Chefs

Chef Jen Royle Will Cook, Say, Tweet, and Do Anything She Likes

And that’s exactly why the sports jockey turned toque is redefining what it means to be a celebrity chef in Boston today.


Photo by Webb Chappell

Jen Royle isn’t one for boundaries. It’s something I learn firsthand on my way to meet the chef at her home on the fringes of the North End, just a 10-minute walk from her white-hot Hanover Street restaurant, Table. Instead of waiting for me to ring the doorbell, she simply texts the front-door code and tells me to let myself right in. Ducking out of the sweltering summer-afternoon heat, I ride the elevator to the fourth floor and, much to my surprise, am dumped out smack in the middle of Royle’s kitchen. Immediately, three loud, exuberant bulldogs are swarming at my feet and lapping, airborne, at my chin.

Welcome to the circus.

I already know which of these canine acrobats is Truman, the beloved eldest pooch whose paw print Royle has tattooed on her arm. I’ve seen him before—after all, Royle shares a largely unfiltered look at her life (and pets) to more than 30,000 Twitter followers and more than 11,000 people on Instagram. Those may not be numbers that keep up with the Kardashians, but by Boston chef standards, they’re huge. “Ninety-five percent of what I [post] is self-deprecating and funny,” Royle once told me. “My dogs shit in my kitchen. I have menstrual cramps. My hair is a mess. I fucking hate my life. I think I’m pretty relatable!”

Today, thankfully, there is no shit on the kitchen floor. And for what it’s worth, Royle’s hair looks pretty fabulous when the former sportscaster with a megawatt smile and striking blue eyes stomps out of her bedroom in strappy high heels that Wonder Woman might wear down a runway. “Aren’t these amazing?” she asks, modeling one with a tilt of the ankle. They are. They are also very expensive, she adds, but “I love them so much, I got them in every color.”

True to her promise, Royle is unabashedly herself: ribaldly funny, gregarious yet slightly ferocious, disarmingly honest, and, for better or worse, totally transparent. When she gives me a tour of her loft-like bachelorette pad, for instance, the first stop is the fridge, which she flings open to show exactly how bare the shelves are. Apparently, the chef doesn’t like to cook for herself. “I have no fucking food in my house,” she declares, admitting that she lives off nightly takeout. She does, however, keep a fridge drawer full of ketchup packets—inexplicably, she admits, since she rarely eats ketchup—and her freezer holds about half a dozen pints of ice cream. That really is it.

Implausibly, the woman with the empty fridge is also the in-demand host of a one-of-a-kind restaurant that resembles a nightly dinner party: Each evening at a designated seating time, Table gathers about 30 guests elbow to elbow around two long tables, where the diners pass around a two-hour parade of family-style plates—no modifications—to be shared among parties. At first, nobody knows one another. By the end of the night, though, as belt lines swell with red gravy and red wine, everybody’s somehow fast friends, over-sharing, laughing too loud, and waving their arms around. No one cares that Royle didn’t train in Napoli (or even that she quit culinary school after one month). They’re simply there for good food, boisterous fun, and to feel like a much-loved member of Royle’s extended Italian famiglia.

It’s not always hugs and how-ya-doin’s, though, for Royle, who isn’t afraid to talk about the migraine-sized headaches of running a business or her passionate political views—she hates Donald Trump—on social media. Most unusual of all for a restaurateur, she also isn’t shy about getting into public spats with rude customers. Maybe a diner emails with a complaint about her no-excuses cancellation policy, which charges truant guests in full unless someone else takes their seat. Maybe someone leaves a nasty review online, all because she told their party they were getting too rowdy during dinner. If a guest dispute comes up (as they do at every restaurant) and Royle thinks that she’s right (as she freely admits she almost always does), she has no problem making it clear to customers, past or prospective. “You don’t need to tell me that you’re not eating at my restaurant because I truly don’t give a fuck. Your loss. It’s delicious,” is one of her greatest Twitter clapbacks.

Royle’s Twitter bio says it all: “Unlikely to apologize.” And why should she? Her boldness served the former on-air sports reporter well during a 13-year career in New York, Baltimore, and Boston, where she had her own show on WEEI and was hired to help launch Boston Herald Radio. “She’s very true to herself,” says Jeff Magram, Royle’s former boss at the Herald station. “She’ll tell you she’s edgy. She’ll tell you she’s smutty. She’ll tell you what’s on her mind. That’s who she is. So you either love Jen, or you don’t.”

