Culver City, which folded in July. “As soon as I started, there was a lot of talk: ‘Yeah, Matthew Kenney — every time one business goes bad, he opens a new one.’”

A pioneering raw food chef who first gained culinary fame in New York in the 1990s, Kenney, in more recent years, has shrewdly cultivated the aura of a green-living guru, making him a celebrity among the wheatgrass sipping set. He has seemingly charmed partners — even a Saudi royal dubbed the “Vegan Prince” — despite leaving behind disgruntled investors, landlords and employees in cities across the country, from New York to Miami and L.A.

The rank mess at Plant Food + Wine only hinted at the level of disarray at the chef’s flagship company, Matthew Kenney Cuisine, and at his many restaurants.

In lawsuits and interviews with The Times, landlords, partners and ex-employees — among them managers and servers — accused Kenney and his companies of not paying millions of dollars in rent, failing to return $1 million owed to an investor, not paying restaurant suppliers for goods, and bouncing paychecks to workers.

Kenney’s legal adversaries have alleged he uses an array of limited liability companies to shield himself from the consequences of his busted ventures, commingling funds from separate companies and diverting money for his personal use.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Times, Kenney denied several of the allegations and acknowledged some mistakes, chalking up closures to economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and restaurants that “just didn’t take off” or “never worked for us.” He also said he is turning his focus to licensing his restaurant concepts to other owners and operators, and has formed a new company, Ascention Brands, to pursue this business.

“It obviously got very, very bumpy over the last year, because we were slow to launch the new company, but also slow to find solutions for each location,” Kenney said, explaining that his innate optimism delayed “painful decisions” such as closing underperforming restaurants.

“After 25, 30 years of optimism, I’m not gonna operate that way anymore,” he said.

Over the course of a conversation that lasted more than two hours, Kenney also revealed he wasn’t always tracking the details of his business. In one instance, he said he’d never been to one of his now-closed L.A. restaurants. In another, he said he hadn’t read a lawsuit filed against him and several of his companies. And when asked about a news report that said he operated 50-plus restaurants as of 2022, Kenney said the number seemed high but couldn’t say how many he had then or how many he has an interest in now.

“You have to be really precise and on top of details, because it is a very slim-margin business,” he said. “You have to be sometimes a little harder on people. … I just — it’s not something I’m good at.”

Instead, Kenney — the former boyfriend and partner of Sarma Melngailis, the convicted fraudster whose downfall was documented in Netflix’s “Bad Vegan” — portrayed himself as a chef focused on creativity, and not tasks such as managing general contractors or negotiating leases.

“It’s hard to be everywhere,” he said. “It’s hard to be creative — writing the menu, writing recipes, handling media — and also manage numbers.”

Kenney strongly denied the allegations about the alleged diversion of funds: “That’s not true. … I don’t do anything outside of the company. Not one thing.” As for the fetid provisions at Plant Food + Wine, he said that shuttered eateries typically smell bad “after a couple of weeks.”

Even as Kenney’s restaurants began closing in earnest in 2022, he was able to project an image of success by courting influencers and the media to put a gloss on his restaurants. His places have long drawn celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, Lenny Kravitz, Lea Michele and Christina Hendricks.

That sort of clientele is enticing to prospective investors, said Derrick Moore, a real estate broker and former restaurant analyst. Even though the odds of earning a profit on a restaurant investment are a little better than 1 in 10, for high-net-worth doctors, lawyers and others who tend to back eateries, “A huge part of the appeal is saying, “Yeah, I’m an owner,’” he said.

Miles Jenson, former West Coast regional manager at Matthew Kenney Cuisine, said that as the business foundered, influencers were key cogs in an “ecosystem of smoke and mirrors” cultivated by the chef. Jenson said the company was providing vegan, yoga and fitness influencers with up to $10,000 a year in free food while employees’ paychecks were bouncing.

“That is an inherent flaw with the company,” said Jenson, who oversaw eateries including Plant Food + Wine and quit in 2022. “It is emblematic of what is going on.”

Seven employees of Matthew Kenney Cuisine and some of the chef’s now-closed establishments said at least one of their paychecks bounced, and several noted this occurred regularly. Some described racing to the bank to cash a paycheck ahead of colleagues.

“If you waited too long it would bounce,” said Katie Hobson, a former bartender and server at Sestina. “Sometimes I would submit my paycheck the day of and [it] would bounce back and I wouldn’t get that money until the next pay period. It would be two or three weeks and I’d be scrambling.”

