Who was your favorite high school teacher? I can remember a few, but my absolute favorite was my history teacher, Mr. Gallagher. Do you know why? He challenged me to think. To try. He shared stories about himself, and made an effort to relate to what I was going through in my life at the time. Mr. Gallagher made me care, quite simply, because he cared. For that, I owe him my sincere thanks.
We’ve all had teachers that really made an impression, an impact on us, forever changing us in to the people we would become. For several chefs, including some that Food Network fans would easily pick out in a “Where’s Yvan” book, Aristotle “Terry” Matsis is one such teacher. Before becoming a culinary instructor at Long Island High School in Queens, New York, Terry had established a career in the restaurant business. But, his path in to the culinary world began much earlier than that, and in a fashion familiar to many that now don chef’s whites. It started with fifty pounds of potatoes, and a stock pot of cold water.
Where it all began
Terry was all of 8 years old, and had stepped in to his father’s restaurant in New York City for the first time. His dad asked if he wanted something to eat. Having been accustomed to eating traditional dishes from his parents home land of Greece, Terry responded as any 8-year-old, first generation American might.
“I want a hamburger and french fries.”
“Ok,” his father responded. “But, you’re going to have to peel the potatoes.”
With that, Terry made his way to the restaurant basement, along with his father. There, waiting for him, were fifty pounds of potatoes, and a stock pot of cold water. It’s a right of passage that many a cook and chef have traversed when first starting out, and for Terry it was no different. So, like those before him, he got his start peeling potatoes.
“It was my christening in to the restaurant business,” Terry recalls with a laugh. “I sat downstairs in that basement, kind of scared because I was all alone down there, peeling potatoes. About a half hour later, my father came back. All I had peeled in that time was two potatoes, and my dad just laughed. After that, he brought me back upstairs and I had my burger and french fries.”
From the kitchen to the classroom
Those potatoes would lead to working in his family’s restaurant through his teen years, supporting his brother’s restaurant ventures, and eventually to the opening of Terry’s own restaurant in New York City. He had a passion for it, but with the birth of Terry’s daughter, he found his priorities were quite different. “I had a short coming. No one else had the key to my restaurant. Just me. I’d open, I’d close. I’d open, I’d close. So it was kind of self-defeating, working 14 or 16 hour days. Trying to find a balance of my work life and my family life was really difficult, especially considering how much I wanted to be there for my daughter as she was growing up.”
Terry found the answer to the problem by looking back at his early days as a restauranteur. Early on, he reached out to the culinary program at Park West High School and started bringing on teenagers to work in his kitchen. What they lacked in experience, they made up for in drive. Their lack of experience would also bring with it an additional bonus. It meant not having to break any bad habits they might have picked up somewhere else. It suddenly clicked. “I started to think about teaching as an option,” Terry told me. “I knew some of the instructors at Park West. Most of them were culinary or restaurant ex-patriots, and they seemed happy with what they were doing. So, once I figured out that I could start teaching high school, I went and got my license. With that done, I started teaching, and never looked back.”
Becoming a culinary instructor afforded Terry the time to be with his daughter, but it also would let him have a very significant impact elsewhere. An impact on his community, and on the industry he loves.
A teacher’s impact on his students
One of the easiest aspects of the transition from running a restaurant to teaching high school students was the carry over of work ethic. A lazy person can not head up a kitchen or a classroom. From the get go, Terry was able to lead his classes by example. Understanding how important work ethic is in the culinary industry also would ensure Terry would “tell it like it is”. He did not coddle his students. They needed to understand that while the culinary world is fabulous, and you can make a good living doing it, you needed to have the drive to be successful. In Terry’s own words:
“I have to sleep at night. I can’t misguide anyone. It is hard work. Maybe the hardest work these kids will ever have to do. I let them know that right away, almost as a bit of a test. If they can get past it after seeing how difficult it can be, then you know that they are the right type of person to handle it.”
It was an approach that didn’t fall on deaf ears. One of Terry’s former students, Thiago Silva, now the pastry chef at Catch in New York City talked to me about how it helped to prepare him for his future career. “Mr. Matsis had a big impact on me through his hard work and dedication, and the passion for what he does. He let us know the reality of what this industry is. He never sugar coated anything for us. He always made sure we knew how much hard work, and dedication we needed in order to succeed in this field, and he demonstrated this first hand. Countless times he would stay late and help us practice for competitions, or he would come in early and start setting us up. I’m sure he also ended up spending his own money to help buy us the materials we needed as well.”
It wasn’t enough to just “tell it like it is”, though. Terry made sure that, even in the classroom, students were treated as if they were in a professional kitchen. Thiago goes on to say, “I remember one of my first semesters with Mr. Matsis. He gave me a failing grade. I was furious! How do I fail cooking? So, I approached him to see why he failed me. He told me I had been late to class everyday, and was absent too many times. He said that if he was my boss in a restaurant, I would be gone. This opened my eyes, big time.” It’s a sentiment fellow alum Yvan Lemoine, a recent competitor on Food Network’s Next Food Network Star echoed, “Mr. Matsis was a bit of a ballbuster. He practiced tough love, which sometimes is essential in shaping kids in school. But, what he lacked in finesse he made up for in training.” For Yvan, however, it wasn’t just the true-to-life teaching method that stuck with him. “In order to teach about something, you must first feel a passion for it yourself. While other kids were making cookies, Matsis was teaching us to make coq au vin. What kid in high school is making coq au vin? That kind of direction and exposure to classical dishes, and techniques is what really got me excited about getting into the food industry.”
How about beyond the classroom? Terry Matsis has gone, and still goes, the extra mile for his students, helping many of them get externships at some of the best restaurants in New York City. With the support of the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), a program for preparing underserved students for careers in the culinary world, he has also been able to help his students get scholarship to the country’s best culinary schools. A former student, Chef Kelvin Fernandez, Executive Chef of The Strand Bistro in New York City, will always remember the support Terry was able to give him as he made a push for a scholarship opportunity to the Culinary Institute of America. “If it wasn’t for Mr. Matsis I wouldn’t of done as great as I did in the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP) competition, where I was able to win a $20,000 matching scholarship to the CIA. I remember the long nights of practice, and the weekends spent with Mr. Matsis there every step of the way. I will never forget him telling me how proud of me he was. I’ll remember that for a long time!”
Making a culinary difference in the classroom, and beyond
Aristotle Matsis has made a difference in the classroom, and beyond. He has made an impact in a very real way. Ask his students. Ask the diners who have eaten at the myriad of restaurants many of his former students run or work at. Because of one man’s choice to leave the restaurant business in favor of the classroom, the world is a different and, quite possibly, better place. That deserves recognition, as does the hard work of all instructors, culinary or other. I unfortunately can’t express my thanks to my favorite teacher, so at the very least I can thank someone else’s. Thank you, Mr. Matsis. Thank you for making an impact. For making a difference. Thank you for being a teacher.