At 10 a.m., Matt Haley—white-haired, goateed and bare-shouldered—is preparing stuffed peppers. One is tempted to think a professional chef would have a far more elaborate kitchen at home, but his is surprisingly spare. It is equipped with nice appliances, but only the basics—fridge, oven, range and an overworked coffeemaker, all arranged in a functional triangle for easy working—typical of any upscale suburban home.
The peppers, however, are anything but typical. They rest in a casserole dish on the counter, all bright yellow and orange and red and striking to look at, awaiting a sauce of pumpkin and squash that Haley is taking great pains at this moment to roast perfectly before puréeing.
This is the Haley approach to cooking. His food is simple but surprising, familiar yet unique. It is the food you grew up on tweaked to suit your now-more-sophisticated palate—a tuna casserole of seared ahi with homemade noodles and exotic mushrooms, a salad of shaved brussels sprouts with white truffle oil and curls of good Romano.
It is food that, in only a few short years, has made his group of restaurants, starting with Bluecoast Seafood Grill in Bethany, the most successful in the state.
“There’s something about taking a risk to be simple,” Haley says. “A little olive oil and salt is all you need to help taste the pumpkin better. A pumpkin tastes great as a pumpkin. I learned that cooking in an orphanage in Nepal. I had turnips and rice. I blanched the turnips, then added the greens. It was one of the best meals I’ve had in my life because it was so pure.” And because, he says, “When you eat with 180 kids who only eat once a day, food tastes a whole lot better.”
There are a whole lot of hungry kids in Nepal, and it breaks Haley’s heart. In any other year, he’d be there right now. Helping those children, as well as scores of kids here at home, has helped him succeed in business, and it is the best reason to continue in business, for it allows Haley to be of service on a scale far beyond anything he imagined a few years ago, when he was riding the bus to work for damned near minimum wage. Which is good, because in this life, after years of not caring whether he lived or died, helping others is the most important thing he can do. If there is one thing he has learned, it is that service is happiness.
On the morning his life began—not to be confused with the day he was born—Matt Haley and a girlfriend had been holed up in his house for three or four days, smoking crack and freebasing cocaine. He hadn’t slept in all that time. He felt delirious, “probably schizophrenic.” When he took his dog outside for a walk, everything in view, he says, turned yellow.
As Haley shuffled down the sidewalk, two men in suits approached. Haley knew what was coming, and before it came, he needed to get high one last time. So he rushed home, to the basement. As he tore into a large package of cocaine, a SWAT team crashed in. Haley laid himself face down and burst into tears. “Everything went out of me, all my pain, all my insecurities,” he says, “Crazy as I was, part of me knew I had a chance to live.”
For most of his life before the bust, Haley had been pissed off and terrified. He’d been beaten regularly by his drunken father. In first grade, he had been molested regularly by a Catholic nun, he says. At age 8 he was put on Thorazine to dampen his anxiety. When he was taken off it, he became a world-class troublemaker. In sixth grade, he started drinking and smoking weed. During a school dance in 10th grade, he did coke for the first time.
Haley’s behavior got him kicked out of 13 schools in 12 years. He managed to graduate only because he supplied pot to the teacher who supervised his independent study off campus. He finished senior year with straight As.
As a result, the University of Maryland, Penn State, even a couple of the Ivies recruited Haley, a good athlete like his older brothers, to play football. But he had no real interest in the game. He liked drugs. He liked doing them. He liked dealing them. He liked going out for a Saturday night with a big baggie full of blow and $20,000 to spend on booze and hookers. “It always ended the same way,” he says. “Four days later I’d wake up in a $19 hotel with half my clothes off saying, ‘How did I get here?’”
His dealing and bingeing only increased over the years. By the time he was busted, Haley was dealing in quantities he understates as “a whole lot.” He was using quantities he describes the same way. And he hated himself. He was lonely and miserable, feeling unworthy of love and praying for God to kill him.
