Food Network keeps alive the memory of a young chef

Matthew Finkel had overcome the odds by going to culinary school and becoming a bakery-pastry chef.

But his inspiring story was cut short by an accident long before his dreams could be fulfilled.

Growing up in The Bronx, New York City, Finkel always had wanted to be a chef, but his family was of humble means and simply did not have the money to send him to culinary school. Undaunted, he applied for a scholarship through a Food Network contest to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA),and was selected out of hundreds of applicants.

He received the full scholarship live on the Food Network Awards in April 2007. Catherine Zeta-Jones announced Finkel as the winner, and Food Network personality Alton Brown presented him with the award.

While at CIA, he met Kirsten Brayn of Boardman, who was a fellow baking and pastry student. The two become a couple and graduated together in April 2010. Matthew and Kristen moved to Boardman in October, where both began working at The Bread Chef and Eli’s to Go.

The two were doing what they loved and shared a dream of one day owning their own bakery.

But an accident a few months later ended those dreams. Finkel was killed Dec. 29 when his car was struck by a tractor-trailer on the Salem bypass. He was 22.

The Food Network has since set up a scholarship to CIA in Finkel’s name for students from Northeast Ohio. And Kirsten’s father, Jeff Brayn of Salem, has set up an event to assist that scholarship program.

Dinner in the Dark — Special Edition will be May 23 at AMP 150 Restaurant, 4277 W. 150th St., Cleveland. Dinner in the Dark is an organization that has dinner benefits for charities.

About 20 top chefs from the Cleveland area will be at the event, offering samples of their creations. Regional wineries and craft brewers — including Youngstown’s Rust Belt Brewing, of which Finkel was a fan — also will offer their goods. The Food Network supplied two VIP tickets to “Iron Chef” filming, which will be raffled.

Tickets for the benefit event are $40 and can be purchased online at

Back to the late Matthew Finkel. When he was a young child, his mother began to go blind. To help her, Finkel started to learn to cook when he was just 6 years old. He spent many hours working alongside her in the kitchen, because she couldn’t prepare a meal without help.

His grandparents also lived in their small abode, and Finkel’s grandfather took a special interest in his cooking, encouraging him to pursue his goal.

When he was 17, Finkel learned that his grandfather had cancer with no hope of recovery. Finkel lovingly cared for the man who inspired him to cook, lifting him in and out his wheelchair, preparing his meals and taking care of him — all while completing his senior year of high school. His grandfather died before he graduated in June 2006 with a 3.5 GPA.

After high school, Finkel honed his kitchen skills at a local pizzeria and then as a prep cook at the Max Brenner Chocolate Shop, a haven for chocolate lovers in New York’s East Village. He soon was promoted to line cook, then expediter. It was at this time that Finkel realized he had a passion for food.

After winning the Food Network scholarship, he started at CIA, which is in Hyde Park, N.Y., in March 2007.

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