A free project which helps groups of people overcome problems with their self-esteem by cooking together has been launched in East Cleveland.

Kitchen Therapy has been developed by MasterChef quarter-finalist Matei Baran and Middlesbrough Football Club Foundation. Their first course, which took place at Middlesbrough College last year, resulted in half the participants securing jobs or deciding to return to college.

“Everybody who took part said Kitchen Therapy was life-changing,” said Chef Matei. “When they started many couldn’t even make eye-contact. After 12 weeks they were helping me prepare and serve a tasting menu for 50 paying guests.”

The new project reflects the MFC Foundation’s determination to make a difference in East Cleveland.

In September it opened an office in Loftus where four full-time staff are based.

Through Kitchen Therapy they and Matei will be helping people who have difficulties with their mental health and well-being. They are also tackling isolation, one of the area’s major problems.

Gary Walton, the MFC Foundation’s community engagement officer, said: “Many people are living alone in their houses and this is what’s causing these issues. One of the reasons we’re doing this programme is just to get people out and mixing and socialising again, making new friends and learning new cooking skills and sharing those skills.”

Kirstie Handley, a vegan, is looking to pick up some useful recipes from Chef Matei.

She is also hoping Kitchen Therapy will help her well-being and admitted: “I have trouble with depression and anxiety which I’m working on, and I feel that this environment will help me gain confidence and help other people open up around me as well.’’

Kitchen Therapy is taking place at the Hunley Hotel and Golf Club in Brotton, which is providing free use of its kitchen and a dining area. “It’s a big commitment from us – we’re a 24-hour operation – but we had no hesitation in supporting a project like this,” said the hotel’s operations manager Lewis Clennell. “I just come from Middlesbrough, but this is a completely different type of community. People tend to keep themselves to themselves.”

The first Kitchen Therapy project prompted Chef Matei to look at his own mental and physical health. He also spoke about a suicide attempt when he was 21.

“The honesty and bravery of the people taking part made me determined to make a change,” said the 42-year-old who weighed more than 28 stones when he competed in MasterChef: The Professionals in 2016. “Apart from the risk to your physical health, you’re never going to feel good about yourself when you’re that big.”

He has lost 11 stones in a year, through practising what he preaches about healthy food, and has also transformed his fitness. He has run two 10K races and been helped by personal trainer Ryan Conwell and Jasmine Dawes, a Thai yoga massage therapist and mindfulness mentor. They will also be providing support for people taking part in Kitchen Therapy. “Together we want to create healthy habits in all aspects of life through eating, fitness and meditation,” said Matei.

There is already a waiting list of people wanting to take part on the project and the the first East Cleveland Kitchen Therapy team is preparing for its first public engagement – a Valentine Day’s dinner at Loftus Village Hall on Friday.