With an appetite to conquer the Leeds restaurant scene, celebrity chef Matt Healy gives JLife a taste of why he hates fine dining, the double-edged sword of celebrity fame and the story behind a dog called Frankie Knuckles.
Since placing runner-up in MasterChef: The Professionals, Matt Healy has had a lot on his plate. Over the past 18 months, the hungry 36 year-old chef has launched a trio of successful eateries across his hometown of Leeds, earning him Best Restaurant at the fiercely-contested Oliver Awards, Newcomer of the Year at the Yorkshire Life Food and Drink Awards, as well as Britain’s Best Roast Dinner.
“I’ve always been a busy fool, but I think I’m working smarter than I am harder at the moment. We’ve covered all angles – we’ve ticked off fine dining with The Foundry and Scandi vegan with Grön, but I’d always wanted to have a boozer.”
A trendy gastropub offering a contemporary twist on pub classics, The Beehive opened its doors at the end of summer, causing a stir in the quiet village of Thorner. Little expense was spared on the renovation: the interiors stripped back to wooden beams and exposed brickwork daubed in neon signage; a bold design that wouldn’t look out of place on Shoreditch High Street.
“It’s a lovely space, but the £180,000 renovation figure is conservative. I won’t give you the real cost, because it will make my eyes water! People come in expecting The Foundry, but this is a more relaxed, come in for a burger after work or Sunday lunch with your mum kind of place.”
The fine dining label which seems to have stuck with The Foundry, is one Matt is keen to shake: “I hate the term ‘fine dining’. It’s so far from what we wanted the place to be. I didn’t want to put people off. I want people to come down for a casual glass of wine and plate of charcuterie on the terrace with mates; it doesn’t have to be an event.”
Keen to bring the latest foodie trends to the outskirts of the city, when the opportunity presented itself to Matt and his team at Seventh Course to acquire the former premises of Stories in Oakwood, the gamble of bringing a slice of East London to North Leeds paid off.
“Traditionally southern businesses don’t work so well up north, and vice versa. If you look at the independents who’ve tried to do it, it’s been a bit of a challenge. People up here won’t spend £20 on a bowl of fancy cereal!
“But there’s a huge vegan market in North Leeds. People are going wild for it, especially the millennials – they love their gluten free pancakes! It seemed silly not to dip our toe into that market with Grön.
“North Leeds has always been a jazzy part of town. There are plenty of food fanatics prepared to splash out on quality who like to stay up there and dine. My three business partners live in the area, the only reason I don’t, is because I can’t afford to right now!”
Matt lives with his girlfriend Holly in Farsley along with their three dogs, a springer spaniel named Frankie Knuckles, (inspired by a love of Chicago house music), a retriever called Major and their newest addition, Bieber.
“This year we rescued a beagle from a puppy farm in Cyprus. We were out there visiting my mum and got bored of drinking wine in the sun, so we went down to help out at the shelter, giving the dogs walks and we ended up taking Bieber home. I love animals and believe there’s a special place in hell reserved for people who abuse them.”
Matt grew up in Horsforth, his father striving to earn enough in his haulage business to relocate the family to leafy North Leeds suburbia from a deprived East Leeds estate.
“My father always wanted the best for us. In fact, he told me to get out of the cooking trade and get into IT – because I’d never have any friends, money or time. He was right!”
Following his parents’ marital split, Matt spent much of his childhood with his grandmother, while his father worked two jobs: “I know it’s clichéd, but it’s the time spent baking with my grandmother which gave me my palette.”
From a young age, Matt always felt he was destined for something great, yet he admits circumstances led him to simply “fall into” his career as a professional chef.
“My parents didn’t have much money when I was younger, so I started washing up at Fat Franco’s in Horsforth. I was mesmerised by all the fire, the noise and the salt flying everywhere – so when the chef let me chop the parsley, I thought I’d made it!”
