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We still remember Matt

August 17, 2018

In just a few days it will be exactly four years since we lost chef, entrepreneur and philanthropist Matt Haley. There are others recently gone from our restaurant industry that we also miss: Back Porch Cafe partner and Executive Chef Leo Medisch; popular Rehoboth barkeep Darren Beachy; Pete's Steak Shop founder, superdad and entrepreneur Frank Vasilikos; Jim Kiernan, founder of Irish Eyes in Lewes and Milton; beloved bartender and server Palma Salerno; Red Square restaurant owner and lover of rare vodkas Tom Kopunek; Harry Tsoukalas of Robin Hood fame; Cherry Tree Restaurant Group (Stingray) boss Darius Mansoory; revered matriarch of pizza Joan Caggiano; King's Ice Cream maven Tom King; Ristorante Zebra manager Bucky Macsherry; and popular Wheelhouse employee Buddy Hutchison.

I suspect that the recent loss of Palma is what triggered a surprising number of emails asking me to re-run this article printed in the Aug. 29, 2014 edition of the Cape Gazette. When I wrote the original version back in 2011 (sadly, in the present tense), I had no idea that it would run twice again in tribute to the lives of so many of our industry friends lost over the ensuing years. This "day in the life" will sound familiar to anyone and everyone who tends the tables, the bars, the kitchens and offices of our Cape Region eateries. So here goes:

It was February 2011. I was the new kid at the Cape Gazette, single-mindedly determined that every article would be entertaining, if not downright informative. Though the jury's still out on that one, I wanted to reach for the stars. So I sent an email to Matt Haley, the biggest star I could find down here at the beach. I had been enjoying his restaurants for years, and I was impressed.

So imagine my surprise when he vetoed my request for an interview, countering with an invitation to a day's ride-along so I could witness firsthand what he does. He suggested the Friday of President's Day weekend when he would be visiting each of his eateries to make sure they were prepared for the holiday onslaught. 

We met at Lupo di Mare (now Lupo Italian Kitchen). He was on the phone discussing a last-minute menu change with his lead chef (and now vice president of SoDel Concepts), Doug Ruley. Then we were off to Northeast Seafood Kitchen. On our drive there, he explained the structure of his companies, but what impressed me most was that he never answered his phone while he was talking to me. It rang about 10 times. "They'll leave a message," he said, tossing the device aside. Wow. Suddenly I felt important, that I mattered. This was my first glimpse into what made Matt, Matt.

At Northeast Seafood Kitchen, a broken bottle of expensive wine had stained the others in the case. The chef suggests, "How about we offer it by the glass as a special?" "Perfect," says Matt, "good idea." The chef smiles. Haley kibitzes with the fish purveyor, moves some plants around on the patio, and we're back on the road to Catch 54. He quietly instructs a young prep cook on knife skills. We move some benches. He calls the HVAC guy about a recalcitrant compressor. He fixes a set of blinds that won't hang straight. Then he takes me into a deserted building next door and unrolls a set of blueprints. "I'm going to call it Papa Grande's Coastal Taqueria, and I'm really excited about it," he beams. Three years later there were two. (The original Papa's in Fenwick is still going strong.)

At Bluecoast, Chef Doug pushes a plate into Matt's hands. "It's tonight's appetizer special." The boss takes a bite and smiles broadly. "I couldn't have come up with this, Doug. It's delicious." Bluecoast's kitchen is suddenly brighter. Doug was important, and he mattered. And everybody there knew it.

Matt's Fish Camp Bethany was under construction. As Matt pitches in to help position the POS computers, Highwater Management COO Scott Kammerer (now president/CEO of the entire company) asks Matt what color they should paint the dining room walls. Matt looks at me and points. "It should match his shirt." I feel like I'm part of the action. As we climb back into the truck, Matt dispatches a repairman to Lupo di Mare to fix a busted dishwasher. He ends the call with a polite but firm, "Now." (Lupo would be packed within the hour.)

"Take this off of tonight's menu," Haley says to Chef Jesse as he snaps a photo of an overly fatty prime rib at Betty's in Midway. He emails the photo to his meat purveyor with a message consisting of an ominously stark row of question marks. Chef Maurice hands Matt a menu he has assembled for a Korean wedding they are catering. "Maurice, you have put a bit of Delaware into Korean food! Nice job." Maurice beams. He knows he matters and that he's important to his boss.

By this time, Fish On in Lewes is a mob scene. Matt sweeps into the huge kitchen, switching effortlessly between English and Spanish as he addresses each member of his little army. From fry cook to expeditor to busboy, he leaves each of them smiling as he compliments, corrects and fine-tunes his way through the organized chaos.

Matt and I became friends that day. We discovered that our paths had crossed many years before, and that brought us even closer. Every so often he'd stop by my house for coffee, or he'd call at the last minute when he was lighting the grill at his house. I overcame the initial intimidation I felt and invited him over for my fried chicken. He loved it. One time I asked his advice as I was preparing it, and he said, "Do you really want my advice? Yours is better than mine! How long 'til it's ready?" Wow. He really did like it. I'll never forget that moment.

One of the things I'll always remember about our first encounter on that President's Day weekend was the early morning departure from Lupo di Mare. As Matt wound through Rehoboth toward Silver Lake, I asked him why he wasn't taking the more direct route out of town. He pointed to the glistening water and said, "I always come this way. It reminds me of why I'm here." In spite of his almost unimaginable responsibilities, he lived like he was on vacation - and on his own terms.

Matt Haley's foresight as a restaurateur, entrepreneur and philanthropist will be celebrated for years to come. But businesses are nothing more than people, and people aren't perfect. He beat the odds by applying his world-renowned humanitarian efforts right here at home where he made everybody - friends and deserving employees alike - feel appreciated and feel like they mattered. And that's what made Matt, Matt. He will be missed.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.