Monday, September 21 2015
Jen Royle is a Beast.
It’s a word she has affection for; a word that’s seemed to follow her around as she’s pieced together an impressive career for herself in the worlds of both sports broadcasting and the culinary arts. It’s a word that’s undergone a transformation in recent years, evolving in its meaning. Not all that long ago, referring to a woman as a Beast likely wouldn’t have left you much in her good graces.
Today, it’s among the highest of compliments.
A Beast is an unstoppable force, someone perpetually finding themselves in the spotlight and consistently shining. Someone who can do it all. Someone you can count on to give their all. You bet on the Beast.
Jen Royle is a Beast.
She’s been a Beast as an Emmy winning sports reporter, as a radio/video host for WEEI and with her video series for the Boston Herald. She’s been a Beast on ABC’s reality cooking competition “The Taste” and as part of the team that launched acclaimed restaurant Babbo in the Seaport. She’s currently achieving Beast status as a professional private chef with her new company, Dare to Taste.
And the rampage shows no signs of stopping.
Royle has Beastly plans for the future: a restaurant she hopes to open in the not-too-far-off future.
“It’s just one of those things,” Jen tells me. “It’s my personality. I’m always saying it, ‘Aw, this guy’s a Beast!’ I even have a bulldog who I refer to as Little Beast.”
Beastliness aside, there’s something about Jen Royle that puts you at ease the second you meet her. She’s open, engaging, and unapologetically honest. We hadn’t met prior to our conversation, but she immediately goes for the hug upon our meeting, a practice I’ve found over the years to be as reliable a measure of warmth and kindness as anything else. She swears often in conversation, but it comes naturally, feels right; it’s almost charming. She grabs a bagel, comes back to our table, and begins showing off her injuries.
Since we are meeting to talk about her intense training for the upcoming boxing match for Haymakers For Hope on October 7th, there is some irony to the fact that, despite willingly subjecting herself to an onslaught of punches on a daily basis, all of her injuries occurred outside of the ring.
She counts fourteen cuts and scars in all, stopping to point out those that needed stitches. They litter her hands and forearms, a veritable connect the dots of nicks and gouges. Just the other day she lopped off a chunk of her knuckle chopping a cucumber, which is healing slowly due to its location.
“I cut the piece off my finger, picked it up off the floor and put it in my contact lense case with solution,” she laughs. “It’s sterile, right? They sewed it back on, but I’m a little concerned about how it’s going to heal. It’s in a weird spot.”
Such is the life of a professional chef.
Sports and Torts
Despite her proven culinary talents, Jen Royle initially made a name for herself after college as a sports reporter, finding success covering the Red Sox, Yankees, Orioles, and Ravens.
“Growing up in Boston you’re forced to be a sports fan. I always just wanted to be a sports reporter or a chef. Ever since I was little.”
While successful in sports broadcasting, Jen began to realize over time that the stress and intensity of working professionally in sports coverage had made her become indifferent towards the teams that she had revered as a child, towards sports in general. In 2013, she stood out on the field at Fenway Park amongst the celebrating Red Sox, her Red Sox, as they claimed another World Series title. It was there that she realized something.
“I didn’t give a shit,” she states plainly. “More than that, I realized that this line of work was killing me.”
She’s referring to the scrutiny and vitriol that came with the territory of being a strong, opinionated, professional female sports writer and reporter. Her experience in Baltimore was especially difficult.
“Fans can take things too far,” she states candidly. “It was mentally exhausting. I couldn’t handle the hate, how toxic people could be. It was crushing my soul.”
She knew it was time to walk away, and she did. And yet, despite her childhood dreams, it was still a surprise to her when the path she took led to a kitchen.
“Growing up, I was mesmerized by Julia Child,” she says, smiling. “I found cooking shows therapeutic. I still do. I’ve just always cooked. Always, always, always.”
