You may not know him yet, but he’s already made you smile. That is, if you’ve been at any number of FRNY catered functions in the past decade. There’s no doubt FRNY is the best fed running club in Manhattan, and Matt Tivy is the reason. For more than 10 years, Matt has been bringing 4-star touch to the club for next to nothing and a nod.
“I haven’t done that much for the club really,” says the 50-year-old, blond marathoner.
Try telling that to his friends.
“I don’t buy that at all!” yells longtime friend and former race director T.J. Storch. “Make sure you let people know how much Matt has done for Front Runners,” insists pal Phil Wahba.
“He’s done so much for the club, year in year out on an unsung basis,” says former FRNY president Mike McMahon. “Matt’s an example that you don’t have to hold an office to give meaningfully to Front Runners.”
All told, Matt has produced, catered, or assisted with well over 40 FRNY events, including five variety shows, and at least five pre-marathon pasta dinners and pancake breakfasts. His calendar’s full on a slow day, but he always finds a way to get one more done. If it’s a sweat, he’s not showing it.
That was the story yesterday in the 2011 New York Marathon, which he ran against doctor’s orders, partner’s pleading, and friends’ admonitions. Last year a routine physical detected a heart valve condition that deteriorates with prolonged or intense exercise. This summer his doctor told him not to do the marathon. He hadn’t run more than 5 miles since June, instead going to the gym four days a week to row, run or bike for half an hour (read: total weekly run mileage just 4-8 miles). But he felt so good on a 4-miler in mid-October in Riverside Park that he just decided he had to be on the Verrazano Bridge on November 6.
“I’ll walk a bit, jog a bit, but I’ll be out there just to participate,” he told me two weeks ago. “I just love the experience so much, and this will probably be my last one.”
Yesterday, he passed the FRNY-run 24 Mile Water Station in Central Park completely focused, running tall and looking straight ahead. He didn’t stop for water because he couldn’t afford to break stride. And, well, he wanted to make a statement. He crossed the line in 3:52, 20 minutes behind his PR but miles ahead of anyone’s expectations.
“When I got into Brooklyn, I thought, ‘this feels right!’” Matt told me on Monday, the day after the marathon, after a nap and 12-hour sleep. “Then I turned in a great half and I thought, ‘you can do under 4 hours, so you have to go for it.’”
Running the 2009 Brooklyn Half with longtime partner Keith Jameson showed Matt he could run a long distance without training, so long as he kept the pace smooth and slow. And years of experience have him convinced that he’s better when he goes out faster than coaches advise; he gets confidence from having fast miles “in the bank.”
“I was not happy at all about Matt doing the race,” says Keith. “But he makes his own song, always. He’s completely individual, which is what I love most about him. So I had to support his going for one last hurrah.”
This might not be the last hurrah, though. Emboldened, Matt aims to plot an unconventional training schedule for the 2013 New York Marathon and enroll his doctor in it. In this case, unconventional means avoiding the rigor of high-mileage weeks punctuated by hill and interval workouts.
For a man who knows his instrument and isn’t afraid to wail 100%, who knows? Besides, he might not be able to resist one-upping Phil Wahba one more time. In 2009, Phil out-trained him but Matt beat him by nearly 10 minutes. This year, Phil got a shock at the medals area. “What are you doing here?” he yelled, followed almost instantly by, “You bitch!” (For those unfamiliar, this ranks as the ultimate compliment between them.)
From stardom to stability
It’s 4:30 on a sparkling Sunday afternoon in October, and yet already an early dinner crowd is ambling in to Café du Soleil at 104th and Broadway. Most have no idea the tall blond Englishman facing me at a side table is the owner, let alone the chef with A-list pedigree and icons like Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse on his speed dial. When I acquiesce to escargots-it’s hard for an owner chef to sit with a guest for long without offering him food-he quietly gets up and approaches a waiter at the bar. No gestures of influence.
It wasn’t always this way. He’s gained a humbler perspective since trading stardom for stability.
