Haley reflects on power of example, opportunity

Date Published: 
February 21, 2014

To give some context to the scale of Matt Haley’s selection as James Beard Foundation Humanitarian of the Year: Emeril Lagasse won the honor in 2013. And that’s just a taste of Haley’s potential career arc, with film crews and authors hovering at the restaurateur’s back door.

Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark : Chef and restaurateur Matt Haley is being honored as the 2014 James Beard Foundation Humanitarian of the Year for his good works at home and abroad.Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark : Chef and restaurateur Matt Haley is being honored as the 2014 James Beard Foundation Humanitarian of the Year for his good works at home and abroad.But apart from Haley’s culinary chops — owning seven local restaurants through SoDel Concepts, producing films, catering, consulting and so much more — the award is about hands-on humanitarianism.

The annual awards, as a whole, celebrate outstanding achievement in the food world, from great cuisine to great promoters and writers. But the single Humanitarian of the Year honor awarded each year goes to someone whose work in the realm of food has improved the lives of others and benefited society at large.

Haley has walked a long road to enjoy the business success he has today, but he travels worldwide to pay it forward. In fact, when the announcement of his selection came on Feb. 3, he was actually vacationing in Puerto Rico, working part-time on a food truck. When Haley travels, he dives headfirst into that world, which has accounted for his ongoing relationships abroad — most notably in Nepal.

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

He’s thinking of three little girls living 7,000 miles away in Nepal who call him “Dad.” It was a total fluke that Haley had agreed to cook at a Himalayan Children’s Charities (HCC) fundraiser years ago. He leafed through the charity’s booklet and was enchanted by a child’s smile. He immediately decided to sponsor orphaned sisters Laxmi and Leela.

Encouraged as a sponsor to exchange letters with them, only two years passed before his heart was pulled to go meet them in person. When the girls tugged on his jacket in Kathmandu, it was the most incredible moment for them all, to truly begin a parent-child relationship, he said.

Almost eight years later, they’re as close as ever, visiting for a month at a time several times each year, adventuring together and even finding their sister Jyoti.

Haley has also looked beyond his dear girls to work within Nepal at large. The charitable arm of his companies has sent dollars and man-hours to build, rebuild and fund schools, group homes and an orphanage. They provide scholarships to handicapped women to attend culinary school. Jobs at a coffee farm give women opportunities to avoid getting trapped in sex slavery. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, internationally.

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.

“It has to stretch farther out,” Haley said. “We believe the success of our business is a byproduct of our involvement … an hour here, an hour there. A dollar here, a dollar there. If you really want to be involved, be involved here and there.”

For every dollar spent abroad by the Global Delaware Fund, another dollar goes locally to La Esperanza, the Delaware Adolescent Program Inc., Meals on Wheels, Children & Families First, the Delaware Food Bank, the Rehoboth Summer Children’s Theatre and the Children’s Beach House.

“I couldn’t begin to list the amount of agencies or organizations we’re involved with. It’s not me. It’s the Global Delaware Fund,” he said, which does “anything from helping turtles cross the road to being directly involved with human trafficking. … I did not win this award. We won this award. I am involved with some of the greatest people on earth,” privately and professionally, he said.

Haley reflected the credit for the award back to the people he has worked with, those who let him contribute to their visions — starting with the man who first hired him after he’d been locked up.

Haley sees every challenge as an opportunity to turn life around.

As the Coastal Point has reported in the past, Haley learned to cook as a vocational skill in his early 30s while recovering from drug and alcohol abuse in a rehabilitation facility. (He’s now working to develop a similar program in Delaware.) When released, his newfound talent led him upward through several restaurants and a management position at a friend’s beachfront spot in Rehoboth Beach. That eventually led him to opening Bluecoast Seafood Grill in North Bethany in 2001.

“It was a challenge for me to clean up my life over 20 years ago and put myself on the right path,” he said, recalling “a group of people who understood stood by me … I really think challenges are opportunities to get to know yourself.”

He is still most proud of staying sober (“Without that, there’s nothing else”), which came after a shaky childhood.

“I watched my mom, as a young boy, leave a very volatile relationship in a time when women weren’t leaving. It took guts to put five of us in a car and leave a man,” Haley said. “I was learning — without knowing I was learning — from my mother, to never settle for less.”

Haley had his own demons to deal with, but allowing people to help is a strong element of his life and the example he tries to set now.

“I think the greatest thing you can give another human being is the gift of example. I don’t think I could be an example today if someone wasn’t for me,” Haley said. “For being a young guy … who didn’t know a whole lot about compassion,” those Nepalese girls gave him that power, he said. “Getting to be involved with them … opened my heart and mind to so many more possibilities in the world.

“My life is no longer about the center of the plate,” said Haley, whose restaurants frequently host charity events. “We are learning to leverage our business for good.”

But it’s not just about writing checks. He’s showing up. He has cooked at farm-to-table dinners, slept on city streets to raise awareness about homelessness and traveled to Nicaragua in an effort to empower low-income children and adults.

In the next few months, Haley will deliver a luncheon lecture in New York; travel to Chicago, Nepal and Cambodia; act as a chef for the MidAtlantic Food & Wine Festival; cook for several weddings; look at potential properties at his Italian vineyard and hotel; and motorbike across India for three weeks.

“I love it all, man,” Haley said. “It’s what I love. … That’s just what I do.”

Haley gives a shout-out to the First State: “Delaware’s been very good to me. Southern Delaware, it’s never turned its back on me.”

Haley will be honored at this year’s James Beard Awards —one of the culinary industry’s most prestigious programs — on May 5 at Lincoln Center in New York City.

On Feb. 19, the James Beard Foundation announced semifinalists in the 2014 Restaurant and Chef Award categories. As a measure of the small state’s increasingly large culinary cachet, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton has returned to the Outstanding Wine, Spirits or Beer Professional list this year. Wilmington’s Bryan Sikora was nominated as Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic, for La Fia bakery, market and bistro. The final set of honorees will be announced March 18, with the awards presented in May.

“I’m incredibly grateful for it. It came out of nowhere,” said Haley of the honor, overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. “My first thoughts were the hundreds of people who have helped me along the way. There was a time I really didn’t want to live. And those people went out of their way, who taught me how to live.”