The Interview: Local TV Personality and “Meet Boston” Host Jenny Johnson
On the brink of launching a brand-new NESN show, the Emmy Award–winning producer talks motherhood, Boston’s food scene, and the injustice of napkin residue on your pants.
For the past two decades, Jenny Johnson has had every Boston gourmet’s dream job: Sample the top dishes from the tastiest local restaurants on TV Diner and Dining Playbook with broadcasting BFF Billy Costa. Now the dynamic duo is getting ready to embark on yet another adventure, teaming up with Meet Boston (the former Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau) to launch a new NESN show in 2024 that highlights the city and its global influence. In the run-up to next year’s premiere, we sat down with the three-time Emmy Award–winning producer and onscreen local phenom to talk about motherhood, the evolution of Boston’s food scene, and the injustice of napkin residue on your pants.
Your work has been food-centric for so long, and this new show, Meet Boston with Billy and Jenny, seems like it’s going to be about culture and history and a lot of other things. Is that a little intimidating?
That’s a great question. My daughter is four years old and oftentimes says to me, “I’m scared.” And so we talk a lot about what “I’m scared” could actually mean. We talk about words like intimidating versus happy, etc., and so what I’m trying to channel with this first new major project I’m doing in 20 years is excitement. Part of that excitement is intimidation, but in some ways, it doesn’t feel like a huge pivot.
Is it completely Boston-centric?
Yes. The idea is to really tell the story of our city. We’ll move outside, in terms of including Cambridge and some of the very close-by neighborhoods and towns, but the goal is to, in depth, tell the story of this very vibrant city and the different components that have such a vast influence not just locally but on the world. There’s so much to tell.
Having done Dining Playbook for so long, why don’t you weigh 800 pounds?
I do have a voracious appetite. But I’ve also cultivated a pretty healthy diet. So I try to balance. For example, I was just at a restaurant last night where I ate every single dessert on the menu, but today I’m eating completely clean. I kind of pare it back after a big night.
Fast food: yea or nay?
Nay, definitely nay. During COVID, I became an Ayurvedic practitioner. It’s the sister science to yoga, and there’s a huge culinary component to it. I learned so much, from the deepest detail about every ingredient we put in our bodies to the actual physiology of what happens when we do, so I’m very connected to the why of the food that I put in my mouth. Fast food was never a big temptation for me, but it certainly isn’t now. My kids have never had it, and I’ll try for as long as I can for them not to.
What’s your favorite cuisine?
I’m a big fan of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors. Sarma in Somerville is such a special place to me, just the sort of funky flavor combinations. I like spices. I like fresh herbs. Indian food is also a really big part of my life. Mela is my favorite Indian restaurant in Boston, but I wish there was more Indian cuisine more readily accessible. Those are the flavors that I gravitate toward.
Are you a good cook?
I think I’ve become one. I lived in the Back Bay for 10 years before I got married and had children, and I literally cannot tell you when, or if, I actually ever turned on the stove. For 10 years, my life was all about eating out. I would go for a home-cooked meal at my mom’s house. Learning to cook was sort of the silver lining of COVID for us, but also, my daughter has a lot of food allergies, so I had no other choice but to get comfortable in the kitchen.
Did you ever regret covering a restaurant, because you wanted to keep it a secret?
All the time. There used to be a restaurant on Gloucester Street in the Back Bay called Café Jaffa. It was a teeny, tiny little place with the best shawarma ever. I loved the owners so much, and they certainly weren’t out there trying to toot their own horn. So it was kind of this conflict in my head of whether to do a segment about them on the show. There are just so many gems in this city, and I feel lucky to have the platform to help them share their work, but it’s also mixed with, “Well, how the heck am I ever going to get a table now?”
Is there a pet peeve you have when you’re dining out?
Small things, like if there’s a napkin that leaves residue on my pants. I also like an extensive dessert menu, so I’m not a fan of places with only one. I’m like, “But I want three!”
How has your work life changed now that you have two kids?
It’s changed pretty dramatically and in a way that took a couple of years for me to become comfortable with. I remember at one point before I had kids, I made a New Year’s resolution that I would commit to only being out four nights a week—and at that time, it felt like a huge shift. Now, I’m so much more selective about the things that I do outside of school/work hours, and the same with weekends. The dinner table is important to me, and it felt essential to create that experience for my little girls.
Do you ever worry about food getting stuck in your teeth?
That’s come with age. I never did until recently, and I should probably think about it more.
What’s your camera-ready/red-carpet trick?
I feel more comfortable in front of a video camera than a still camera, so for me, if I’m sitting there taking photos, it’s about figuring out how to laugh. Then I can relax and look the way I’m meant to look.
Your love for Boston is really obvious. Would you ever live anywhere else?
My husband, Rob, and I hope to be able to bring our girls to live internationally for chunks of time. A lot of the friends we know who own restaurants gained so much creativity from seeing outside the confines of their own hometowns. Having said that, though, Boston will undeniably always be my home.
