Master chef and SoDel Concepts founder Matt Haley is a globetrotter extraordinaire who documented his most recent travel experiences exclusively for the readers of Coastal Style
I travel a lot. It’s something I started doing later in life. I like to vacation, too, but rarely do. I find that traveling is more of an adventure, an exploration and an education all in one.
To dive into an environment and become a part of it, indigenously, is a great experience and definitely a way to fill the heart, mind and soul. “When in Rome…” as they say. So, whenever I travel to a new place, I try to arrive as an empty vessel, with my mind and my senses wide open. I try to leave my own cultural mores and frames of reference behind and just soak up as many new impressions and experiences as I can, without judgment, knowing that each will enrich me in one way or another. I ultimately started recording random thoughts and impressions during my travel adventures because I never wanted to forget the impact that a new place had made on me. Some were jotted down at the moment of impact, others upon reflection, but each from the heart and soul. I have shared some of these musings below.
My travels of late have taken me to Nepal, India, Cuba, Italy, Mexico and a two-week roadtrip through America’s Northeast. By the time you read this I will have been to Puerto Rico, Argentina and possibly Japan, to eat at my favorite sushi restaurant. I will fly anywhere in the world for a good meal with good people or for what I believe will be a good adventure.
I left for Nepal in November 2012, the same night I’d received the Cornerstone Award from the Delaware Restaurant Association. There was a banquet, a ride to the airport and 30 hours later, I landed in Nepal. I went from a suit coat and tie in Dover to a bus station in Kathmandu, where I would take a 17-hour bus ride to a village in southwest Nepal, to sleep in a farmhouse with no electricity, water or any of the conveniences to which I’d become accustomed, yet I couldn't have felt any more comfortable or more at home. I have found that being around good, honest, authentic people no matter where you are creates great feelings and a level of heartfelt conditions that are unmatched.
I visited my Nepali daughters, saw the schools we have built, the food we’ve provided, really saw the faces of these precious people and contemplated the anti-human-trafficking advocacy and the vision Global Delaware has for its future partnerships in Nepal. To explain the feeling I get here would be hard to do because such heightened emotions must be felt, not described.
In the last few months, I have been to the home of a Maoist, a Communist and a Fascist for dinner (the most interesting being the Communist, in Cuba, since I’d spent a lot of time over the years in a Maoist-run country like Nepal). I have no affiliation to any of these parties but find it fascinating to listen to other people’s points of view. I also think I’m pretty lucky to be able to remain open to the fact that all people have a right to their opinions. This again is one of the joys of travel. I also abide by the “prison rule of thumb”: no politics and no religion when sitting with people in their own countries, but I love to listen.
Cuba is a beautiful country. In a way it reminds me of the interior of a ride through Pennsylvania or Virginia if you were to substitute corn for the sugar cane. Long, winding roads through the hills, farms and little towns occasionally bring you to the Caribbean side of things, where the environment changes to a beach-town look that all islands have. Here, however, it’s a little different because most little towns outside of Havana have been affected by the recent economic environment in Cuba. Beautiful towns that are run down, mostly empty and waiting silently for times to change. But great people, mostly 50-50 with their opinions about what’s right and wrong with Cuba but all deeply steeped in family culture and tradition.
While in Cojimar I befriended a man who took me diving for lobsters. Grilled with lime and butter, with rice and beans and a side of greens. Awesome. He had a wife and daughter who were lovely. He works 12-16 hours a day fishing
and diving in the hopes of saving enough money to bring his daughter to America to be educated. He had to stop her from continuing with sports because she was so good, the government wanted to take her away to a school to focus on her
sport for “the betterment of the country.” The thought of losing her put tears in his eyes as he told me the story. Later that night I watched in amazement as they studied English together while doing the dishes, smiling with a vision of their hopeful future.
You can see why Havana was considered one of the greatest cities on earth at one point, and it really does look like it was just shut down in 1959. Driving down the Malecón was a sight to remember. Malecón means “beach wall” according to the locals; it’s also the path that follows the city and where most people hang out at night. Elements both good and bad can be found there. I chose the good stuff: art, poetry, music, etc., but I must admit I became fascinated by watching how the Havana underworld works the night scene on the Malecón.
Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Matanzas and Cojimar were also wonderful places to visit, along with everything in-between. Great people, baseball, ballet and food, but one of the better things to do in Cuba is to stay at the “Casas,” in which you stay in people’s homes like family. The Cubans are very proud to have visitors stay in they're homes. It is typically about $20 a stay, and you can add on breakfast, lunch, dinner — even a guide and driver if you’re up for a few dollars more.
