Leeds-born chef Matt Healy is cookery’s new rising star. He talks to Neil Hudson about fame, tattoos, swearing and exit plans...
At 6ft 4, bearded and forearms heavily tattooed, there’s no missing Matt Healy, the new(ish) owner of the already renowned The Foundry Wine Bar & Restaurant.
His reputation goes before him. Indeed, of late he’s been ‘doing the rounds’, schmoozing media types like me, no doubt retreading the same ground, from his days as a pot washer through to his appearance on Masterchef: The Professionals in 2016, to now. You might think he would be weary of the process but as we sit down to chat, aside from swearing a lot (something he’s keenly aware of), he shows no signs of press junket fatigue. He’s engaged, lively and warms to questions about his youth, more of which later.
But first, there’s an elephant in the room. As you may or may not know, Leeds-born Matt was runner-up in the 2016 Masterchef: The Professionals, a fact which appears to be something of a mixed blessing.
“Do not get me wrong, in no uncertain terms, a lot of my success has been down to Masterchef and I don’t necessarily want people to stop talking about it because of the custom we get from it. That said, I’d rather be known as a Leeds restaurateur and for what we are doing down here at The Foundry.
“It was a springboard and it helped because ordinarily I would have had to spend two years creating a reputation whereas I have it already. The finals week was viewed by about 5m people - that’s incredible.”
The 35-year-old is more than used to being the centre of attention. He has always been tall and recalls that at school - St Mary’s Catholic, Horsforth - he was “class clown”, as he puts it.
“I never saw myself as academic, I was a bit disruptive at school, I was the class clown, after a while I think people expected it.” He recalls skateboarding with his brother, Liam, two years his junior, as they grew up on Broadgate Lane, Horsforth. But it was the death of his father, Mick, six years ago, which had a big impact upon him.
“When we were growing up, as brothers we used to fight quite a lot but then when my father passed away [aged 63], it was like. ‘Oh, it’s just me and you now, kid, we have to get on...’ Dad was a director at William Hill but he also ran a haulage company in East Leeds called Shift It.”
His father’s entrepreneurial streak obviously rubbed off on him (and his brother, a car salesman, who Matt says “probably earns more than I do”). But Matt didn’t always take his advice. “I got my first tattoo on my 21st birthday, drunk. Then I got addicted [to them]. My old man didn’t approve.
“He warned me against going into the catering industry. He said you will have no mates, no time and no money... and I’ve still got no mates, no time and no money.”
That’s not strictly true, though, as he has surrounded himself with a reliable, competent, equally driven team of individuals, from his ‘best pal’ and manager Iain Silver, whom he has known 15 years and who was his former best man (Matt is currently going through a divorce), to staff in the kitchen, who include Paul Lapish and Dan Whitaker, who worked at The Foundry previously and Niall Kaye, his sous chef, whom he has known since he was nine and with whom he worked at El Gato Negro, Ripponden, under Simon Shaw.
In a way, his taking over The Foundry, means he has come full circle, having returned to Leeds.
“My first job in the industry was as a pot washer at Fat Franco’s [now Banyan] on New Road Side, Horsforth. It was awful. I was on the bottom rung but I was expected to know everything. I remember being really chuffed when I progressed to chopping parsley. Before that, I didn’t even know what Parsley was. After that, I went to be a commis chef at Bar 166 [formerly Stuart’s Wine Bar, also in Horsforth].”
A City and Guilds later from Thomas Danby College and the rest is history. When The Foundry came up for sale in February, Matt leapt at the chance.
“We had to go for it. We ran it as is for a while but then closed for two weeks to refurbish, most of which seemed to involve sweeping up. The changes are quite dramatic. It was very dark before but we have lightened it a lot. There were times I was looking at the costs and thinking, this is too much. After the relaunch, though, it’s just got busier. We’ve tripled the turnover, we’re booked up on Saturday nights until the end of August.”
Matt and his team were there from 7am to 7pm seven days a week during the refit. In fact, getting involved, even in the nitty gritty, is something which was instilled in him a long time ago.
“I always think back to how Simon was at El Gatto Negro, he would do the washing up, clean the toilets on the basis that if he could do it, there was no reason anyone else couldn’t either. I have the same ethos here. So I will make sure my staff get their time off, I’ll buy them a beer after work. I’m not just there to be swanning about talking to the media.”
The avid Leeds United fan is far more disarming than his pictures suggest, although he does swear a fair bit (though not, it has to be said, as often as Gordon Ramsay, with whom he worked on a series of The F-Word, when El Gato Negro won Best Italian). Indeed, part of the interior decor reflects this. One of the doors inside reads: ‘Food to swear by’, before explaining that sometimes ‘passion’ in the kitchen results in the use of colourful language.
“The designers came up with the swearing thing,” observes Matt. “As I have a bit of a potty mouth and can often be heard using [swearing].”
If his language is colourful, then so is the decor... at least part of it.
A prominent wall mural which greets diners as they walk in - a splash of modernism in what is otherwise a very traditional looking and feeling building which itself dates back to the 19th Century - was done by Nicolas Dixon, whose work can be seen at Sunnybank Mills, Farsley, among other places.
Matt seems pleased with the changes and happy in his skin overall. “I am happy to be back in Leeds, I feel safe here, I know the place, known how to get everywhere, I know the people, it’s home. Leeds has a lot of good restaurants.”
So, does he have his sights set on a Michelin Star?
“That’s not the kind of food we make,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I’d like a Bib Gourmand in the Michelin Guide but it’s not what drives me. Rather, I like to hear good feedback from customers. We do want to grow the brand but I wouldn’t duplicate The Foundry. What we might do is open a coffee shop, patisserie or bar, just doing straight up charcuterie, nibbles and drinks. Or we might go completely off piste and open Pan Asian place.”
He adds: “If I could retire at 45, I’d be a happy man. I would go live in France, buy an old farmhouse, do it up and grow a vineyard.”
Matt Healy at The Foundry
Matt grew up in Horsforth with brother Liam, mother Alison and father Mick. He work as a pot washer at Fat Franco’s Italian (now Banyan). He has worked at El Gato Negro, Ripponden and Terroirs, London. The Foundry is his first restaurant. He and his business partners have plans to expand under the umbrella group Seventh Course Ltd.
The business re-opened in May after a two-week refit. Saturdays are already booked up until the end of August.
The murals inside were done by artist Nicolas Dixon. Matt’s favourite Leeds restaurant (other than his own) is Zucco, Meanwood, his favourite wine bar is Wino, St Paul’s Street. He also praises Liz Cottam’s Home. Matt is a Leeds United fan and has a springer spaniel called Frankie Knuckles.
Leeds boxer Josh Warrington dined at The Foundry the night before his title winning fight. Matt says: “I gave him a bowl of pasta which was almost as big as me and he ate the lot.”
The Foundry runs an a la carte menu Tuesday-Saturday but on Sunday’s lays on a roast, which Matt says ‘is like being at home, without the washing up.’
Matt says he loves being back in Leeds, adding he is aiming for a Michelin Bib Gourmand listing.
He is currently working with M&S as part of a national competition to create ‘the ultimate burger’.