What’s your favorite international food destination?
I’d probably say London, because Indian cuisine is such a big thing for me and I haven’t yet had the opportunity to go to India. The Indian flavors in London are incredibly authentic.
How about your favorite food city in the United States?
Boston. I’ve been tasting the flavors of our city for 20 years, and I have such an appreciation for it. But if I have to go outside, I’m going to say L.A. Just going to the farmers’ market and seeing all of the produce grown in California—the idea of being able to eat so locally is something that I yearn for here in the winter months.
Do you actively try to cultivate an adventurous palate in your kids?
Yes, it’s important, and it takes time. My one-and-a-half-year-old is not quite there yet, but we have this understanding with our older daughter that she’ll always try something once. She has this interesting aversion to hummus for whatever reason, and Rob and I both eat a ton of hummus. As she saw us continually making it, eating it, and ordering it when we’re out, she recently said to us, “I think I want to try it again.” It’s certainly not her favorite food on the menu, but I think we’ve created an atmosphere where she has an appreciation for different cuisines.
Is there anything you’d never eat?
Not that I can think of. I have a pretty adventurous palate. I go for it. I mean, I wouldn’t eat an endangered species or anything that would create some kind of bacterial growth in my body.
What’s your favorite hidden spot in New England?
Gosh, I love every corner of our region. There are so many beautiful, hidden treasures, but we have a little ski chalet in Jackson, New Hampshire, which is such a quintessential New England town. It feels so homey to me, and it’s just a very special oasis. It has mountains and water. There’s a river that we live on. And there’s a phenomenal restaurant there that’s been recognized by James Beard.
What’s the first place in Boston that you’d take an out-of-towner who’s never been here?
When somebody’s coming to Boston, I’m all about the questions. Who are you coming with? Where are you staying? What’s the experience you’re looking to have? Are you there with kids? Are you looking for art? Are you a big sports fan? For me, the way you do Boston best is by knowing what makes the visitor tick. And then what I like to do is give them a flavor of the different neighborhoods, so I usually pick one place in the Back Bay, one place in the North End, and one place in the Seaport. I don’t think there’s a blanket Boston experience for everyone.
What’s your ideal date night?
We’ve actually been trying to have a lot more experiential dates, like going to the MFA when the Obama portraits were there. And we’re rock climbers, so we really enjoy the Bouldering Project, an indoor rock-climbing place in Somerville. We’ll head over there and then usually have a meal after that. We’ve found that the best dates involve some kind of activity. We’re very active people. So it could be an Esplanade run and then a Back Bay dinner. And when we have the time, which is very rare, I like to do dessert at a separate place.
Give me the elevator pitch for your new show.
Meet Boston is an opportunity to step inside Boston as if you’ve lived here your whole life, and the people taking you there span generations and different interests. We’ll have artists, culinary masters, and just people who love the city and are trying to showcase it in a way that’s authentic and interesting. It will be the real historical and cultural flavors of this city, from education to art to history to architecture to food to experiences. Boston’s a world-class city, and we’re bringing it to the TV screen.
Do you like what you see when you see yourself on TV?
That’s another thing that I think comes with age. I remember being young and critical and constantly feeling like there was something to change. And I certainly still have that inner critic, but I’m able to look at myself with a lot more love, respect, and compassion. So many people have told me that once you move past 40, there’s just so much innate freedom, and while I’m only a year in, it certainly has been that way.
Favorite New England season?
Summer. I think so many of us live for the heat and the sunshine and the long days. I love that transition from May to June, those days when you look at the sky, and it’s like the best fireworks show you’ve ever seen. There’s something so beautiful about those days.
Do you think of yourself as a critic?
No. I think of myself as someone who celebrates a city that I’ve spent decades learning about, appreciating, and showcasing.
Are you a sports fan?
My brother regularly reminds me that I’m an embarrassment in that respect, and Billy constantly makes fun of me for it, too. But I do love celebrating our sports teams, mainly because I love celebrating our city.
What frustrates you most about Boston?
Real estate. It’s very difficult for people, especially families and workers, to live in our city. The people who are the engine behind this city can no longer afford to live in Boston or right outside.
By the Numbers
What’s on, Boston?
A look at our city’s revolutionary place in television history.
Number of episodes that GBH produced of the beloved animated TV series Arthur before the show ended in 2022.
Number of viewers who tuned into the series finale of Cheers, making it the second-most-watched series finale in American history, behind M.A.S.H.
Number of years that The French Chef—Julia Child’s first television show—ran on GBH. The show launched her illustrious TV career and a new genre of programming.
Number of regional Emmys won in 2023 by NBC10 Boston, Telemundo Nueva Inglaterra, and NBC Sports Boston.
Year that Nova first aired. Today, it is the most popular science program on American prime-time television.
First published in the print edition of the October 2023 issue with the headline, “Just Jenny.”
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