Jen Royle, from American sports reporter to chef and restaurant owner
Jennifer L. “Jen” Royle is a former American sports reporter and writer who is best known for working for the YES Network as a New York-based reporter for the MLB New York Yankees baseball team. Jen appeared in season three of the ABC cooking show The Taste and that’s when she made the decision to focus exclusively on cooking. She worked at Mario Batali’s Babbo in the Seaport, then launched a private cooking company. In January 2019, she launched a new career as a chef with the opening of a restaurant in Boston; TABLE Boston.
TABLE is the newest addition to the famous North End a.k.a. “Little Italy” of Boston. Unlike any other dining experience in the city or neighborhood, TABLE brings you a unique old-school dining adventure!
By Marisa Olsen
You made a major career shift from being a sports reporter to becoming a chef. Can you tell us about that transition and what made you want to redirect your focus?
Well, I had been cooking for most of life, so I had a passion for food from a young age. I always told myself I would either become a chef or a sports reporter, and luckily, I became both. In simplest terms, I got bored with sports. The Red Sox won the World Series in 2013 and I realized I didn’t care. I was standing on the field and witnessing the team celebrate for the first time on home field (they won their previous two World Series on the road), and I felt nothing. And for a Boston girl, that seemed wrong.
I think that’s when I knew it was time for a change.
You were a major contestant on a popular TV cooking show. How did that experience inspire or contribute to your work now?
I think “The Taste” taught me that I had a long way to go and a lot to learn. Yes, I made it to the finale, but the other contestants were light years ahead of me in so many ways. I did well but I stuck to what I knew, which wasn’t much, and I relied on others making mistakes by doing too much. With that being said, when I opened my restaurant TABLE, I stuck to what I knew and didn’t try to do too much. If I’m uncomfortable with ingredients, I lose confidence. I tell myself every day at work, “you know this is good. Serve it and be confident.” End of story.
What is the most challenging aspect about being a chef?
Managing my time and recognizing my limitations. I can’t honestly say I’ve never been “over my head” in any aspect of my work. I’m the boss. The only boss. And I have to remind myself that I can make changes and decisions that not only help my business, but help my personal life and well-being. For example, our brunch was amazing, and we got a lot of recognition for it. But it was killing me in a lot of ways. It was tough to get up early on Sunday mornings after a late Saturday night, and we had a ton of brunch items in our fridge/freezer that were taking up space we needed for dinner.
Sounds crazy, but with a small kitchen in the North End of Boston, every square inch counts!
Finally, I said, “Jen you’re the boss. Get rid of brunch, get some sleep and focus on dinner!” So that’s what I did. And I eventually added “Sunday Supper” at 5PM which gives my staff and I time to recover from the night prior and we utilize the same dinner ingredients.
You recently opened your very own restaurant in Boston’s famed North End. Can you tell us about Table and how it stands apart from other restaurants in the area?
I was a private chef for five years and I often went into people’s homes to do dinner parties. A woman hired me to cook for her wife’s birthday and she said to me, “My house is big but my dining room is small. I can either do appetizers in a cocktail-party environment for 40 or I can have a dinner for eight. I would love to have dinner for 20 but my dining room isn’t big enough.”
Lightbulb goes off.
I said, “Holy sh*t, that’s it. A table for 20.”
The rest is history.
What made you want to open up your own restaurant?
I didn’t. I wanted TABLE to be a private event space for people who didn’t have big enough dining rooms and for corporations who wanted to have private dinners and events. I was already doing bridal and baby showers in people’s homes and I just thought it would be nice if I didn’t have to load the car and travel anymore.
In fact, my landlord said to me, “If you every change the usage and open as a restaurant, I have to charge you an additional $1,000 a month.” I said, “Go right ahead! I’ll never open a restaurant. I don’t want to live that life.”
Needless to say, my rent has increased $1,000 and the term “Never say never” is around for a reason!
What is your favorite part having your own restaurant? What’s the hardest part?
My favorite part is knowing that it’s all mine. I have no investors, no
partners, and no loans, and I don’t have to answer to anyone. My favorite part of the job is changing the plates, shopping for espresso cups, printing menus on new paper, stamping the paper bags for leftovers, etc. All of the little touches that make TABLE so special are things that I have done on my own likely sitting on my couch on a Sunday morning with my bulldogs. Every single thing in my restaurant is a reflection of me and nobody else.
The hardest part is knowing that every single thing in my restaurant is a reflection of me. From the service, to the food, to the toilet paper in the bathroom. If I’m going to take full credit for the positive things, I have to take full credit for the negatives, too.
Prior to opening Table, you ran your own catering company. Tell us about the pivot from catering to running your own restaurant?
Believe it or not, I still do jobs on the side. I have so many great families and corporate clients I simply cannot abandon. There are days I’m at the restaurant early making crab cakes and mini tacos for an engagement party in Back Bay. Yes, I’m that crazy. Since I have ample restaurant staff, I can still take on jobs and utilize my servers for private events. They all know my food and my style, so I trust they can handle the job.