From the moment he could distinguish flavor, Matthew began a love affair with food. By 10, he was pushing his mother to teach him to make his favorites. That summer, “Matt’s Place” opened on the Tivys’ back patio, with 3-cent items including PB&J and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. At 15, he was working in a restaurant kitchen. When he graduated high school, he headed straight for Culinary Institute of America.
He started as a sous chef for a little French inn in the Berkshires and quickly replaced his alcoholic boss. When that place closed after the owner suffered a stroke, he became the first chef of Blantyre, a Relais Chateau property in the Berkshires. After two years at the summertime resort-he wintered as a private Chef in the Caribbean and at top-level restaurants in Strasbourg, France-he was itching for the big time. So Mark Sarazin, a celebrated butcher, took the 24-year-old to lunch with Daniel Boulud, who hired him on the spot as a sous chef at his new Plaza Athenee hotspot.
When Matthew got antsy again 18 months later, Daniel set him up as the chef of Maurice in the Parker Meridien. But Maurice only lasted six months, and a gig as Executive Chef at the reborn QV restaurant another six months. So Matthew took the summer off to operate a catering service for Tanglewood. He returned to Manhattan to work for magnate Brian McNally (Odeon, Indochine). While overseeing the kitchen design of the soon to open Royalton restaurant, Matthew stepped in to rescue McNally’s newly opened open Canal Bar. After the celebrity outscored the food on opening night, McNally woke Matt with a panicked call. “It was a disaster,” he cried. “Nobody even mentioned the food!”
Matt put a new menu together, and Canal Bar reopened three days later. It was slammed from the start. When McNally’s next venue dulled the sheen on Canal two years later, Matthew redid ManRay in Chelsea.
Celebrity came with a high cost, though. The work was all consuming, and it was a way to hide from what Matt needed most: coming to terms with himself. “I thought I was God’s gift to the kitchen back then,” he says. “I put everything into my work and career so I didn’t have to acknowledge or face what I knew to be there.”
Out and true
He’d long been attracted to men, but his only two one-night-stands-in high school and after culinary school-left him so ashamed he couldn’t do it again. During his Tanglewood summer, he’d met Jen, a vivacious blonde Columbia student who was a former high school track star. They ended up married, with Matt “putting everything into making that work to avoid coming out.” When the marriage started to unravel, Jen urged him into therapy to save the relationship. He was so bound up he came out to his therapist in a letter, but he got it done. Jen went on to marry another Englishman, and Uncle Matt is a favorite with her four kids.
The breakup cleared the way for a life. Ultimately. Matt took a job at La Cremaeliere in Westchester, using the well-staffed, routine venue as the foundation for a new, stable personal life. Being too shy for the bar scene and wanting a younger guy-”I felt I’d totally missed the boat in that part of my life”-he joined a 20-Something group at The Center. Then a youthful looking 34, he met a 24-year-old attorney, had a brief relationship, and then met with frustration on the dating scene. He joined Front Runners in 1994 hoping for a boyfriend, but discovered running and community instead.
Two friends had met partners through personal ads, so he plunked down $250 on a New York classified. The most intriguing of the 25 letters with photos he got back was from an opera singer named Keith. They roller-bladed in Central Park, then dined at Café Luxembourg, and then started dating in earnest. Their age difference-Keith is six years younger-bothered Matt until his therapist asked, “Why don’t you just do what you want for a change?”
He did. And he’s pretty much been doing it ever since. He and Keith have been together 15 years now, and have lived together since 2005. Typical of a Matt endeavor, their relationship takes extra effort. When the job calls, Keith has to fly. Last year, that meant nearly 11 months away from New York. Matt flies out to meet him as much as possible-last year in Santa Fe, Los Angeles and Chicago-and Keith bargains retreats when he has a few days clear (he’s building it into his contracts now). The two got to take an extended vacation together this summer, at long last, heading through England and Italy for two and a half weeks. Luckily, Keith just landed an annual contract with The Metropolitan Opera that will keep him in New York fulltime starting next September.