After an impressive run on ABC’s Anthony Bourdain–hosted reality competition The Taste, where the amateur home chef improbably held her own against pros, Royle started a catering business, saved a small fortune, and opened Table in 2019 without, she says, a single loan or investor. Now that she’s crash-landed into the North End restaurant scene, Royle has the most-talked-about dining destination in the Boston neighborhood most singularly associated with food. Her restaurant now nets, she says, more than $1.5 million per year. Plus she opened an Italian market and signed a lease for a third business during a pandemic that forced the closure of about one in every five restaurants in Massachusetts, many of which were run by more established chefs and more experienced business owners. None of them, though, had a bigger personality than Royle. And almost none of them has more social-media followers, as well as attention-grabbing moxie, to rewrite the old rules of how to make it as a celebrity chef in Boston.

Chef Jen Royle throws a chummy dinner party every night at her North End restaurant, Table. / Photo by Chris Christo/Medianews Group/Boston herald via Getty Images

It’s a full house on a Saturday night at Table, and inside the restaurant’s teeny-tiny basement-level kitchen, Royle’s dizzying energy and self-deprecating humor are once again on full display. “I’m such a fucking rookie” flies out of her mouth more than once from her perch at the stove, where she toils to keep up with the demanding choreography of the eight-course dinner unfolding upstairs. Yet at the same time, she’s making it all work. At any one moment, Royle is rapidly recalculating the portions she needs to plate, pouring a stream of Franzia boxed wine into a flaming pot of shrimp scampi, and cradling a cordless phone on her shoulder to tersely inform a flustered caller—who doesn’t quite grasp the restaurant’s headcount-based format—that his credit card will still be charged for the meal she’s cooked even if he doesn’t show up to eat it.

With the help of her small, multitasking service team—everybody does a little of everything, and no one is allowed to call her “chef”—she gets it all done, and with a lot of wisecracking along the way. The seat-of-the-pants energy is both exhausting and exhilarating, though not entirely surprising.

This, of course, is the same one-woman whirlwind who made her way through the third season of The Taste, the so-called search to find America’s best undiscovered cook, in 2014. “Jen is a disaster in the kitchen…but the end result is delicious,” is how her mother put it to more than 3 million viewers in the first episode, when Royle auditioned for the panel of celeb-chef judges by serving a spoonful of deconstructed New England clam chowder. It won over five-star French toque Ludo Lefebvre, who invited Royle to join his team of mentees. And just to be clear, that was before she flashed him a playful wink.

At the time, Royle was still an on-air sports personality at Boston Herald Radio, and only flirting with the idea of turning her love of cooking—something she’d done all her life, for every gathering of family or friends—into a second career. She started her first one after graduating from Salve Regina University, where the sports nut was captain of the field hockey team. Raised in Mansfield, she’d always wanted to get out of the suburbs and move to New York City, a dream that came true when she received an offer to work for a Manhattan-based fashion company. It was a job in the collections department, a good fit for someone who doesn’t give up till she gets what she wants. “Without a second thought,” Royle says, she broke up with her years-long live-in boyfriend and loaded up a moving truck.

Once in Manhattan, Royle eventually began working for Liz Claiborne, where colleagues frequently overheard her swapping sports stories with the maintenance guys. “Finally, my boss was like, ‘You shouldn’t be talking about sports—you should be studying your fabrics!’” Royle says. “But I didn’t care about fabrics. I cared that the Red Sox had Game 2 tonight.”

It was clear to everyone in her orbit that Royle’s POW! BAM!  personality would make her a perfect color commentator for sports media. And so, through a series of friend-of-friend introductions to athletes and execs, she wound up with an interview with the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network. Almost immediately, she landed a job standing on playing fields with her microphone at the mouth of baseball’s biggest names. What’s more, she was great at it, winning an Emmy for her work and going on to cover major league sports as a reporter for XM Satellite Radio, the Baltimore-based Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, and CBS Radio. Along the way, Royle earned a reputation as a salty rabble-rouser—exactly what sports-radio fans want—and in 2013 she returned home to Boston and her own show at WEEI, a station then known for controversial on-air personalities such as Kirk Minihane and Gerry Callahan.

