Matty Matheson walks into his office in a purple toque and torn Prince shirt and lights up a grey COVID morning with a smile. “I had way more ego when I was a druggie chef, I was just like a little bit of a monster,” says Matheson, who’s 38 years old with a baby face and lived-in authenticity that’s equal parts kid at recess and Albus Dumbledore. “I make people laugh and get people cooking, two things that bring joy and I clicked into that and that’s genuine. I’m putting the energy out there, but I’m getting back so much more. It’s about giving to different charities—that’s what’s up.”
Matheson says he has no desire to be the world’s greatest chef. He doesn’t need to be the most popular person on the internet and doesn’t care if people think he’s only well known because of wild drug stories, tattoos all over his body or pictures he’s posted wearing no clothes. It’s been twelve years since Matheson opened his first restaurant in Toronto and eight years that he’s been sober. When COVID-19 wiped away all of his 2020 engagements—which was the only way he’d been earning money since 2015—the father of three from Saint John, New Brunswick, went back to his roots. He opened a restaurant, then did it again. And again. He had a third child, published a cookbook and totally reinvented himself in the kitchen, after spending years honing his personality on YouTube and TV. His brand is larger-than-life and his appearance is bright and bold. But behind the scenes and in a respectful, cool way, Matheson, a two-time New York Times bestselling cookbook author, credits his success to his wife.
“I’m only able to move the way I am because I have 100% trust in my wife and my wife has 100% trust in me,” Matheson says, in an interview at his headquarters in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, just a block away from where he began his journey as one of Canada’s most notoriously popular chefs. “She’s the one that says green light/red light and the only person who can tell me to stop or keep going and that partnership—complete trust, loyalty, understanding and communication—is the major reason I can move the way I am. I’m doing it for us.”
For everyone, doing it in 2020 has become difficult, and the restaurant industry has been hit especially hard. Some accounts say that as many as half of all Canadian restaurants will close in the ripple of COVID-19. But Matheson, who opened Parts & Labour in Toronto at 26 and lived like a rockstar until a heart attack, at 29, forced him to change, had no choice but to return to the kitchen. He says he had six months of paid appearances planned all over the world before March, 2020. When the masks came out, however, his revenue stream disappeared.
“People think I’m some kind of millionaire, but I’m not. I’m cheque to cheque like everybody else and when COVID hit, I had zero money coming in—and a third kid on the way,” says Matheson, who is entirely self-funded, no angel investor, no corporate backing, no silver spoon. “COVID brought me back to basics—what can I do right now to earn? The answer was to sell food.”
Selling food, for a man more well known, perhaps, for his Vice shows like Munchies and Dead Set on Life or his podcast with Native Angeleno called Powerful Truth Angels, had almost become a previous profession before celebrity took hold. But the power brokers of Canadian food criticism all stand by Matheson’s chops.
“He’s the real deal,” says Amy Rosen, author of five cookbooks and former food editor at both Chatelaine and House & Home magazines.
Mark Pupo, who wrote restaurant reviews for Toronto Life and is now editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest Canada says, “He’s one of the most famous personalities in the Canadian food world, and brought some legitimacy to a kind of hybrid steakhouse-bistro-roadside diner style of cooking,” and Chris Nuttall-Smith, a judge on Top Chef Canada, and former restaurant reviewer for both Toronto Life and the Globe & Mail wrote recently on Instagram: “Don’t tell anyone but Matty Matheson is a REAL FUCKING CHEF and his new cookbook is a work of twisted, magical, beautifully honest, deliciously heartfelt genius.”
A lot of people can't earn right now but if I can make a dollar I'll give a percentage to an organization that can help people and that's the new mentality of me and my team.
Talking about these accolades with Matheson, he seems appreciative, but also knows that he can’t control public perception or critical tastes. He admits that his chef friends took umbrage of his growing fame and he knows his persona can make people underestimate his gifts. Matheson, however, says he’s comfortable in his lane.
“When I started doing more content and leaving the kitchen, chefs started making fun of me and I was getting trolled by my friends for being a TV guy,” Matheson says. “I’ve had to deal with, ‘Is he even a chef?’ forever and the thing is, I can’t control people’s thoughts or concerns or how they feel or anything like that and I’m not worried about it. I just want to go to work again and I’m really grateful we can make it happen during these times.”
During these times, when Canadian food banks are seeing as much as a 200% increase in needy families and nearly a million jobs have been erased from the economy since the start of COVID-19, Matheson says he’s no longer content serving heaping plates of cheeseburgers, pizza or macaroni and cheese. This time, Matheson is returning to the kitchen with a newfound purpose. He doesn’t rely as much on shock and awe as he does on teamwork and compassion. Even before the burgers from Matty’s Pattys began selling out, Chef had decided that charitable donations would help chart his new way.
“Before we opened, we decided to give a dollar from every combo to Women’s Place, which is a women’s shelter organization and it just feels like with everything we’re doing now, we have to be giving on top,” says Matheson, who now runs Meat + Three, Matty’s Patty’s, and Maker Pizza, in addition to Matheson Cookware. (There’s also a clothing line—not merchandise—coming soon).
“A lot of people can’t earn right now, but if I can make a dollar I’ll give a percentage to an organization that can help people and that’s the new mentality of me and my team,” he adds. “I feel gratitude that I'm able to do what I love doing and provide for my family and giving back, I know, is such a big win for our team.”
Of course, between the public eye, three new restaurants, a cookbook to flog, a family of three and the everyday rigours of business, life and COVID-19, the walls can sometimes feel as if they’re closing in. For many of us, the holidays can be a difficult time, and Matheson, though often lighting up rooms with his smile, isn’t taking anything for granted. He’s careful to always prioritize his mental health.
“The biggest key to my success is I have worked on myself and because of the work I’ve done in the program, I live in a 24-hour period,” he says. “I don’t think about tomorrow until I wake up and I’m able to do that because I only live for today.”
Whatever Matty Matheson’s dreams were as a young chef on the road with a punk band and a habit have morphed over time into an adult's more serene reality of a life of service. He makes comfort food at affordable prices and employs as many as 40 people at any one time while dropping a cheque off every week to women in need. On Instagram, he regularly posts pictures of his wife and daughters and this holiday season, he’s encouraging all of us to spread warmth and love. Throughout our interview, he smiles.
“I’m not willing to roll over people constantly to get what I want. I’d rather hold hands and walk down the road with the people around me and get it all together,” he says. “The biggest thing I’m learning is that life is about people and if you can pull out the good and nurture it and understand it, I think we can all build our little worlds—and watch them grow.”
I'm not willing to roll over people constantly to get what I want. I'd rather hold hands and walk down the road with the people around me and get it all together.
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