On Monday morning the messages started filling up my Facebook feed: Chef Matty Selby had died and yet again the restaurant scene mourned a lost chef. But not just any chef — a man who helped launch the Denver dining scene to what it is today, and built a strong community of cooks, servers, bartenders, and other industry people.
“It’s heavy, I think, just losing anyone who was influential in your life and in the restaurant business. In Denver Matty really had an impact,” said Josh Wolkon, founder of the Denver-based Secret Sauce Food & Beverage group that runs Ace Eat Serve, the now-shuttered Vesta where Selby was executive chef, and Steuben’s, which Selby also had a hand in. “It was [also] heartwarming; old school people I haven’t talked to in 10 years or more, just reaching out because they knew Matty, knew who he was and what he meant to all of us.”
Selby first truly entered the Denver restaurant scene in the mid-1990s at the now-closed Rattlesnake Club, the place he touted as showing him the real reason to cook and eat. Next came a quick stint at Sushi Den, then Vesta, which Wolkon opened in 1997 with the idea of hosting a “dipping” grill, where the sauces shone as bright as the entrées. At the time, there wasn’t much in the way of elevated, out-of-the-box restaurants in the city, especially downtown, and Vesta was something special.
Wolkon hired Selby as a sous chef, then quickly promoted him to executive chef. He stayed with the group for 15 years after that.
“He was a true artist. He really did have the passion, and it wasn’t about press or media attention. He cooked because he loved to cook and make people happy,” Wolkon said. “Looking back, it’s been 25 years now, it was an incredible time of life and I was paired up with someone who I was meant to be paired with from a chef level. We grew up together as the restaurant grew up.”
Under Selby, other notable Denver chefs made their debut too, including John Hinman, who also started as part of the Vesta opening team. For Hinman, working with Selby helped him grow as a chef and created a solid friendship that lasted long after Selby had left restaurants to do more corporate cooking gigs.
“I loved Matty to death and I can’t count the hours we spent together,” said Hinman over the phone. “Even now, just about every day a Vesta story comes up.”
Especially now as the community mourns the loss of Selby, whose cause of death will remain a mystery until a medical examiner releases findings to his family, messages from co-workers filled Selby’s still-active Facebook page, telling stories from decades past, expressing sorrow and celebrating the man the chef was to them. The posts talk about his kindness, how he wanted to always help others, his skills with ingredients, his jokester side and how he inspired both other chefs and staff who wanted to learn more about the kitchen and cooking in general.
But for all the positive things about Selby, he did struggle with mental health, as many do in the restaurant industry. Hinman said over the last decade Selby pulled back, canceling plans and not engaging as he once did. He saw the signs, said Hinman, who also struggles with mental health, leading him to start the non-profit group CHOW in 2018 along with food writer Alexandra Palmerton, to help those suffering from mental health issues.
“My thought about CHOW was to get people talking and find out what’s ailing them and get them the help they need, whether that’s an AA meeting or to a therapist,” said Hinman, who launched the idea after becoming sober himself (not a requirement to be part of CHOW or to go to meetings) and seeing the need for more real, hands-on support for his peers. “I thought no one would show up to talk about their feelings, I wrote it off before it started, but then Anthony Bourdain passed away two days before the meeting.”
Bourdain’s suicide shed a light on chefs in crisis. And based on the 40 or so people who showed up to that first meeting, the crisis raged in Denver. Since then, CHOW has grown to a five-day-a-week service with meetings ranging from just women to substance abusers to ones done entirely in Spanish. Meetings are now held all over Colorado.
CHOW does a lot of outreach too, and any time something big happens in the scene someone from the group gets in touch, offering to help. Hinman himself left the masthead about a year ago to concentrate on his own bakery and business, but he still touts the need for more mental health services.
Especially, he says, in the light of Selby’s death and other losses that continue to hit the hospitality industry. But, he added, the hardest part about giving mental health the attention it needs is having the person realize they need mental health treatment in the first place.
Hinman isn’t alone in seeing the need for more services in the industry. In fact, Wolkon implemented a wellness program at his restaurants more than 15 years ago as a way to combat the stress of the job. Services have included help to quit smoking, annual cleanses, sober weeks for the staff, and gym memberships. The idea, he said, is to give employees support and tools, but of course they have to take them.
“Matty is another sad restaurant story. We don’t know what happened, but we know Matty struggled,” said Wolkon, adding that from Vesta alone so many people who worked there have died in the past few years, including celebrated chefs Brandon Foster and Curtis Caldwell.
“There’s so much better awareness of mental health in the industry compared to then and where we were,” Wolkon said, adding that sometimes it’s still not enough.
No one knows how Selby felt at the end, or how he died exactly. But as many friends and family mourn him this week, it’s known for sure he was a man worth remembering, who made an impact not just on them, but the entire Denver restaurant scene.