Royle says she’s always been someone who hungers for new challenges, though, so after a decade reporting from Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park, even popping bottles with Big Papi wasn’t as exciting as it used to be. “I remember standing on the field at Fenway and seeing thousands of people in the stands as they hoisted the trophy,” Royle recalls of the Red Sox’s 2013 World Series win. “I felt nothing. David Ortiz was trying to squirt me with champagne, and I was like, ‘Get away from me, I just want to go home!’”

Not long after, Royle decided to take her competitive spirit to The Taste, where she made it to the final episode and was the only nonprofessional cook left standing. Encouraged by her success, she continued to pursue a culinary career, joining the team at Mario Batali’s now-shuttered Babbo in the Seaport, where she was a quick study with a ton of hustle, says then-executive chef Mario LaPosta. “You can tell whether someone has what it takes to make it in this business, and it doesn’t come from being able to toss a sauté pan,” LaPosta says. “Drive and passion are the biggest thing, and Jen has [both].”

If there was any doubt about that, consider this: Though she missed out on the $100,000 grand prize on The Taste, Royle wound up making $1 million in less than four years, she claims, by going full-time and full-throttle with her own catering and personal chef  business, Dare to Taste, sometimes working multiple events a day and “driving in the morning, crying,” she says, “with tendinitis in both elbows.” Two years ago, she used that money to turn a small former nail salon into her restaurant Table. Its timed seating and family-style approach made it just another dinner party to throw, something she knew she could handle as a rookie chef.

Today, Royle still tries to take on just about everything herself, which is probably why she frequently wears her emotions like splatters of tomato sauce on an apron. Payroll, food orders, contractor calls—she’s always worried something will slip through the cracks, and she’s tough on herself to make sure nothing does. When a promised delivery of ingredients doesn’t arrive to the restaurant one evening, she’s the one who makes a panicked pre-service run to Market Basket. When heavy floor tiles arrive for her soon-to-open sandwich and gelato shop, Table Caffé, she single-handedly hauls them into the new Hanover Street space.

Then there’s the evening I catch her by phone, shortly after the sports-loving chef has rushed home from filming a ballpark-food-themed episode of the Food Network competition Chopped. Royle is wracked with anxiety about how things went. But why? I ask. After all, she’s done food TV before. She didn’t win before. But she still came off well, and now that she has a successful restaurant anyway, shouldn’t she be less concerned than before?

Quite the opposite, Royle explains. “Before,” she says, “I had nothing to lose.”

Online, the toque isn’t afraid to clap back at entitled customer behavior. / Photo by Webb Chappell

The concept of the celebrity chef is nothing new, of course: Long before Royle was finding her own audience on radio, TV, and social media, she was a kid glued to the tube watching Julia Child, cooking along with the French chef using whatever new kitchen gadget her father, a KitchenAid salesman, had laying around the house. But the road to becoming a well-known toque has changed quite a bit since the days when Child was cooking coq au vin over the stove in her Cambridge home.

The modern celebrity-chef phenomenon in Boston really came to a rolling boil once some of the city’s fine-dining legends started moving in more populist directions—say, Jasper White, who took a left turn to casual dining 21 years ago with his beachy Summer Shack restaurants, which include an outlet at Mohegan Sun casino. Then charismatic, camera-ready cooks such as Boston-bred Todd English spent the aughties parlaying their kitchen talent into building multi-restaurant empires, merchandising themselves, and establishing their names as bold-faced fixtures in newspaper gossip and social columns (the cachet-accrediting precursor to Twitter’s blue checkmark). Over the past decade, meanwhile, high-profile food TV shows, from Hell’s Kitchen to Top Chef  to Beat Bobby Flay—another series in which Royle appeared, in 2017—have helped fuel the rise of well-known Hub talents such as Jason Santos (13,400 Twitter followers), Tiffani Faison (6,600), and Karen Akunowicz (4,000).

Most recently, social media has emerged as the newest frontier in professional culinary brand building. International meme sensation Nusret Gökçe (a.k.a. “Salt Bae”), who never appears to his 36.5 million Instagram followers without sporting a manbun, a pout, and a pair of sunglasses, opened his first Boston restaurant last year amid a mixed chorus of “ooh!” and “ugh.” Twenty-five-year-old Bostonian Nick DiGiovanni, meanwhile, the youngest-ever finalist on Fox’s MasterChef, was just recognized by Forbes as one of the country’s top content creators for his self-produced cooking demos, which earn 260 million views per month on TikTok. Sure, he’d like to open a restaurant one day, he tells me, but right now he’s in the process of launching his own lines of flavored salts and food-inspired scented candles.