At his sentencing hearing, Haley, then 29, was staring down 43 years in prison, with no chance for parole. His mother pleaded with the judge to lock up her son. It seemed the only way to save his life. A miscommunication between local and federal authorities led to a sentence of 13 years. He served part of his time in Fairfax Adult Detention Center, part of it in a long-term habilitation facility. Thanks to a loophole in the law, he was released in four years. It was a break Haley has never failed to appreciate.
As part of his vocational rehabilitation, Haley learned to cook. Food took him back to the good times with his mom. Her work schedule forced her to be efficient. On Sundays, she’d make a roast for her five kids. On Mondays, the leftovers would be served as stroganoff. On Tuesday, she sliced the remaining roast for sandwiches. And so on through the week.
“When I was 8, we boycotted,” Haley says. “My mom said, ‘If you want better food, learn to cook.’” So he did. It felt good to go shopping with his mother, to work by her side and help the family. And he was good at it. By the time he was 12, he could help with Thanksgiving dinner. “I always remember that as fun.”
In recovery, he found peace in cooking. And he discovered a passion for food. He’d spend Sundays preparing meals for the week, as his mom used to do. He scoured recipe books. He studied the cuisine and careers of famous chefs. He bought a nice knife. He found a job. He learned all he could from his chef while developing his own style. When he landed a $28,000-a-year job running the kitchen at one of the popular Rockland’s BBQ restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area, he thought he’d hit the big time.
An old friend eventually hooked Haley up with some investors. Together, they opened Tommie Joe’s in Bethesda, Md. From day one in February 1998, the place went gangbusters—until they lost use of the parking lot across the street three months later. As business dwindled, Haley’s relationship with the investors grew tense. Their different lifestyles also got in the way. “They liked drinking and I didn’t,” Haley says. He hung in until September. “Then I decided not to be partners with those guys. I left town. I kind of ran away.”
Haley migrated to Ocean City, N.J., where he spent a few months cooking at a friend’s bed-and-breakfast for $30 a day and a room, then washing dishes at an Italian joint in the evenings—just so he could eat meatballs. He’d failed at business. He’d failed in a romantic relationship. He didn’t have a plan. Old fears and insecurities—feelings of isolation and unworthiness—loomed.
A short time later, friends called to ask if he’d look at a new project in Rehoboth Beach, a restaurant called Third Edition on Lake Avenue. Haley ended up running the place for a year. Driving home one day from an AA meeting in Ocean City, Md., he stopped into the old Bethany Produce-Luna Tuna property in Bethany Beach .
“I knew then and there I’d buy it,” Haley says. “The place was a dump, but I saw it and felt it.”
The property wasn’t for sale, so Haley went about his business. A few weeks later, out of nowhere, the owner called. She wanted $1.25 million for the business and property. He offered $830,000 and she accepted. After paying $211,000, thanks to a private investor, he took over.
In May 2001 Haley opened the place as Red Fin. Among other things that first night, he served potato-crusted halibut with tomato-veal gravy and green beans with roasted garlic, “crazy stuff I would never do now.” There were 27 diners that evening. Three weeks later there were 350.
It was a good summer. Then the 9-11 attacks happened and the economy crashed, especially at the beach. Red Fin could have been a disaster, but “it was amazing,” Haley says. “Vendors who were selling to me really stretched out. I was extended a line of credit that first off-season to pay bills. I never asked for anything”—another break he has never failed to appreciate.
Haley limped through the winter. By spring, U.S. Air’s Attaché magazine had named Red Fin one of its top 10 destination restaurants. The News Journal gave its first four-star rating in four years. With a promising business and a much-improved property, Red Fin appraised at $3.2 million. “Suddenly,” he says, “the bank wanted to give me whatever I wanted.”
A short time later, Haley’s partner kicked him out. While Haley sued for ownership, he poured his energy into opening another restaurant, Fish On! Seafood Grill and Bar in Lewes. The suit settled in 2005. Haley was in charge again, but, in his absence, Red Fin had gone downhill. He cleaned house and changed the name to Bluecoast Seafood Grill to “clear the air and keep my reputation.” Old fans returned. Then Fish On! launched. Within weeks, he also opened Northeast Seafood Company in Ocean View.