Jen was fortunate enough to have the opportunity be on the “The Taste”, ABC’s cooking competition where judges, including Anthony Bourdain, evaluate dishes from both professional chefs and home cooks based on a single blind taste. Jen remained in the competition until the series finale, having knocked out many professional chefs in one-on-one competitions along the way. She finished fifth.
“The highlight of that experience was Anthony Bourdain saying that my clam chowder was the best that he’d had in his life,” she recalls. “I just started crying. I couldn’t believe it.”
After shorts stints in culinary school and helping to open Babbo in the seaport of Boston, Jen realized she needed to be in control of her own fate. That’s when she took a leap of faith and opened her own private business as a professional private chef, which she calls Dare To Taste, publishing two cookbooks of her own in the process.
“I learned that sometimes you need to do the wrong things in order to know that they’re wrong for you. Sometimes the mistakes you make along the way are the stepping stones that get you to your goals.”
Putting On The Gloves
It’s this spirit of trying things outside of her wheelhouse that is now getting Jen Royle punched in the face on a regular basis. As painful as that may be, her past experiences have taught her how important pain is as part of the process.
“I don’t like to lose,” she tells me, switching gears to talk about her training for Haymakers. “I don’t like to feel like I could lose. But now I’m in the ring with skilled female boxers who are kicking the shit out of me and it sucks. It sucks, but I know it’s making me better, tougher, more confident. You have to take the hits before you can walk out of there a champion.”
Royle currently trains with Tommy McInerney, who has trained many of the Boston Bruins, including her friend, former Bruin Shawn Thornton, who put her in touch with McInerney. McInerney has trained male boxers for Haymakers in the past, but Royle marks the first female competitor he’s trained for the event.
“In so many ways, this fight is a reflection of [Tommy],” she says. “I want him to be proud of me. I want to win. I have that competitive spirit.”
It’s that competitive spirit, mixed with her self-described “big mouth”, that got her involved with Haymakers for Hope in the first place. She describes it as both her best and worst quality.
“Look, and you can print this, there are some bitches in sports that I hate. Girls along the way that have made my career difficult. Women don’t always support each other. I’ve definitely been on the back end of that,” she tells me honestly. “So I went to one of the Haymakers’ men’s fights and afterwards I tweeted them, ‘Hey Haymakers, you should let females do this. There’s a few bitches I’d like to fuck up’. I wasn’t being serious, just my normal sarcastic self. Next thing I know the director was like ‘Jen Royle, guess what...we DO do this for females’. Be careful what you wish for.”
“I signed up the next day,” she adds, laughing.
Who She’s Fighting For: Part I
It’s only fitting that Jen Royle is fighting in part for the woman who taught her just how big a mouth could be.
“My grandmother Millie was a great, great woman. One hundred percent Italian,” she remembers. “She was a feisty, screaming loud, fun loving, get-over-here-and-kiss-your-grandmother-type woman. Generous. Always the biggest presence in the room. Always. She was the type of woman you always wanted to be around. She taught me to be a good person and a hard worker. God, did she love her grandkids.”
Jen was sixteen when she lost her grandmother to non-hodgkin's lymphoma in 1991.
“When she died, I thought my world was over,” Jen tells me.
You get the sense that watching her mother lose her own mother was as traumatizing for Jen as the loss of her grandmother itself; it’s clear she’s fighting in honor of both women equally.
“I remember feeling so badly for my mother. She’d never get another hug from her mother again,” Jen recalls, tearing up. “It upsets me to this day. Seeing your parents go through pain is worse than anything. My mother doesn’t have her mother anymore.”
I ask Jen what she thought her grandmother would say if she knew her granddaughter would be hopping into the boxing ring in her honor.
“You’re crazy Jennifer!” she replies, laughing, and then quickly taking on Millie’s persona, a loud, comic screech. “What are you doin’? That’s not lady-like! You’re gonna get your ass kicked!”
Although her grandmother passed away almost 25 years ago, it seems getting rid of her hasn’t been all that easy.
