Haley, 53, killed in motorcycle accident

Chef and restaurateur internationally known for humanitarian work

Date Published: 
August 22, 2014

Local chef and entrepreneur Matt Haley, 53, died Tuesday, Aug. 19, after a head-on, high-impact motorcycle collision in northwestern India. Haley had been on a six-week humanitarian mission to India and Nepal.

Coastal Point • File Photo : Matt Haley was a restaurateur, philanthropist and inspiration to many throughout our community. Even after building himself, and his brand, into a power, Haley seemed to be in true pleasure when cooking, as evidenced at this cooking demonstration he gave at Good Earth Market several years ago.Coastal Point • File Photo : Matt Haley was a restaurateur, philanthropist and inspiration to many throughout our community. Even after building himself, and his brand, into a power, Haley seemed to be in true pleasure when cooking, as evidenced at this cooking demonstration he gave at Good Earth Market several years ago.After colliding with a truck on Monday afternoon local time, Haley was reportedly in critical, but stable, condition and said to be improving. However, he died during a medevac transport at 11:25 p.m. Tuesday night (Wednesday morning, local time), while being airlifted from Leh to a hospital in New Delhi, India.

The 53-year-old had recently been honored with the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year Award, for work in the realm of food that has improved the lives of others and benefited society at large.

“The entire team at the Matt Haley Companies is incredibly saddened by this huge loss. We will release more information as it becomes available,” said Scott Kammerer, president and COO of the Matt Haley Companies, on Wednesday morning.

As extraordinary as such a journey might sound, Haley was no stranger to the Indian subcontinent. He was traveling to bring technology and stoves to a Nepali village, where Kammerer said most people cook over open fires — which pose a risk of potentially fatal respiratory infections and other health issues.

Riding at an elevation of about 18,000 feet, Haley was traveling with a group including international filmmaker and motorcycle expert Guarav Jani and was at the head of the bikers’ formation when he collided head-on with a truck. None of the other motorists were injured.

“Matt is with a group of eight to nine very experienced riders from that area,” Kammerer had told the Coastal Point on Tuesday afternoon, after word of the accident was received locally. “[He’s spent] quite an extensive amount of time in that part of the world.”

Based in Rehoboth Beach, Haley was founder and CEO of the Matt Haley Companies, which includes eight restaurants under the SoDel Concepts umbrella, including NorthEast Seafood Kitchen in Ocean View, Catch 54 near Fenwick Island, Matt’s Fish Camp and Bluecoast Seafood Grill in North Bethany, Lupo Di Mare in Rehoboth Beach, Fish On! in Lewes, and Papa Grande’s, with locations in Rehoboth Beach and near Fenwick Island. He also founded Plate Catering, Highwater Management and Haley/Kammerer, a hospitality consulting business.

“I was on the beach yesterday in Rehoboth Beach,” Haley posted on Facebook on Aug. 11. “Today I’ll be on a motorcycle headed to Lahdak, India, for a three-week high-altitude motorcycle ride at heights up to 18,500 feet on the highest and, some say, most dangerous roads in the world, on the Pakistan border, with some badass Indian buddies of mine.”

Then, he said, he planned to continue to Kathmandu, Nepal, for a week with his “daughters” — three Nepalese girls with whom he’d bonded on a trip years prior, whose education he sponsors and who inspired his ever-expanding humanitarian work. After coming home for some fresh clothes, he said, he’d be off to Mexico City.

In 2011, Haley founded the nonprofit Global Delaware Fund, with a goal of protecting children, locally globally and locally, as well supporting arts and education. The India-Nepal trip was part of his work with GDF.

“He knew the area very well, and he’s been there many times,” Kammerer said on Tuesday.

In last five years, Kammerer noted, the Matt Haley Companies had stepped up its corporate structure so Haley could travel extensively for business and charitable work without getting bogged down in day-to-day operations.

“We had planned on Matt being away two months,” said Kammerer on Tuesday. The accident occurred on Day 10 of the trip.

“We have an experienced, tight-knit staff, and we will keep all eight of our restaurants running smoothly while he is recuperating,” Kammerer said after word was received about Haley’s accident.

An extraordinary life

Haley has always helped people, while thinking of those who first helped him.

“There was a time I really didn’t want to live,” he told the Coastal Point in February. “And those people went out of their way … taught me how to live.”

Raised in Washington, D.C., Haley had experienced challenges early in life. When his mother left his father, she and her children slept several nights in a car until they found a shelter. Haley had originally learned the culinary arts in his early 30s, while recovering from drug and alcohol abuse in a rehabilitation facility.

From earning his first job after being locked up, to opening his first restaurants on the Delaware coast in the early 2000s, “It was a challenge for me to clean up my life … and put myself on the right path,” he said, expressing his continued gratitude to “a group of people who stood by me. … I really think challenges are opportunities to get to know yourself,” he said.