“One restaurant led to three overnight,” Haley says. In 2007 he opened Catch 54 in Fenwick Island. The following year came Lupo di Mare in Rehoboth Beach. Then came Matt’s Fish Camp in Bethany, a catering business, and other ventures. Haley had once told a friend he’d open five places in five years. “I opened six.”
Other local restaurateurs noticed. They started paying Haley for advice, and he worked wonders for them. Now he’s just about the biggest thing going.
“Looking back, I can’t believe we built one of the biggest restaurant groups in the state,” says Scott Kammerer, Haley’s business partner. “Did we set out to do that, or was it a result of good practices? I really don’t know.”
Kammerer, a native of New Jersey, studied hotel and asset management at Cornell. He followed his girlfriend, a local, to Rehoboth, where he apprenticed as a chef at the old Garden Gourmet and worked at Royal Treat for ice cream. He and Haley met at a Brew HaHa! Haley was still at Third Edition. By then Kammerer was working at Jake’s Seafood House. They hit it off.
“I came to town with $38 and a bicycle. Matt had a bus pass,” Kammerer jokes.
As partners for the past 12 years, they own SoDel Concepts, which owns Bluecoast and the other restaurants, and a consulting company, Highwater Management, that also operates restaurants for other owners. Haley is the vision and concept guy. Kammerer is the “systems guy.” “He loves doing everything I don’t want to do,” Haley says. “He gets things done.”
The companies were built on the practice of offering quality dining at a fair price. They succeed on a culture of caring for their customers, honorable business practices, and a strict adherence to rules. “No drinking, no drugs, no cells, no significant others hanging around,” Haley says. “We don’t have shift drinks. Late is late. Twice you’re written up. Three times and you’re fired, even if it’s July 4 weekend,” when every restaurant at the beach can use all the help it can get.
SoDel and Highwater now employ 700 to 800 people during the summers—“and 95 percent of them love coming to work,” Haley says. The businesses generate about $50 million in revenue, about $4 million in state taxes. Haley and Kammerer now have the luxury of turning down offers for consulting contracts. Though they are currently developing restaurants for ownership groups in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, they are committed to doing business with local purveyors. SoDel-Highwater’s buying power has become so great, it compelled a major fish house from Maryland to move to Delaware.
In a word, business is good. Life is good.
Over the years, Haley has hosted many fundraisers for others. During an event at one of his restaurants, to raise money for his work in Nepal, he saw a photo of a young girl. In an instant, “something happened,” something deep and real and almost mystical. He promised to pay for the girl’s education. “Twenty minutes after I decided to sponsor her, I found out she had a sister.” He pledged money for her, too. Haley and the girls began to write to each other. They started Skyping. “Then one night at 3 a.m., I woke up in tears. I had to do something, so I booked a flight to Nepal.
“I landed in Kathmandu. I was standing there, when I felt a tap on my back. There were two kids smiling. I fell apart. I fell to my knees, wrapped my arms around them and started crying.” As it turned out, the girls had another sister. Haley helped find her. When he discovered that, unbeknownst to them, they had several other sisters, he reunited them all. Without natural children of his own, Haley considers the original trio to be his own daughters.
After that trip, Haley and Kammerer established the Global Delaware Fund. Among other things, Global Delaware has helped fund a school for 80 children in Nepal, build a hydroelectric plant to power the building, and create two ponds so the children can learn about aquaculture.
He estimates that Global Delaware has touched about 10,000 lives. Haley has helped build chicken houses to start people in the poultry industry. He has funded a radio station for a group of blind people who broadcast information about civil rights. When the government cut funding to a school for teaching Christian practices, Haley financed the educations of 50 kids who would have been put out on the street. And he has several times put his personal safety at risk to rescue
children from corrupt orphanages, children who otherwise would have been sold into sexual slavery or illegal overseas adoptions.
Here at home he has yanked kids out of crack houses, talked kids back into rehab, taught kids to cook, become a mentor and a friend. He has been involved with Boys & Girls Clubs and the Food Bank. He has chaired massive food fundraisers for Meals on Wheels. He has volunteered for Children and Families First and Chicks for Charities. The list of organizations and activities goes on.