We have business interests in Italy, so I always laugh when I say, “I have to go to Italy a few times a year.” We are involved with a vineyard, a hotel and an olive grove in Tuscany. Our partner Manfredo is one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet. He does everything he can to make somebody feel at home, and he shows me the real Italy when I am not out on my own, getting lost.
Where else on earth can you pull over on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and buy a ball of fresh mozzarella in a five-gallon bucket from a kid? Beautifully salted and still warm from being pressed, mozzarella is one of the finer things in life.
To describe food in Italy would almost be an insult. It’s so simple, it’s actually difficult to describe. Fresh pasta with hints of tomato or herbs and olive oil, fresh made; puffy lasagna sheets layered with simple boar ragout and cow’s milk ricotta, made that day; homemade salami and prosciutto served with local parmesan.
One day in the country, basking in the glow of the Tuscan sun, we had grilled chicken, a sprinkle of salt and pepper with a squeeze of lemon, and it couldn't have been better. The most memorable meal was eating fresh whole-grilled fish from a dock on the sea, dressed with lemon, oil and sea salt with charred grapes and rosemary. Everything, including the fish,
was caught, picked or grown within a mile of our table.
Of everything, the company was the most delightful. Manfredo’s friends — who are now our friends — were fantastic. This trip was similar in a lot of ways to our trips to Nepal and Cuba but certainly different in others. Europeans are very good at having fun, eating, drinking and playing well. I have never met a people who enjoy more what we think of as the finer things in life. What they exude the most is simplicity and quality in everything, including conversation. The Italians can relax and talk for hours about anything in a very humble manner.
It’s very satisfying.
I must say, to visit Rome, Florence and Venice are musts. You can’t find better art, culture or history anywhere in the world. To see Michelangelo’s David, The Colosseum, The Pieta in the Vatican or the Grand Canal in Venice after a visit to St. Mark’s Square are experiences unmatched. But it’s the people, especially in the countryside — the farmers, fisherman, growers and ranchers — who bring it together to gain an incredible insight on how to really live.
Mexico’s Baja is majestic. Cabo San Lucas is a fun resort town, well manicured and a great place for a wedding. This was my chance to spend time with friends and co-workers away from home and also be a part of two good people’s wedding. I couldn’t have imagined it any better than 30-40 good friends getting together for one of life’s best events, without any worries, craziness or rush… just a laidback good time.
When it came time to go exploring, I ended up in a town called Todos Santos, north of Cabo on the Baja coast. It kind of reminded me of what Rehoboth would have been 30 years ago. A very laidback little coastal town with a few great restaurants, especially La Casita, owned and operated by a man named Sergio. What a chef! He has set up a little biosphere for himself, including a basil farm (you can smell the place a mile away). His menu is fantastic and has a Asian swerve to Mexican food. I am not a crossover guy, but Sergio pulls it off perfectly.
Mexico City is now one of my top towns on the planet — forget what you hear about the danger. It’s no different then any big city in the world. When you get twenty-something-million people together, stuff will hit the fan eventually. But not on this trip. Hanging out in La Roma, Coyacon and San Angel was great: Frida’s house, the stories of Diego, the markets, temples, pyramids and bird-watching with my 70-year-old friend, Maralene, who’s seen it all in Mexico. The best were the breads and pastries at Viridiana’s, at the Puerta Abierta Bakery. I have not had better baked goods anywhere.
One of the more moving experiences I have had lately traveling was at the Basilica Guadeloupe, a little outside Mexico City. Before I left, Sister Maria asked me to visit Guadeloupe for her. Dare I deny a friend who is an 80-year-old nun and who treats me like a son? I think not.
I had a similar experience at the Vatican, and I am not a religious guy and claim no affiliation to any church. All I could think about while on the property was how grateful I was to be there and how valuable I felt as a person. I really can’t put it into words. I remember standing outside the church in the square, thinking of Sisters Maria, Rosa and Ascension. I thought about where I was years ago and how far I had come and began to cry with a feeling of togetherness and purpose; I paused and walked away. That’s when I knew why she’d sent me there. No questions or answers needed.
Editor’s note: Matt Haley is the founder of SoDel Concepts, a privately owned restaurant group in the Mid-Atlantic area, which currently owns or operates over 20 units, including concessions, catering, restaurants and real estate. His restaurants include Bluecoast, Fish On, Catch 54, Northeast Seafood Kitchen, Lupo Di Mare, Betty's and Matt's Fish Camp.
Matt is also the president of Highwater Management, a restaurant-consulting company based in Rehoboth Beach,
specializing in startups, design, systems and controls management in all aspects of the restaurant and hospitality business.
Additionally, Matt is the founder of The Global Delaware Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing goods and services to children at risk in distressed situations. The GDF provides essential services to children both locally and throughout the world.