This July, Haley was proud of staying sober for 24 years.

He was declared officially cancer-free on Aug. 5.

Haley had walked a long road to enjoy the business success he achieved, but he leveraged that success to travel worldwide to pay it forward.

“The most important thing in my life is not only to be available but support other people who need help,” Haley said in February, “to be able to be a positive example … only because someone was positive in my life.”

At the time, Haley was on his way to Nepal, where three little girls call him “Dad.” Eight years ago, Haley had first sponsored the orphaned sisters Laxmi and Leela, later helping them find their other sister, Jyoti.

Coastal Point • File Photo : Haley during a rare moment when he was sitting still.Coastal Point • File Photo : Haley during a rare moment when he was sitting still.He then widened his vision to all of Nepal, where the charitable arm of his companies has sent dollars and man-hours to build and rebuild schools, group homes and an orphanage.

Founded by Haley in 2011, the Global Delaware Fund has done much of that work, providing goods and services to people at-risk in challenging circumstances, both in Delaware and globally.

He touched the lives of not only those who needed his help but those who held positions where they could appreciate and aid in his mission.

Just last month, Gov. Jack Markell and his wife, Carla, “were inspired by his plans to bring his message of making the most of second chances and the importance of a healthy recovery to people across Delaware and the country,” the governor recalled on Wednesday. “He was a world-class humanitarian, and we will miss him greatly. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”

Many people called Haley an inspiration who was not only successful, but who “worked tirelessly to leverage his success for the good of others,” as U.S. Rep. John Carney (D-Del.) wrote on Wednesday.

U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (also D-Del.) said he was grateful that his last encounter with Haley was in trying to help someone.

“The weekend before Matt left for India, I met a woman in Dover — a recovering addict who couldn’t find work because she couldn’t find anyone willing to take a chance on her and to believe in her. I told her Matt’s story and the incredible life he’d made after the mistakes of his youth,” Coons wrote.

“I called Matt the next day, and he leapt at the opportunity to help her. He took her number and promised to call her right away, because he was getting on a plane the next morning. He told me about the trip and the risks involved. He couldn’t wait to see his dear friends in Nepal, and he was excited to fulfill a promise he had made to a friend in the region.”

“Delaware and the world lost a great humanitarian last night,” U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) added on Wednesday. “While many people knew Matt as a great chef and restaurateur, my deepest respect came from meeting him in his role as a board member for La Esperanza, an organization that supports the integration and empowerment of the Hispanic community in Sussex County. I was both touched and impressed by his servant leadership and efforts to bring hope to so many both here and abroad.”

Since Haley joined the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation Board of Directors in 2012, representatives of the charitable group wrote, his “impact on our organization’s operations and outlook was immediate. … His passion for food and philanthropy was infectious, and he used both to improve the lives of others. We know that he left his mark on this world both locally and globally, and we will forever be grateful for his service to our organization and our community.”

Coastal Point Publisher Susan Lyons remembered his “you can do anything … if you put your mind to it” mentality. “He would have a vision and see it through to fruition,” she said. “I recall several times we just sat and had long conversations about work ethic and expectations of employees, and how he juggled so many different ventures.

“The impact that he made on this community has been tremendous, and we will all feel his loss in more ways than we can count. He was a person that truly made a difference, and it was a privilege to know him.”

“It’s surely sad to lose someone like that in the community. I got to spend a few years of my life working with him,” said Steve Hagan of restaurants Just Hooked and Off the Hook. “The things that I got to do with him and learn… He left behind a huge legacy. My thoughts and [prayers go out to him,] his family, his company. It’s just a huge loss. It’s just tough [to say more].”

Staff at the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce spoke to Haley’s “character, compassion and vision. He created a standard of excellence as a restaurateur and humanitarian. His story is inspirational and will have a lasting legacy in the Quiet Resorts. We are proud to call Matt Haley ‘one of our own.’”

“Devastating” was the only word Sue Ryan could use to describe the loss. The owner of Good Earth Market said Haley “has been a friend and supporter to us for over 10 years [who] mentored and employed my children… There’s just so much. I don’t even know what to say. It is a huge loss to us and a community that loves him.”

She said she had seen Haley just before he left, to discuss their annual Farm-to-Table dinner.

“I personally had never seen him as happy as he was… He was in such a good place. That’s what I’m clinging to.”

“Matt got a second chance at life and vowed to seize it,” Coons wrote. “He was a reminder to all of us that we should embrace life and live it fully and graciously and gratefully every single day. His spirit, enthusiasm and creativity were infectious. He endlessly sought and found opportunities to make a difference in people’s lives. He didn’t seek attention for his good works, but he certainly deserved it.”

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations in Haley’s honor may be sent to the Global Delaware Fund; P.O. Box 49; Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971 or online at www.theglobaldelawarefund.com.