The winning combination of a television MasterChef and Middlesbrough Football Club Foundation is helping members of a community recover from the impact of the pandemic.
They are learning more about cooking and meeting new friends through a project called Kitchen Therapy.
Kitchen Therapy was launched in 2019 by Chef Matei Baran together with MFC Foundation and helped a group of unemployed people learn new skills which led to some of them securing jobs or college places.
It was one of the Foundation’s leading projects when it opened its office in Loftus in September 2019 to help tackle the problems associated with people living in the isolated communities of East Cleveland.
Kitchen Therapy 2 had successfully got underway when it was halted by the lockdown. Now it is back, working in Brotton with students who attend the KTS Academy special school and – on alternate weeks – bringing together members of the community at the Hunley Hotel and Golf Club.
Chef Matei, who reached the quarter final of MasterChef: The Professionals in 2016, helps the group prepare dishes – from parmos to Thai green curries – and sets challenges to make at home.
He chose Sue Twiby’s mango chutney as the winner of his latest test. Sue, who lives on her own Liverton and whose granddaughter plays for Middlesbrough Women FC’s junior team, said she was particularly thrilled because she had never made it before.
Sue said she is enjoying trying new recipes and – after months of isolation – mixing with people again.
“Lockdown was difficult, but I tended to walk a lot. That was how I filled my time because I couldn’t exercise any other way,” she said. Through Kitchen Therapy she hopes her cooking will become more adventurous, but that is not the only attraction. “I love the company. It’s a great group. I met them at the walking football sessions organised by the Foundation,” she said.
Denise Nesbitt from Liverton Village said: “We’ve had a pretty bad year really with the pandemic. When you’ve got food at the heart of everything you get people talking. We work together as a team and then we all sit down and have a nice meal.”
Lifelong Boro fan Alan Jackson has just stopped working after managing an eel farm for 33 years. He lives on his own in Liverton Mines. “I retired in March. It’s been a strange time. That’s why I joined the Foundation, to do walking football and then I started this course three weeks ago,” he said.
“I thought I would give it a go and come and enjoy it. I want to learn more about spices. The chicken tikka masala was very nice but there’s that many ingredients I’d probably forget what I need to put in.”
The Foundation’s Community Engagement Coordinator for East Cleveland, Gary Walton, said: “We have worked up a close relation with Chef Matei. He understands what we’re trying to achieve and we’re grateful for someone with his skills and enthusiasm to be on board.
“We’re all learning, all the time. There are different challenges – and not just those in the kitchen! But together we meet them head on and the biggest reward we all get is when the participants feel better about themselves.
“The knock-on effect is there for all to see as participants’ families get the benefit too.”
Chef Matei said the aim of Kitchen Therapy at the KTS Academy was to help students develop lifelong skills. At Hunley Hotel it was about bringing people together. “We’re doing recipes which might be new to some of them and that’s great, but it’s all about socialising and cooking is the way we’re making that happen.”
Throughout the pandemic the chef and MFC Foundation provided a lifeline by delivering hundreds of meals to schools, care homes, key workers, hospitals, GP practices and pharmacies.
They continue to work with Age UK, cooking and delivering 100 healthy meals a month to people who might otherwise not eat properly or see anybody.
As well as his work with the Foundation, Chef Matei has just opened a restaurant in the STACK in Seaburn on Wearside. It is called #PoshStreetFood and is a unique fusion of fine dining and hearty street food.