Arts·Q

Out of the frying pan, into acting and fashion: Matty Matheson is going off script

On Q with Tom Power, chef Matty Matheson talks about his role in FX's The Bear and his durable workwear clothing line Rosa Rugosa.

The high-energy chef recently branched out into acting on The Bear and created the clothing line Rosa Rugosa

Matty Matheson smiling slightly in front of a microphone, wearing a bright red toque.
Matty Matheson in Studio Q. (Vivian Rashotte/CBC)

For fans of the chef Matty Matheson, his high energy off-kilter style is, perhaps, the main draw. In his popular online cooking videos, he has the ability to push scenes to the verge of chaos before reigning it in and presenting finished dishes that are both comforting and inventive. 

What fans might not know is that behind the scenes, Matheson's life is also a kind of constant high-energy improvisation. It's an approach to living that, as he tells Tom Power on a new episode of Q, has gotten him into some really tough spots, but has also led him toward success in areas that he never dreamed. 

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Growing up in Saint John, N.B., then Fort Erie, Ont., Matheson never cared about school. He only went to cooking school to move to the city — but it was at the Humber College's culinary program in Toronto that something clicked. 

In the kitchen, Matheson found his place. Cooking gave him self-esteem and started building up his ego. He worked at Toronto restaurants Le Sélect Bistro and La Palette before becoming the executive chef of Parts & Labour in 2010. Though he was riding high, he found it hard to stay level. The late-night drinking, paired with the adrenaline from the kitchen and his long history of drug use, led to a heart attack at 29. 

He has since gotten sober and gained a large following as a media personality, appearing first on Vice's Munchies and then later on his own YouTube channel. His first video taught over 9 million viewers how to make the perfect cheeseburger, and prompted him to expand from the restaurant industry. 

Matty Matheson smiles as he grips a microphone, seated at a round table with radio equipment and Q mugs.
Matty Matheson in Studio Q. (Vivian Rashotte/CBC)

Matheson has written two cookbooks and started a durable workwear clothing line called Rosa Rugosa with designer Ray Natale. The factory they were working with closed during the pandemic, so they bought their equipment and built a factory themselves. Matheson sees the business like a restaurant — they're just making pants instead of burgers. 

The chef also co-produced and consulted on the new Disney+ show The Bear, and appears as handyman Neil Fak in 6 episodes. He tells Tom Power about that experience in a new interview on CBC's Q. Here's part of that conversation.

Tom Power: How was acting? You hadn't done any acting before.

The acting is intense! I'm not a script guy, you know? My whole life is a riff. My whole life is one take. My whole career is based off whatever the heck I'm going to say…

Because I'm a people pleaser, I get caught up in wanting to do a really good job, but all these people are actually actors. They're very good, accessible actors. Everyone shows up, and they know everyone's lines. Doing something you've never done before is scary, because I was brought on as just a consultant at first.

The show largely takes place in a kitchen in a restaurant. Give me an example of something you're teaching them.

I'm working with the chefs on movement; I'm working on the chefs with language, the way that they move within the space. There's moments where I'm helping choreograph how they would move throughout the kitchen.

It's a lot of longer one-shots and we want to have five conversations happening at once and the cameras moving and focusing in on different characters as they're talking… In the script, they're like, "Tina is cutting onions, and Sydney is making a cartouche and Richie's being like, 'What the heck is a cartouche?'" So how do we make that move and feel the way that it would in real life?

What's something that they didn't know?

There's a lot of really small, weird courtesies. Like, saying "corner" and "behind" and tapping things and like, just doing all of these little things. I would work the space the way that I would for service. So I would kind of do a trial and be like, "Ok, they need to do this, and how would I do this? How would I check that chicken? How would I taste this mise en place?" You're constantly hovering, you know, you're constantly checking things, tasting things, motivating people telling them what to do, telling them what not to do.

Still frame from the TV show The Bear. Matty Matheson dressed in workwear checking a sink with a concerned expression.
Matty Matheson as Neil Fak on The Bear. (FX)

I've had people who've worked in restaurants say the show gave them a specific kind of anxiety because it felt so real. 

The thing is, kitchen and restaurant anxieties are like theatre. Every night, I'm getting ready to do something, people are showing up at a certain time. I can't really make a mistake, so it's very similar to live theatre, live acting. I was using that a lot with the actors, because then they could actually understand what that meant.