“I wish there were more people like Matt,” says Sister Maria Mairlot of La Esperanza, an organization established to help Latino immigrants in Southern Delaware. “The world would be a much different place.”
As president of the La Esperanza board, Haley oversaw a difficult but necessary change in executive leadership in September. “He has been a godsend,” Sister Maria says. “He has come here every day. He has five or six restaurants, yet he still found time to come and support our staff. The sisters love him.”
Even hanging out on the porch, talking with neighborhood buddies about the trials and tribulations of everyday life, Haley makes himself fully available.
“After addiction, many people want to make themselves safe. Matt doesn’t want to stay safe all the time,” says his good friend James Keegan. “He’s stepping out into life. That explorer mentality is one I admire.”
Though a chef, Haley hadn’t realized he was a creative personality until he got sober. Now creative expression is something he nurtures in himself and encourages in others. “When people can’t express themselves, that’s when they get messed up.”
In Nepal, where all forms of child abuse are accepted as normal, Haley sponsors writing and poetry programs. He has set up pen pal exchanges between American kids and Nepalese. The local library holds his credit card so it can buy materials. Global Delaware Fund has endowed 15 scholarships for Latino kids who want to study at The Music School of Delaware. Again, the list of activities goes on.
Haley has also become a collector. “When I got sober, I started collecting anything art—and everything is art.” The walls of his home are hung with work by artists he has befriended, including Jeff Schaller, of Downingtown, Pa., famous for his paintings in the sitcom “Friends.”
“There’s just a great appreciation he has for art, for food,” Schaller says. “There’s a simplicity to it and a passion. I’ll go out in the woods and shoot something, then make duck prosciutto and tell him about it. He’ll drive to Virginia to get a special ham just to make some recipe.”
Haley also paints occasionally. “My work sucks, but I don’t paint for you. I paint for me. It makes me happy. It was something I’d been looking for my whole life. I didn’t get it then. I get it now.”
That need to express has led to larger endeavors. Haley and Kammerer’s SoDel Studios produced “Hands of Harvest,” a documentary about Mexican women who work as crab pickers on the Eastern Shore. It premiered on PBS two summers ago. He plans to do more in film. He’s also publishing a cookbook, due out soon, and an autobiography.
Clearly, his is a story worth sharing.
Usually, Haley would have been in Nepal at this time of year. This fall is different. “A lot of stuff needs to be flat-lined.” La Esperanza needs him. He’s opening new restaurants. He needed to make a video for the Cornerstone Awards, the Delaware Restaurant Association’s annual award for smart business and community service. Haley is this year’s honoree. It’s all part of the constant whirl of his life.
“Last year was a crazy-ass year,” he says. First, Catch 54 went up in flames. “There was a hurricane, an earthquake, a tornado—then I had to put my cat down.”
He also suspected a health problem. He told the doctor, “Test me for everything. I’ll be back in November.” While he was in Nepal, the doctor called, asked him to come home, told Haley he had prostate cancer.
“I asked the doctor, ‘What do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘Eat right, be happy. We’ll get you into Johns Hopkins in January.’” So Haley went to Europe, visited some friends, ate at his favorite restaurants. Then he came home for surgery. Two days after his procedure, his mother—the person who loved him most and set the example of service to others—almost died. Haley, recuperating, was unable to see her. Luckily, she recovered quickly.
“It’s been the best year of my life,” Haley says, lifting the hem of his T-shirt to show eight scars in his torso. “Getting cancer happened for me, not to me. There wasn’t one second I wasn’t cool with this. It didn’t scare me at all.”
Emotionally reborn—again—Haley has things to do. He’s building a restaurant in Kathmandu. He has invested in a vineyard in Italy. He intends to ramp up efforts to make the state improve substance abuse and treatment programs for the incarcerated and to institute effective vocational rehab programs like the one that saved him. There are other people he needs to help, and all those kids.
“I’ll never stop doing this, and if something happens to me, my whole life goes to the project,” Haley says. “It’s what makes me happiest.”