Royle may not have churned out her own branded cookware yet, but she is someone who is perfectly positioned to make hay of social media as a chef. For starters, she came to the job with a built-in audience from her TV and radio career. More significant, though, is the distinctive way Royle brings the same smack-talking, no-bullshit persona that is so prevalent in sports personalities to Boston’s food world. (“If you want it sugarcoated, buy a doughnut,” was the station’s mantra back in her Herald Radio days, according to Magram.)

No one would accuse Royle the restaurateur of sugarcoating things now when, for instance, she tweets “fuck off” to (among others) Trump fans who tell her to keep her political opinions to herself; a stranger who told her she shouldn’t “bitch” about the cost of patio heaters during the pandemic; and another who demanded a more generous freebie when she offered guests a complimentary glass of champagne to celebrate Table’s one-year anniversary.

Her spats often receive a lot of attention. At one point, following one of Royle’s several heated Twitter feuds with right-wing Fox reporter Britt McHenry, Barstool Sports president Dave Portnoy offered the women $10,000 apiece to take their online scrap into a boxing ring. Guess which one of them accepted the fight? “My retaliation rate,” Royle says, “is 100 percent.”

Judging by the fans who frequently back her with supportive comments, a lot of people love exactly that about her. “You are a hot-head Italian who gave us a great restaurant,” reads one typical love letter on Twitter. “That’s the character of the North End—hot-headed Italians who can cook!!”

By this point, it’s become a part of Royle’s character, too. “Part of me does it because that’s my persona,” she admits. “One time a guy called the restaurant to say he was running late. He said, ‘But that’s okay, because I kind of want Jen Royle to tell me to fuck off.’”

Not everyone, though, is so enamored with her style. Take Aidan Kearney, who has put Royle in the crosshairs of his tabloid website, Turtleboy Sports, by writing about a few of her more recent online tiffs—such as the time Royle located a Yelp user’s Twitter account and publicly called him out for leaving her restaurant a one-star review over a $50 cancellation fee. (It wasn’t her fault that “you can’t read,” Royle told the guy.) Or another time a woman made a crack at Royle for not completing culinary school and mused that she was probably calling the feds on North End restaurant owners who were violating COVID regulations. (Royle did not, though she has no regrets for her tweets that generally criticized the neighborhood’s overcrowded patios and flouting of mask rules.) The chef, in response, called the diner a “complete bitch” and lit up like a grease fire. “I’m about to point out how fucking dumb you are,” she wrote. “Ready?”

Kearney has a reputation as an agitating Internet provocateur with several social-media bans under his belt, and his headlines calling Royle a “crazy bitch” have inspired many of his own 21,800 Twitter followers to hurl vicious slurs at the chef. So it’s a fine point, if an odd messenger, when he argues that Royle needs to account for the size of her platform relative to others. “I don’t think she understands that if you have thousands of followers, every time you speak it’s like broadcasting in Fenway Park,” he says. “Social media creates a power imbalance. If you’re someone with a large following, you have the power to whip up a mob and get people mad at a person, just like that.”

As a restaurateur, Royle knows that simply playing nice would make her life easier. Just look at her Yelp page, which has more than 100 reviews. The vast majority are five fawning stars. The handful of single-star reviews, though, are almost uniformly about the owner’s “nasty” attitude. “Everything is wonderful unless there is an issue. Then all hell breaks loose, and Jen goes all Southie,” wrote one user. Royle (or her sometime-pseudonym) has been known to chime in on the page to dispute the accounts or simply call them “fake.”

Surely there are occasions when she could more graciously own up to a mistake or an overreaction. But Royle, who recently retweeted a Food & Wine article headlined “The Fine Art of Telling a Customer to F Off,” simply sees herself as laying bare entitled behavior to correct the myth that the customer is always right. Her staffers, meanwhile, tell me that after years working for other chef-owners who told them to just grin and bear it when patrons got hand-grabby or insulting, they’re grateful to work for a boss who always has their back (and is known to pay for their babysitters).

