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TV chef’s community cafe ready after a little help from his friends

TV Master Chef Matei Baran’s preparations for his new community café have been given a major boost by children he has taught to cook.

Nine months ago Chef Matei was invited to work with a group of students at the Haskel School, an independent Jewish special school in Gateshead in North East England.

His weekly sessions have had a major impact on the children, aged between 12 and 15, who – when they heard about his café – were only too happy to grab a paintbrush.

The Big Chef Mini Chef Coffee Shop opens at the Stepney Banks Stables in Newcastle on 1 February and will support the work of the riding school which has created opportunities for thousands of young people over the last 25 years.

At the café Matei, who in 2016 reached the quarter final of Master Chef: the Professionals, will run regular free cooking sessions for children and parents as part of his campaign to make the North East a healthier place – and the children and teachers from Haskel School will support him every step of the way.

Mr Schauder, the head of the school’s senior division, said Matei’s classes had been of huge benefit – even encouraging some of the children to like vegetables.  “Besides the cooking element, they are learning about knife skills and kitchen safety. They are also picking up social skills as well.  It’s therapy for them – just being in a group together – and we would never get them to sit together in a regular therapy session. They love it.” he said.

Matei will continue to hold classes at the school after he opens his café, which is nearly ready to open thanks to the children’s help. “We’ll always looking for opportunities for the kids to help out in the community and Matei needed help in getting his café ready, so I thought it would be a good start if we put them both together. The kids absolutely loved it, so it was a win-win situation,” said Mr Schauder.

Chef Matei said working with the children was a privilege and their progress showed how cooking was so beneficial. “They’re a great bunch of kids and it’s been a lot of fun. I was so grateful for their help in the café. The Big Chef Mini Chef Coffee Shop is such an exciting project and this has been a great way to start it off,” he said.

As well as helping children through cooking, Matei has developed a programme called Kitchen Therapy to support adults struggling with their mental well-being. The 12-week course, run in partnership with Middlesbrough Football Club’s Foundation, culminates with the novice chefs preparing a meal for paying guests.

The first Kitchen Therapy project resulted in three of the participants securing jobs.  The second course has just been launched in East Cleveland.

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Matei Baran’s amazing weight loss

A TELEVISION chef who in 2019 lost a staggering 11 stones in weight hopes his story will inspire others in the New Year.

Matei Baran topped 28 stones when he reached the quarter finals of MasterChef: The Professionals in 2016.

He revelled in the nickname of Big Chef, even though his morbid obesity was causing major health problems and threatened to deprive him of seeing his young son grow up.

He would become breathless just tying his shoelaces and away from the kitchen his self-esteem plummeted, reviving memories of a suicide attempt when he was 21.

The Northern Echo: Matei Baran in January being interviewed for his new book. Pictures: STEPHEN BEECROFT
Matei Baran in January being interviewed for his new book. Pictures: STEPHEN BEECROFT
But he is looking forward to starting 2020 healthy, happy and fit.

Mr Baran, 41, who lives in Wallsend, said his dramatic change was brought about by two events.

First, with Middlesbrough Football Club Foundation, he launched Kitchen Therapy: a programme to help people, who had problems with their mental health and self-confidence, to learn to cook.

Then, a Polish mechanical engineer and mother-of-three living in Dublin responded to one of Matei’s social media posts.

Marysia Szmagara is also a fitness enthusiast and advocates the common-sense approach to losing weight: a healthy balanced diet and active lifestyle.

Mr Baran said: “Her support was just what I needed. She lifted the blinkers off my eyes and made me realise what was possible.

“The people who took part in Kitchen Therapy were so honest and brave. They were prepared to try something totally out of their comfort zones to help bring about a change in their lives.

“After so many years of putting on weight I was really scared at the thought of how I would go about losing it, but I just had to think about the men and women I helped through Kitchen Therapy, and my son Armin, for the motivation I needed.”

Mr Baran ate healthily, stopped having sugary drinks and joined a gym.

He said: “My message to anybody who is struggling with their weight and self-esteem is that if I can do it, so can you.

“It’s cost me a gym membership and some new clothes, but it’s bought me far more than that.

Mr Baran, who has run two 10k races, is now writing a book about his dramatic weight loss.

As well as his professional plans for 2020, Mr Baran is determined to continue to lead a healthy lifestyle.

He said: “I think you need to set yourself targets.

“I want to run a half marathon and, if possible, eventually a marathon.

“I now want to be known as the Healthy Chef.

“The Big Chef still exists, but only as a name I use for my business and as a reminder of how I used to be.”