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From New York chef making $140K to living on the streets

Matthew Shea went from one of New York’s top chefs to becoming homeless. (Photo courtesy of Facing Homelessness)
Executive sous chef Matthew Shea stands in the elaborate kitchen, head spinning with menus and recipes to cook for the hundreds of people that are anxiously waiting for their five star entrees. The subtle sounds of knives cutting through vegetables, a butane torch flaming over a crème brûlée, and the feet of dozens of cooks rushing around all create a melodious song that transforms fresh ingredients into tasty dishes. It’s perfection versus speed, although the guests always expect both.
“I love feeding people, almost obsessively,” Shea laughs. “In my restaurant in New York I’d stand by the garbage can all night wanting to see what was being thrown away. Anytime I saw a plate that went straight into the bus bin because there wasn’t anything on it made me feel wonderful.”
Now replace that same warm, inviting Plaza Hotel kitchen to waking up covered in cold, wet clothing and having nowhere to go. Replace the hundreds of customers who smiled, respected, and admired his cooking with fearsome and judgmental looks of everybody who walks by. Replace the endless amount of food he once cooked with food scraps that are now hard to come by. Replace limitless hot showers with ones that are timed and difficult to find. Replace sleep with overflowing anxiety. Hope with trying to find something to hold onto.
That’s Shea’s reality every single day, along with more than 2,800 homeless people living in Seattle.
This is Shea’s story from celebrated chef to homelessness. 
From busboy to sous chef
Shea was in the restaurant business for 28 years, working his way up from a busboy to executive sous chef at the New York Plaza Hotel. He spent a majority of his young life juggling two jobs. By day he worked as a laborer for a construction demolition company and by night he flipped burgers. Unable to handle two stressful jobs, he traded in his construction job to work at New York’s famous Strand bookstore.
After overcoming his drug addiction at 25, Shea went from flipping burgers to pursuing a career in fine dining. He started off at one of New York’s best restaurants Park Avenue Café, working as a busboy before being promoted to lead saucier. In 2001, he received a company promotion to work for the Plaza Hotel as an executive sous chef under the leadership of renowned chef David Burke.
“I was making 60K by the time I was 28-years-old,” Shea says. “By the time I was the lead saucier at Park Avenue I was making 72 grand. I figured from somebody who came from nothing that was pretty good.”
The backstory of Shea
Shea was raised in Brooklyn, New York. After his mother died at age six, his estranged father gained custody of him and his sister. He abused Shea continuously, he says, and kicked him out when he was 11.
The New York City Family Court found Shea a Person In Need of Supervision when his father testified to him being out of control and disobeying his authority. Immediately after, Shea was put into a group home in Westchester, New York, where he stayed for three years before escaping to go live with friends, his grandfather, or under the boardwalk in Queens.
He would be gone for five months at a time, working under the table in pizzerias around Brooklyn, before the authorities would find him and send him back to the group home. He legally left the day he turned 18.
“I’ve been on my own since I was a kid,” he says. “Being in the restaurant business, I had no real formal education before college. The last grade I had completed was 5th grade. But, I was fairly well educated by myself. I’ve always had an obsession with learning. If I didn’t know something, I would go and learn it.”
In his thirties, Shea received his GED and decided to put himself through college using part of the $640,000 he had saved while working. He attended State University of New York in Plattsburgh, rated 22nd best public regional university in the nation. Halfway through college, he ended up dropping out to help pay for his sister’s car crash fees. He didn’t have enough money to pay for both college tuition and his sister’s expenses.
Although he had taken a number of college classes and was a respectable chef with a strong reputation, his anxiety lingered, serving as a deadly reminder of how much he still had to overcome.
At the Plaza Hotel, Shea worked a 100 hours per week. As the holidays grew closer, his work week increased by 20 hours and along with it, his anxiety.
“Everything has to be absolutely perfect and everything has to be fast,” he says. “It’s very hard to have both things at the same time. Speed and perfection rarely go together, so you have to be unbelievably good to maintain a position in these kitchens.”
So, Shea did what he knew best. He suppressed his emotions, working tirelessly to make it through each day.
Bye New York. Hello Virginia
By the time he left the Plaza in 2002, he was not only making $140,000 per year, but also managing his own kitchen in the Westside Brewing Company, now known as the Amsterdam Ale House. He had invested in the restaurant with six other colleagues. However, with his newfound success came greater responsibility and more hours.
Yet even in a high stress environment, Shea always made sure to treat his employees fairly and pay everyone equally.
“Most of our employees were illegal,” he says. “But, they got paid the same as everybody else. I made sure of that. I had a lot of very loyal workers.”
In 2005, Shea decided to go after a new opportunity. With very few master chefs in the country, he headed to the Rodham Country Club in Virginia to work for one. All the while, still maintaining a share in his New York restaurant. He was the chef to cuisine at the Country Club for a little over two years before moving back to New York to pursue his bachelor’s degree at State University of New York in Plattsburgh. That same year his grandfather died.
“My grandfather had been my best friend in life,” Shea says “That’s where my mind started to change. I didn’t want to do this food thing anymore.”
Cooking for the homeless
Despite the loss of his grandfather, Shea’s chef days were far from over. Working in restaurants was all he’d ever known. He had a notable reputation in New York, especially for turning a failing business into a moneymaker. He would take over places from four to six months and change the way they managed their inventory, ordering, and staff. He moved out to Connecticut to help fix a restaurant called “The Lime.” Once the six-month gig ended, he moved out to Bellingham, Washington in 2010 to help his friend who fell down a mountain, tore a lung, and suffered a heart attack from the trauma.