Every day we're practising and making mise en place — that's your lines. Then when the doors open and guests come in, we're acting, we're cooking, we're moving. Every single thing needs to be done. But the thing is, they don't see you acting. They don't see your performance; they just see the final dish. 

The actors wanted to set up their own stations by the end of it. They were like, "Oh, where's my spoon?" "Oh, my station isn't set up right." It was this beautiful moment where everyone cared.

I think one thing that Bourdain did was shine a light on the idea that there's this drinking and drug culture in kitchens. How much of the kitchen culture has to do with drinking and drugs?

I think they romanticized it. I remember, I was in my first year of college in 2000, and I got two books: Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential and Nose to Tail Cooking by Fergus Henderson. Those two books to me are still kind of like the litmus test of what my experience was.

Also, there is no good time to drink. You finish at 12, 1 in the morning. You go to a bar, you get one hour of drinking and then you go to an after hours and your adrenaline is going so hard from work. With kitchens, the adrenaline of getting ready, getting your mise en place set, is a lot. Then the service is another rush. When you're young, you don't come down from that. You go one more.

I really got along with everybody and we just wanted to keep going. Every night there's always gonna be somebody that wants to go out. I was going out every night. I didn't sleep for like 15 years.

So then what happens? You had a heart attack? 

Well, yeah. You're just riding high like everyone. That's when all of a sudden I started getting press and a lot of ego stuff. When you're young, it's hard to be level. Now, I'm very aware of everything that's happening. I don't get excited about the good stuff; I don't get bummed about the bad stuff. I just do the work. 

Everyone's blowing up your tires and stabbing, err, your tires, you know? I'm just gonna do my thing and make my art and live my life. I'm just trying to feed people and have a good time.

Is getting sober hard in an industry like that?

I just set up a lot of boundaries. I don't stay out past a certain time. I don't put myself in situations. I didn't go to bars for five years!

When I got clean I owed a lot of money to people, so I had to clean up my mess that I created. I made that my first goal: to pay back every single person I ever bought a dollar from, stole from, borrowed from drug dealers. I had to stop everything and focus 100 per cent on going debt free. I can't be beholden to anybody, no debts, no banks, no bosses, no anything.

That's what brought me out of the restaurant industry, because that's at that same moment I started doing videos with Vice. For that cheeseburger video I got 500 bucks, and it was the most money I'd ever made in my life in two hours. If I focus on this, I can actually pay off my debt faster. I've never known that I couldn't do anything but be a chef. It turned on the lights.

Where did the idea come from to start this clothing line?

I just like wearing clothes. I like wearing workwear. I like wearing clothes that are durable. I like wearing clothes that are neutral. It really came down to that. I love also doing stuff. I love creating. I love making businesses!

"The factory of roses" is what we call it. Physical businesses, brick and mortars, are things. What does that person need to do within that building, can we supply that, and can we pay them well? Can we give them benefits? All the other stuff that we do in our restaurants, we can just do that with our sewers. 

I know you come from punk rock, where there is a mentality of looking after your people and being your own boss. This feels similar to that. 

There's a DIY mentality. It's about not just taking, and it's about giving. I want everyone to have a piece. I want everyone to be a part of it, truly, and to be taken care of. My job is to facilitate things. 

My mentality is my mentality from all of my experience of doing things wrong, from doing things right, from failing. All the restaurants that I used to run aren't open. I've closed a couple restaurants in my life. I have failed many times. I've almost died! I've lost pretty much everything.

Baby steps. I'm a big crawl, walk, run type of person. Even though it seems like I'm sprinting 100 miles an hour, I'm just walking right now. I'm just figuring things out.

Tom Power smiling slightly with his arm around a grinning Matty Matheson.
Matty Matheson and Tom Power in Studio Q. (Vivian Rashotte/CBC)

Do you have another goal?

I want to be truly successful in business. Creating things to have, at this point, has become rather easy. Now it's like, how do we hold on to them? How do we make them long-lasting?

It takes a lot of things. It takes a lot of dedication. I'm not right all the time. I've made bad decisions. I continuously make bad decisions! I need to learn how to listen to people, and I do. I love it! I just want to make sure that all these things are done better.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lian McMillan is a writer for CBC News Entertainment and Education. She holds a bachelor of music from the University of Toronto and is completing Humber College's radio and media production graduate certificate program. She can be reached at @lian.mcmillan on Twitter.

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