Former Sestina general manager Stacy Schlepp — who also said that influencers were allotted up to $10,000 of free food a year — recalled that a cook who sent money to his family in Guatemala was not paid for a month. “I remember fighting with executives,” Schlepp said, “and it was, ‘We don’t control the money.’ Then who the hell did?”

Kenney acknowledged that shortfalls led to bounced paychecks. “I’m aware of some of those issues,” he said, adding that partners sometimes proved unwilling to provide additional capital to address financial issues. “We put in whatever we could.” And he said that he would be “shocked” if any influencer received more than $1,000 of free food annually.

Kenney suggested The Times interview seven former and current associates. Two spoke on the record. Philip Gay, a restaurant industry executive serving as a financial advisor to Kenney, called him “a wonderful chef and an artisan” whose ventures were roiled by the pandemic. “We had to make some very hard decisions of not operating where we couldn’t pay people and we had to revamp his enterprises,” Gay said.

Kristin Addis, former vice president of operations at Matthew Kenney Cuisine, said that the chef is “incredibly resilient. He’s not afraid of failure.” When she was considering taking the job at Kenney’s company, she said, she researched him and “could tell he was not that well-funded.”

Addis remembered thinking, “I don’t know how long it would last,” but decided to take a chance on Kenney, she said, because she was “passionate about working on his mission.” She joined the chef’s company in 2019 and worked there for about a year before departing.

“I wanted more stability,” Addis said.

An ‘empire builder’

Raised in a small town in Maine, Kenney was a pudgy kid who, according to his 2015 autobiography “Cooked Raw,” loved sugar and hated vegetables. That is, until a friend mocked his belly one day at a swimming pool.

The teasing prompted Kenney to swear off sugar and junk food. He became a gym rat in high school and picked up a cocky swagger.

Kenney landed a summer bartending job in a resort town after graduating from college because, he wrote, the boss thought he looked like Tom Cruise in “Top Gun.”

He came to New York in his 20s and found a job as a waiter in an upscale restaurant before training at the French Culinary Institute and opening Matthew’s in 1993. Far from vegan, the restaurant featured venison with juniper and dates, and charcoal grilled lobster with risotto.

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Ruth Reichl, restaurant critic at the New York Times, loved Kenney’s linguine with chanterelles, calling it “a fabulous tangle of white beans, bacon, herbs and mushrooms.”

A year later, Food & Wine magazine named Kenney to its annual Best New Chefs list. It was a heady time, Kenney said, though he was focused on his career. “I didn’t take a day off for a year,” he said. “It was fun, fast.”

At Matthew’s, though, Kenney struggled to pay the bills, he wrote, owing the landlord — Donald Trump — more than $100,000 in back rent. Kenney said he met with Trump Organization executive Allen Weisselberg, who would plead guilty to tax fraud in 2022, and worked out a deal to retire the restaurant’s rental debt.

Matthew’s closed in 2000 after an electrical fire. Around this time, Kenney opened several other restaurants in New York, among them Canteen and Commune. But amid reports of unpaid taxes and troubled partnerships, none lasted. Kenney said some closed because of the economic downturn triggered by the 9/11 attack. But he said there was another issue: “They failed because they didn’t have the soul that my first restaurant had.”

It was time for a reinvention. In the early 2000s, Kenney became a raw food devotee. His transformation occurred around the time he started dating Melngailis, a chef with whom he opened Commissary in the space that previously housed Matthew’s. At a friend’s insistence, the couple tried a raw food restaurant. Kenney was smitten.

“There was no music, no wine, and the food had all these funny names,” he said. “It was pretty rough — the food — but everybody there was so healthy. … We felt great.”

Kenney and Melngailis partnered to open Pure Food and Wine in 2004. The vegan eatery, backed by high-profile New York restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow, became a hit and made Kenney and Melngailis, both young and telegenic, the first couple of raw veganism. But they broke up a year later.

In the docuseries “Bad Vegan,” Chodorow said that Kenney called him and explained that he couldn’t continue to work with Melngailis. Chodorow had to decide which chef to support. He said that he determined Kenney to be “a very talented chef who had a bad financial history.”

“So I picked Sarma,” Chodorow said. “And I told Matthew to go, which, frankly, I think shocked him.”

Over the next half-decade or so, Kenney went on to open short-lived plant-based restaurants in New York, Connecticut and Oklahoma.