“I’ve always loved Washington,” Shea says. “The first time I was out in Seattle was 1995. I was recently married to my first wife. We only spent three days in Seattle, but I really loved the town, you know. And I kind of always wanted to go back here.”
After his friend recovered, Shea made his way to the Seattle area, moving around Downtown and Capitol Hill before settling in Fremont. His cooking traveled with him. He was one of the caterers for the Pacific Northwest Ballet and a chef for the Russell Cafe in Downtown Seattle in 2011.
But, it’s while living in Fremont that he discovered Gas Works Park and the 25 homeless people living there. He started gathering the homeless and cooking massive meals for them near a fire in Gas Works.
“I saw everybody just living there and I thought maybe I could do something to help,” he says. “I try to give back because I realize the blessings that I have had in life, especially in a rough life you really come to appreciate the little things.”
From helping to needing help
In 2012, Shea ended up moving away from Seattle to run a country club in Michigan. It was there that his anxiety had finally caught up with him. After suffering a nervous breakdown, he moved back to Washington in February of 2015.
“I found that I really could not work anymore,” he says. “I couldn’t bring myself to face a stressful job anymore.” Now at 40, I find it impossible to suppress my emotions any longer.”
Shea lived on his friend’s porch in Tacoma for three months before moving back to Seattle this past spring. With no money and no place to live, he found himself homeless for the very first time. He began dedicating a majority of his days to writing. He resumed the novel he had begun working on in 1999 – a post-apocalyptic comedy that interweaves fantasy with a divine love story. He has a little over 5,000 hand-written pages.
“Since I have been homeless I have nothing but time,” he says. “I need to work. That’s sort of how I’m keeping sane right now.”
Shea also tries to maintain a relationship with his 19-year-old daughter, who lives in Florida, over Skype and Facebook.
“[She’s] my main motivation in life,” he says. “She keeps me going more than anything else. A lot of times I kind of pretend for her. I don’t want her to ever see me this way. I don’t want her to give up hope. Just having to provide hope to somebody else, even if it’s faked, helps me a lot.”
Shea has been undergoing treatment at the Community Psychiatric Clinic in Seattle, as well the University of Washington in an effort to better control his severe anxiety. He starts trauma therapy at Harborview Medical Center in a few weeks.
Today, he finds himself back in a place of helping others, except this time he is on the receiving end of things.
“I came back to Gas Works Park and all these people that I helped now helped me,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know about the showers or the meals. I was given a lot of direction on who to talk to.”
This past July, Shea’s luck turned when he met Rex Hohlbein, an architect who had been designing multi million-dollar homes for over 30 years only to give up his practice to work full time with the people on the street. Hohlbein has been helping Shea and others like him integrate back into society – whether it’s connecting the homeless with community members who can help locate employment opportunities, housing, or provide both financial and material (clothing, socks, tents, etc.) donations.
“People that are homeless feel invisible,” says Hohlbein. “There’s this glass between them and the rest of society that they’re not able to break through. Start seeing the beauty in each person. Just say hello.”
Just say “Hello”
A little over two years ago, Hohlbein started nonprofit Facing Homelessness in an effort to dismantle the negative perceptions of those living on the streets. He regularly shares their personal stories and photos on the organization’s Facebook page, which has over 28,000 followers.
Rex Hohlbein has been collecting photos of every homeless person he met. It’s hanging in his office in University District.
Hohlbein recruited Sarah Steilen and Ty Franzer to assist with the organization’s operations. Steilen and Franzer have handed out hundreds of sleeping bags, tarps, tents, coats, socks, and other necessities through their office window located in University District. Facing homelessness relies on community donations to sustain their nonprofit and continue handing out much needed items.
“I wake up horrible everyday, especially days like this where it’s cold,” says Shea. “I’ve always been unbelievably clean. But, I smell bad odors coming from my own clothing and I have to wear it because I have nothing else. It just brings me down. It makes me depressed and makes me really hopeless. And then I make my way over here [the organization’s office] and I’m okay. It’s kind of like my spiritual coffee. I talk with Sarah, Ty, or Rex. Sometimes it’s just a hello or a couple of jokes, but whatever it is they give me reason to remember that I have things to live for.”
Hundreds of homeless people have found solace in the Nonprofit’s compassion and efforts to change society’s perception of who they are.
“I’ve had people say to me, ‘somebody said hello to me and asked me my name today,’” says Steilen. “That’s the first time that may have happened to them in months. I love our community. But what’s even more amazing, it gives me goosebumps, is the amount of times when I’ve been giving out sleeping bags or tents and I would give out the last sleeping bag to someone and they would give it to the person behind them saying, ‘you need it more than I do.’ I’ve seen that happen more than once, time and time again.”
Finding the positive
As for Shea, the Nonprofit has been helping him get back to cooking – but on his own terms. A few months ago, he cooked a five-course meal for Holbein’s dinner party, where he raised $1,200 to buy a van. The Nonprofit has also helped him book private catering gigs coming up this month. Everything is organized through their Facebook page.
“Helping people helps me feel good and keeps me going,” says Shea. “Not really much I can help people with right now. I’m penniless. I’m living in a van. But just the little things that I can do, it makes me feel good enough to keep going and that I have some kind of purpose.”


Matthew Shea prepared and served dinner at Rex Hohlbein’s house a few months ago. (Photo courtesy of Facing Homelessness)

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