Besides, Royle is eager to stress, it’s not as though she goes looking for fights—she’s just not somebody who backs down from one. She says this as we’re sitting on her couch with her bulldogs, who are uncharacteristically calm until one rubs another the wrong way. Suddenly, jolting snarls are exchanged and teeth are bared. A bit of blood is drawn and just as quickly forgotten, as the pack promptly returns to snuggling. “They’re like me,” Royle says with a laugh. “They’re sweet, but they will bite back.”

Whatever kerfuffle Royle occasionally engages in on social media, you wouldn’t know it from the bright smiles and warm hugs she offers to many of the diners who come to Table. After all, she’s had guests drive from six hours away to get a taste, she says.

To get a glimpse, too: When Royle steps out of the kitchen and into the dining room, every head in her restaurant turns. One Saturday night, after dinner service is complete, she makes the rounds to greet guests, many of whom aren’t shy about revealing themselves as rabid fans. “I saw that Truman went missing yesterday!” blurts one wide-eyed, breathless diner, referring to a playful photo Royle tweeted a day earlier showing the evasive pooch playing hide-and-seek in her bedroom closet.

It seems that everyone else who walks through her door is similarly up to date on the trials and tribulations of Royle’s personal life. Earlier that day, for instance, a total stranger dropped off 50 bucks “for Jen” at Table Mercato, Royle’s neighboring Italian market, after she shared a picture of a recent parking ticket. The supportive Samaritan didn’t buy anything or even leave his name. He’s just among the many admirers. With so many well-fed, happy, and excited customers now competing to wave her over and beg for selfies, I ask Royle: “You really don’t know any of these people?” She emphatically shakes her head no and adds a hapless shrug, as if to say, Can you believe it?

I can, when I consider how Royle has managed to make so many strangers feel as if they truly know her before they even walk in her restaurant’s door. And maybe that, as well as a feast of Italian comfort food, is exactly what folks want after being kept apart for so long. Maybe, after a year that had us all at our wit’s end, it’s cathartic to see someone toss tomatoes right back at button-pushing smart alecks online. And maybe, in a day and age when what you say (or tweet) about anything, how it comes across, and who it pisses off can make or break your career, candor such as Royle’s is simply a satisfying antidote to all that toxic timidity.

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding: Unlike many other Boston chefs, Royle not only survived but thrived during the pandemic. She says she raked in a quarter-million dollars in mere months after quickly introducing takeout and opening Table Mercato. Heck, she even made headlines for luring in Leonardo DiCaprio for a bite.

As Royle’s own fawning fans in her dining room make clear, a little celebrity never hurts, says chef Jason Santos, who knows what he’s talking about. Santos himself built a handful of successful Boston-area restaurants after years of recurring appearances on reality shows such as the Fox hit Hell’s Kitchen, where the former runner-up now stars as Gordon Ramsay’s sous and a mentor to contestants. It’s raised his profile even higher, to the point where he has to toss a cap over his signature shock of blue hair if he wants to wander around Boston unrecognized by viewers. “I think gone are the days when it’s just about the food,” Santos says of the chef world. “It’s about, are you Instagrammable? Are you popular? We’re all trying to make our restaurants busy and survive, and everybody needs an angle.” As for Royle’s? In a climate that is otherwise “very sensitive,” says Santos, “there’s no question that she is definitely saying what people think.”

Royle explains it this way: “Everyone who comes into the restaurant is like, ‘More people should be like you. I’m here because I fucking respect how you tell people how you feel.’” And in fact, even when they might not share her politics or trigger-happy Twitter finger, more than one major restaurant mogul told me they’re impressed by Royle’s hustle and willingness to speak what’s on her mind. “She’s one of us,” says Nick Varano, who built the celebrity-luring Strega empire of glittery Italian restaurants, glad-hands with VIPs at his swanky spot in the Encore casino, and is a familiar face on local billboards and in TV commercials. Sure, he wishes she would stop tweeting so much (his advice: “Wear mittens!”). But he says Royle has earned the respect of the North End’s old boys’ club nonetheless, and he considers her a friend. That’s not to say they haven’t gotten into a couple four-letter-word-filled tiffs, such as when Royle tweeted that certain other North End restaurants were granted outsize patios during the pandemic.

Even for an established bigwig like Varano, Royle’s probably a good person to keep close, so in the end, they hugged it out. He gave her some of his patio space, and sent her flowers, too. And then he did what everyone else does: He asked her for a selfie.