How would you describe your cooking style and the philosophy behind it?
Less is more. I really try to keep things classic and simple, but tasty. I learned from my dear friend and mentor Ludo Lefebvre that fat is flavor and season, season, season. I cook eight things a night, and shame on me if I can’t perfect eight things at this level. I am constantly learning and trying to improve even the simplest dish. And even when I think it’s perfect, I still research and find new ways to elevate a course. I taste all day and I feed my staff everything before it hits the menu. I welcome feedback and I rarely shoot people and ideas down before putting thought into the suggestion. I’m not afraid to say no. I know my audience. I know myself. And again, I know my limitations. So I suppose my philosophy is “don’t try to do too much.”
What dishes are you most excited about or proud of at Table?
Technically, all of them. But if I had to pick one I would say the gnocchi Bolognese. I learned how to make gnocchi on YouTube and I spent an entire day in my kitchen failing, failing and failing again. I use ricotta cheese instead of potato and I have mastered the art of boiling them until they almost feel and eat like a ravioli.
They are so soft and cheesy, and while an absolute pain in the a*s to make every single day, I know how much work and love I’ve put into them. Guests often tell me, “You now you can never take those off the menu, right?” I just smirk and respond, “Oh I know.”
Are there any recipes you could outline for us (ingredients, preparation) that represent your work that you think we should try?
I actually have ZERO recipes. I cook alone. They’re all in my head. I know
this sounds crazy but I usually just throw stuff in a pan and hope for the best. Then I tweak. It’s that simple.
Which culinary trends do you see going on in the world today?
I don’t know if this is a trend, but I have noticed that the people that come in to eat at TABLE are just looking for something simple. I think a lot of chefs and restaurants tried to complicate things and it wasn’t satisfying consumers. I mean, do you ever crave a hot fudge sundae? Yes, right? Do you know where you can get one? No, right?
How much do trends influence you or inspire you?
The only thing that influences me is my guests. I talk to every single person who eats at TABLE, which is why I can sniff out a fake review at the drop of a hat. I know what they want. I ask. I listen. I react. I also don’t look to the left of Hanover Street and worry what everyone else is doing. I worry about myself and I focus on my own business.
What would you do as a chef if money was not an issue for a year?
Close for a year and sleep!
Have you considered writing a cookbook? If so, what would it explore?
One is in the works!
What are the most misunderstood aspects about the job of a chef?
That you can’t have a life outside of your restaurant. I obviously can’t go out on a Friday or Saturday night, take many vacations, or see my friends as much, but with the right business plan and concept, there are ways to avoid running yourself thin. I always told myself, “I won’t live that crazy chef life.”
And I don’t.
Again, my social life is obsolete and I can’t even imagine being in any sort of a relationship, but I’m closed two days a week and I have one seating a night at 7PM, which allows me to have my days free. I sleep late, I spend time with my dogs, and I can keep my house in order. We don’t serve lunch, and if we have private events on Monday and/or Tuesday, I cancel Sunday Supper and take Sunday off to rest. This goes back to recognizing my limitations and reminding myself that I’m the boss.
Which ingredients, recipes, and cooking techniques reflect the soul of TABLE?
All of them. The recipes are mine. I’m a pretty self-deprecating person
and I don’t take compliments very well, but I do try to stop and smell the roses sometimes by looking at dishes and saying, “This is yours. You did this. All you.” You rolled the gnocchi, you perfected that bolognese, you found that porcelain dish in Maine, you placed this as the fourth course for a reason…It’s all mine.
Do you ever think about exploring other cuisines and food cultures?
Nope. I will always stick to what I know.
Are there any spices or ingredients that you use that might be little known to the rest of the world?
I love lemon pepper. I have no idea what it is but I love it.
To be an innovative chef means receiving honest feedback. Where do you find that?
I talk to my guests and I listen to my staff. I go upstairs and thank everyone for coming in and I listen to what they have to say. If I want to put a new item on the menu, I’ll give my diners a sample and ask their opinion before putting on the menu the next night. I am extremely selfless when it comes to my food. I mean, obviously I am the final decision maker, but I try to take everyone’s input into consideration. Knowing your audience is the key to success.
What location in the world would you most like to work as a chef?
New York City. I miss New York so much it hurts. I spent over a decade in the West Village and I would do anything to be able to move back and open a place there. But right now, Boston has my heart and my attention. Timing is everything. And right now Boston is where I need to be.
What’s next for Jen Royle?
I’m currently working on a small product line consisting of aprons and bandanas, since I wear both every day. Baby steps. I’ll be writing a cookbook available via download and hard copy, and I’m also looking into opening a second location in Boston. I have to put a lot of thought into another TABLE which means I have to recognize my limitations and try not to do too much. I’m currently trying to evaluate all of that, so we’ll see what happens!
Thank you so much Jennifer!
Featured on The Food Network. VOTED: 2019 Diners’ Choice, Very Best in Boston, Top 10 in New England, Best Brunch, Hottest Restaurant, Best Service…
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