“My mother’s gone to a medium three different times in an effort to talk to my father,” Jen tells me, cracking up. “As soon as she got there, the medium was like ‘Alright! Whose mother is Millie?! Is Diane here?’ and my mother was just like ‘Oh God...’ Another time, my mother lost a diamond ring that Millie left to her while she was making lasagna. Mom ripped the whole dinner apart, was down on her hands and knees. Couldn’t find it. The next time she went to the medium, the woman told her without knowing anything, ‘Ah. The ring. Don’t worry about it. It’s just a material thing.’ I mean, how could she have known that?”
Something tells me there won’t be anything, not even death itself, that will keep Millie from being ringside for Jen on October 7th.
Who She’s Fighting For: Part II
“While my grandma is over in the afterlife yelling ‘Get Me Outta Here!” laughs Jen, “my dad’s probably like “Would ya leave me alone, already? I’m dead!”
She describes her father, Frank, as a quiet Irishman, an observer, the strong-silent-type “ying” to the boisterous Italian “yangs” in the household. He was a Boston lifer who went to Charlestown High and loved the Red Sox. He made a career as a salesman selling KitchenAid products. One gets the sense that perhaps on some level, Jen’s affinity for sports and cooking was set in motion by the life of her father.
“As a salesman for KitchenAid, I had every appliance you could ever imagine,” Jen tells me. “My dad got me everything I ever wanted cooking-wise.”
“He loved The Rolling Stones. He’d blast them until the basement shook. That song ‘Start Me Up’ was his favorite. He would blast that damned song, the house would shake, my mother would be screaming FRAAAAAANK, and he’d just bust into the room dancing, right up in her face,” she says between laughs.
Another thing Frank loved was cigarettes. When you hear Jen talk about that particular habit, there are traces of a seething anger in her eyes.
“I knew he’d die from cigarettes. I always knew,” she states plainly. “There was never a doubt for me that those would be the end of him.”
Unfortunately, Jen wasn’t wrong. In 2006, Frank was diagnosed with lung cancer, which quickly spread to his brain.
The doctors gave him six months.
He died in four.
“He died in the bedroom in front of all of us. He was fighting for his life for hours. Each breath was painstaking,” Jen recalls. “My brothers and I finally had to tell him ‘It’s okay. We are all here. We love you so much. You did such a great job with us. It’s okay.’ He died five seconds later.”
“If I could say one thing to people with loved ones who have cancer,” she goes on, “I would tell them to say what you need to say, to do what you need to do. Now. Don’t wait. That day’s gonna come when it’s too fucking late.”
Back To The Beast
Jen tells me that her mother will be there cheering her on as she helps to raise money for cancer research in honor of her father and grandmother. I ask her what her mom thinks of it all. Jen says it’s hard to tell.
“It’s not that she doesn’t care,” she says, “It’s that she’s so used to me taking chances, trying new things, being in the public eye, that she isn’t even phased anymore,” Jen laughs. “There Jen goes again. Business as usual.”
The way things are going for Jen Royle, that figurative statement will be a literal one before we know it.
“If there’s one more daring thing I do, it’ll be that. Opening up my restaurant. Beast,” she says excitedly. “It’ll be the best thing I have ever accomplished.”
I ask her what she’s been cooking recently, what dishes she’s most excited about sharing with the world.
“I’m obsessed with soups right now. Butternut Squash Soup. Tomato Ginger Soup. Cauliflower Soup. Even in the summer I’m obsessed with soups.”
And what about her famous clam chowder, the one Anthony Bourdain told her was the best he’d ever tasted?
“It’s fucking awesome,” she says beaming. “I’ll make you some sometime.”
That’s in writing now, Jen. I’ll let you get through your training and the fight, but once it’s over?
I’ll be ringside, waiting patiently with my oyster crackers.
***Chris Randa is a freelance writer, film producer, and special education teacher. He lives with his wife and son in Millis, MA. Check out his work at www.kerpunkerplunk.com and follow him on Twitter at @ChrisRanda