A TV 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.
But he begins 2020 healthy, happy, fit and eight stones lighter than he was in June. Matei – who lives in Wallsend on Tyneside – has also run two 10K races and is about to open a community café in partnership with the Stepney Banks Stables in Newcastle. He has become a much sought-after chef on the private dining circuit and is writing a book about his dramatic weight loss. He will also continue to spread the joy of cooking with people of all ages through numerous community projects.
Matei, 41, decided to transform his life at the start of 2019 – but his dramatic change was brought about by two events. First, in partnership with the 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. The 12-week project culminated with them successfully catering for 60 paying guests and two of the novice chefs now work in the catering industry.
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. “Her support was just what I needed,” said the chef. “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.
Matei stopped having sugary drinks and joined a gym. He received some help from a personal trainer but mostly relied on the guidance of his long-distance coach Marysia. They met for the first time in November when they ran together a 10K race in Newcastle, which Matei completed in 80 minutes. In December he completed his second 10K in 67 minutes.”
“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,” he said.
As well as his professional plans for 2020, Matei is determined to continue to lead a healthy lifestyle. “I think you need to set yourself targets,” he said. “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.”