“I always said I’d never date another singer, because singers are crazy,” says Keith. “Lucky for me, Matt’s good but he’s not a pro. He’s chef crazy, which is just different enough. And he’s so loving and loyal.”
Their relationship has opened the door to dreams for both. With Matt’s support, Keith went from a day job doing admin for Travelers to a first-rate tenor on the classical circuit. With his deepest needs met, Chef Matthew progressed through a series of solid jobs-running La Cremalliere for six years, Chez Louis in Rockefeller Center for two, Metro Diet for two-on the way to his dream of his own bistro. “After all the ups and downs of hot restaurants, I decided I need something more secure,” he says. “Popularity-driven, homey cooking is more sustainable than critically acclaimed menus.”
Café du Soleil opened in 2005 and instantly filled a need in the neighborhood below Columbia. Although a pizza place across Broadway didn’t work out, Matt and business partner Alain Chevreux now own the successful Chez Lucienne, on Harlem’s hot new Restaurant Row at 125th and Lenox, next to Red Rooster and Sylvia’s. Coming off a PR year despite the recession, they’re now heating up Soleil Caterers, which will soon add FRNY weddings to its calendar of corporate and personal events. Matt’s place has become the Upper West Side celebration venue for Front Runners. And, naturally, Soleil Caterers is the first call for official FRNY events. No matter how busy Soleil gets, there’s always room for the club.
Running for keeps
“I love Front Runners,” says Matt. “I love the group and what we represent in the gay community. When I put a Front Runner jersey on in the front pack, I’m going to do the best I possibly can.”
Before Sunday’s example, Matt had given it his all in more than 50 NYRR events, including the 2007 and 2009 NY Marathons. In 2007, he targeted 3:45 but went out much faster and maintained it, coming in at 3:32 even with a bathroom break. In 2009, he stayed with the 8:00 pace group until a tight hamstring slowed him up to 3:33. 2011 was to be his ticket to Boston.
“I could have trained for the marathon and tried to PR,” he says. “But it would just wear out the valve faster, and it’s an open heart surgery. I don’t go into the victim mentality, I just think, ‘Let me avoid the surgery as long as I can.’”
Whether there’s another marathon (or three) in his future, Matt figures to keep running in his life. He’ll do Pride Run as a fun run, and join the club on Saturdays in the park. Being outside with everything rolling in stride counts for something. Don’t look for the chef to be anything but lean, as he’s dedicated to core training, and he’s as good on the rower and the tennis court as he is on the roads.
“Marathon running makes me feel like I can get through anything,” he says. “Before my first one, I couldn’t imagine doing something that taxing for that long. Now I know I can just put my head down and get through tough stuff, whether it’s physical or mental or emotional.”
So much energy emanates from his 6′ frame that I don’t doubt him when he says he wants to find another intense outlet. It could be a music business of sorts. His mother sang professionally, and Matt studied guitar, oboe and music in high school and for a year after in England. He leads a band of talented musicians, Evil Prince Ludwig The Indestructible, through covers of tougher Seventies to current pop rock. Anything but the usual cover band stuff, the band shines on intricate harmonies. Whether the gig is at Cafe du Soleil or The Bitter End, the audience is largely faithful family and friends out to see people they like playing stuff pretty well.
“I miss music when I’m not playing it,” Matt says. “But we don’t play that often and I never had the discipline to try to do it as a profession. I would like to incorporate music into my catering. It might different music and food packages, like a private dinner with a jazz trio. I’m just building a catering website now, and I can see a food and music pairing section.”
Bet on it. Matt doesn’t dawdle on ideas, and he’s run through risk a time or two. Just because the next thing hasn’t manifested doesn’t mean it’s not in full motion.
“Doing what you like to do the way you like to do it, that’s success to me,” says Matt.
“That’s what I strive for. It’s not easy. I have to keep refining because life intervenes. But I get to love all of my life today.”
By Fred Pfaff