Working his way up to head chef at a number of Leeds restaurants, “probably too soon”, Matt’s talents were soon discovered by Simon Shaw, who invited him into the kitchen of his acclaimed tapas restaurant, El Gato Negro in Manchester: “He gave me three years of hell, but it turned me into the man I am today, which I’ll be forever grateful for.”
Taking a leaf out of Simon’s book, Matt adopts a “first in, last out” mentality to his businesses: “If something needs doing, I’ll do it myself and set an example. It’s not about being a boss, but a leader. I never refer to the guys that work for me as ‘my staff’ – we’re a team. You can’t be afraid to get stuck in. But that’s not to say I’m never afraid – having to perform day in, day out with so much on the line can give you crippling anxiety.”
Since launching The Foundry in Leeds up-and-coming South Bank district in March last year, the restaurant has enjoyed wall-to-wall bookings, seeing well over 100 covers a night on weekends.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel. We do what we do, and we do it well. There’s no point in trying to over-egg it. We’ve had 27 incarnations of the menu and each time it’s evolved. I’m not saying we won’t be gunning for Michelin stars, but right now we’re concentrating on doing good food at a good price.”
Matt admits that MasterChef fame has been an undeniable factor behind his success in a competitive Leeds dining market: “I was disappointed to place runner-up, but I knew I wasn’t the best person on the day. But what getting to the final gives you is a golden ticket, which former contestants seldom cash in.
“But I feel I deserve the success from the work that I’ve put in and the journey it’s brought me on – from washing up at Fat Franco’s 22 years ago to having the balls to go on MasterChef and back up my big mouth by showing the world I can cook!”
Media fame has been a blessing and a curse for the young celebrity, as his ready-made reputation has forced him to step out from the limelight and question his talent.
“Do people come to my restaurants because they’ve seen me on TV and want to be part of that, or do they keep coming back because I’m good? Let’s not get away from it, MasterChef is a reality TV show – it just so happens it’s for people with a semi-decent skillset.
“I had to come off social media pretty quickly, because I was being berated by people I’d never met, but that’s a necessary evil with the media-driven culture we live in.”After leaving MasterChef, Matt was offered the chance to create YouTube content, with the promise of a career as a TV chef. “I was sold a lie. The company who I got into bed with paid me a lot of money, but I was driving down to the studio at 5am on Monday morning and not leaving until late Friday night. I was hammering content but falling out of love with food. I thought, if I’m to achieve this greatness, I need to get back on the tools and start shaking some pans at my own place.”
A chance meeting with an old friend in a pub soon made that a reality, and for Matt, his first restaurant couldn’t have been anywhere but Leeds: “I’ve lived in London and Manchester, but there’s nothing like the feeling I get when I come back. I often take my niece down to fisherman’s row in Kirkgate Market, where my grandma used to take us. She hates it, but for me, that’s the smell of nostalgia.”
When asked what’s next for the Healy empire, Matt declares his hunger for new acquisitions satiated for the foreseeable, as he focuses on consolidating his portfolio.
“I don’t want to fly too close to the sun. I’ve got a fantastic team at every site, so it gives me the opportunity to flit between them and do some research and development. I’m eating out a lot more, going to different cities, finding out what the buzz is and taking inspiration. I’d like to have a nosey at the street food cultures in India and Singapore and build on those dishes to make them mega.
“I don’t think there’ll be any more openings within the next year or two, as I don’t want to get into anything I can’t completely throw myself into. I have a mentality where I won’t be beaten. When I do something, I want it to be the best. Like Jon Snow, I’m going to be King in the North!”
I’m a big Leeds United fan. I even make an appearance in the new Amazon Prime documentary, Take Us Home!
I eat as healthily as I can at home because I’m surrounded by goose fat and salt – it’s normally chicken salad and in the winter, I’ll stick something in the slow cooker.
Zucco is one of my favourite restaurants. I aspire to the simplicity of their small plates. I like HannuMatsuri and you’ll often find me in Hessian, run by my mate Will from way back.
Beck & Call. The place is massive – I couldn’t imagine taking on a project like that.
I love a pint of Guinness.
It has to be my little café Grön!