TV MasterChef Matei Baran has provided a career lifeline for seven young people whose futures were thrown into uncertainty by COVID.
They have joined his #PoshStreetFoodTM business which has cheered up thousands of North East food lovers by bringing them high quality food during lockdown.
The new recruits include a chef who had been put on furlough by a city centre restaurant, a barista whose promotion prospects were abruptly ended by the pandemic, and a student who decided remote learning was not for him.
#PoshStreetFoodTM is based at Matei’s café at the Stepney Banks Riding Stables in Newcastle which he took over just weeks before the first lockdown.
“When everything closed I went home, but after two weeks I decided I had to do something otherwise I wouldn’t have a business. Since then I haven’t stopped,” said the 43-year-old, who in 2009 moved to the UK from Romania, trained to be a chef at Newcastle College and in 2016 – after working for some of the best-known hotels and restaurants in the North East – entered MasterChef: the Professionals and reached the quarter final.
During the past year Matei, who lives in Wallsend, has taken his #PoshStreetFoodTM mobile kitchen to dozens of pub car parks, garden centres and housing estates, offering a tasty selection of freshly cooked food including lamb kofta, surf and turf and – his most popular – belly pork kebab.
“We’re very different. We’re offering as many items as a restaurant. These are complex dishes and we don’t cut corners. I’m really proud of what we’re doing,” he said.
As the reputation and popularity of #PoshStreetFoodTM began to grow Adam Bohill – Matei’s former sous chef at the Jurys Inn in Newcastle – started helping out.
Adam, who is 29 and lives in Heaton, had found work with the NHS COVID testing service during the first lockdown when he was furloughed from his job in a Newcastle restaurant.
“But when the second lockdown came I couldn’t get back into that so I had a chat with Matei and asked did he need any help – just to get me out of the house really,” said Adam. “So I started doing bits and pieces and now it’s become a full-time job.
“Matei was my first proper head chef. I learned a lot from him and he always encouraged me to do push myself by doing things like cooking competitions. He packed me off to catering college and as a mentor over the years he’s been a big influence.
“The way it’s taken off over the last six months has been phenomenal. At the start we were doing events when there were 20 people and in no time at all we were selling out with 150 people four days before we got there.
“We’ve been to places like Rothbury. No other street food had been there before and the feedback was amazing. One woman said we were the most exciting thing to happen in Rothbury in six months.”
With bookings flooding in for festivals, weddings and garden parties Matei has recruited Adam’s former sous chef as well as 24-year-old former barista Natalie Meldrum from Gateshead.
“I was with Costa Coffee for four years and worked my way up to supervisor. I almost got an assistant manager’s role and then lockdown came and that was it, really,” she said.
Even though Natalie found a job in another café she said she had lost her motivation: “There was no chance of progression. There’s only so much coffee you can make. I wanted to change my career path.”
A chance conversation with Matei has provide her with that change. Natalie now looks after the bookings for #PoshStreetFoodTM and manages Matei’s diary. She has also been enrolled in a course in social media, marketing and public relations.
“Not many places would provide you with such opportunities,” said Natalie. “I’ve gone from nothing to this. I’m really lucky.”
Nineteen-year-old Ben Fegan’s grandfather was a chef and his younger brother is a trainee chef in Leicester. During the pandemic Ben, who lives in Backworth, started a sports management degree at Northumbria University, but did not enjoy remote learning and spent much of his time cooking.
He was working as a customer assistant for M&S before joining Matei’s team as a trainee chef and will start a professional cookery course at college in September.
“I thought about what I wanted to do with my life and cooking seemed like a good way to go. I love it, even though it’s hard work,” said Ben. “I tried the food and was amazing. I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity and Chef has been great.”
Matei said he intends to provide all the support he can for his seven new recruits. “Throughout my career I’ve tried to spot talent and help develop people. I want them to feel that they have a stake in this business and can play really important roles as it grows,” he said.
“In life you need to grab every opportunity and I have really worked hard for this. Nothing worthwhile happens easily.”
For more information about #PoshStreetFoodTM, visit www.mateibaran.co.uk