After reaching the finals of MasterChef, Matt Healy fell out of love with cooking. Now having taken over at The Foundry, he tells Sarah Freeman about his journey back to the passe.
M att Healy is disarmingly honest. Ask him what prompted him to apply for MasterChef: The Professionals and he doesn’t bother with the usual spiel about a desire to raise his profile or career development. It was, he says simply, ‘wine’.
More specifically two bottles of Pinot Noir and a nudge from his now ex-wife.
“We were watching the series with amateur cooks. I was complaining as usual and giving the contestants grief, so when an advert came up looking for applications from professionals, Natalie basically told me I should put my money where my mouth was. I grabbed my phone, filled in the application form through slightly squinty eyes and pressed send. No one was more surprised than me when I got a call from a TV company inviting me to the auditions in Manchester.”
We are sitting on one of the hottest days of the year inside The Foundry, the restaurant in Leeds’ up- andcoming South Bank district which now bears his name. It’s two years since he sent that application and he wouldn’t be here he says without having got to the finals of the show or for the depressing 12-month comedown which followed.
“I loved the whole process of MasterChef. I mean I got the chance to work with three Michelin-starred chefs Esben Holmboe Bang at his Maaemo restaurant in Norway, I cooked for Anton Mosimann and Simon Rogan, two of my all-time heroes, and when we finished filming I got to have a beer with Marcus Wareing. I had a ball.”
At the time Healy, who grew up in Leeds, was working as a development chef for a company called Reliance. It wasn’t exactly his dream job and on the back of his MasterChef success – he got to the final three, narrowly missing out on the trophy – he handed his notice in.
“Someone offered me a decent amount of money to go down to London to make YouTube videos showing people how to make various dishes,” says the 35 year old. “In this industry there are a lot of people who will gladly blow smoke up your arse if you’ll let them and I jumped on that yellow brick road honestly believing that I would find fame and fortune in London. I thought I was going to be the next Jamie Oliver with my own TV show.
“I was given a car, I got to stay in hotels and eat in fantastic restaurants. For a while my head was turned, but the novelty didn’t take long to wear off. The production company kept telling me how natural I was in front of the camera and I like to think that bit was true, but they kept upping the number of videos they wanted me to make each day and the quality suffered. By the end I was pretty miserable.”
It wasn’t a feeling he was used to. Healy has always loved food and ever since his grandma taught him how to bake, the kitchen has been his natural home.
“I grew up in Horsforth and my parents didn’t have a lot of money, so as soon as I was old enough I got a job as a pot washer in a local Italian restaurant. They paid me £15 for seven hours work, but I didn’t mind. I loved the atmosphere in there, I loved watching how service came together and when they let me use the mezzaluna to chop the parsley, it felt like I’d arrived.”
Leaving school Healy did his initial training at Leeds’ Thomas Danby College, but it was the three years he spent working with Simon Shaw at El Gato Negro in Manchester that were the making – and almost the breaking – of him.
“I’m 6ft 4ins tall. He’s 5ft 6ins tall, but there were times when he made me cry. He wouldn’t tolerate anything less than your best. Before I went there I was coasting, Simon could see that I was a bit of a rough diamond and he knocked the edges off. Sometimes it was pretty brutal, but as soon as service finished he would sit and have a beer with you and we are still great friends. He made me really fall in love with the restaurant business. At the end of a year in London I had fallen out of love with it. I knew I had to come back to Yorkshire.”
Since then there have been other big changes. Now divorced from his first wife, Healy has a new girlfriend and with a little help from the bank and a few old friends he has invested everything he’s got into the Foundry.
“I know, it sounds like some early midlife crisis, but actually taking on this place was one of the clearest decisions I’ve ever made. It feels right and it feels good.”
Tucked away in Saw Mill Street, just along from the Midnight Bell and the Cross Keys pubs, Healy got the keys eight weeks ago and the transformation has been as subtle as it is significant. The dark wood interiors have been lightened and the blue neon sign at the entrance, which tells diners they are about to enjoy Food to Swear By, sums up Healy’s approach to the restaurant business.
“I’m not here to compete with The Man Behind The Curtain,” he says of Michael O’Hare’s uber successful Michelin star joint just down the road. “But I do think I can deliver good, honest food, served in a beautiful way and that’s what Leeds needs.
“The menu here hadn’t changed for seven years and while I don’t want to alienate the old regulars, something had to change, not least the portions, which were huge.
“At the moment it’s been given a light touch makeover, but really I want to tweak the menu every six weeks or so. If a dish is selling I’m not going to knock it off for the sake of it, but I want this place to feel exciting and like it’s constantly moving forward.”
Last week Healy clocked up more than 90 hours at The Foundry and he’ll likely do the same this week. However, even when he gets back home to Sowerby Bridge after midnight and still has to take his dog Frankie Knuckles for a walk, before grabbing a few hours’ sleep he says he has no regrets. And the hard work does appear to be paying off.
One early review described the place as Leeds meets Hoxton, a comparison the hipster bearded and heavily tattooed Healy rather likes.
“They all look like me down there, so that’s fine. In terms of food trends Leeds is probably about five years behind London. Before this was the kind of place that still operated on the starter, main course, dessert formula, but I want it to be much more relaxed. I want people to feel equally at home coming here for a glass of wine as they do spending a couple of hours over a meal.”
And should he ever have a bad day in the weeks to come, Healy knows what to do.
“I’ve got a DVD of the chefs’ table round on MasterChef when I cooked beef cheek with pomme puree. I come out at the end to a standing ovation. Every so often when I need to remind myself why I’m doing this, I fast forward to that bit and just watch for a while.”