“I can point to the exact spot where I used to work,” said Spyridon Giannakoulopoulos, teacher of Culinary Careers at MTC. “The classroom is laid out the same now as it was then. I used to work right over there.” He pointed to a corner of the classroom, at a work table that was between a grill, a range cooktop, and the dishwashing station.
Spyridon, or Chef Spiro as he instructs his students to call him, attended Culinary 1 and 2 while he was in high school at ESBOCES. At the time, current teacher Matt Kozak taught the first year class at BTC. The second year course was taught by Richard Simon at MTC.
Growing up, Spyridon had firsthand experience with the life of a chef. His father worked at a variety of restaurants during his childhood. “My dad worked throughout the industry, from different restaurants, to delis,” Spyridon said. “Constantly seeing my dad cook, working seven days a week, eating his food, I just knew that being a chef is what I wanted to be.”
Networking through ESBOCES got Spyridon a job in the industry while he was a student. During his first year in the Culinary Program, he attended a meeting of the Long Island Chapter of the American Culinary Federation. There, he met the vice president of Lessing’s Hospitality Group, an agency that owns several restaurants and provides catering across Long Island. That meeting led to a tryout at Lessing’s kitchens and, eventually, a job. Spyridon’s schedule was suddenly packed, going to school during the week, and working at Lessing’s on the weekend.
“It was tough, we worked long hours,” Spyridon said. “It was a lot of prep work, but it was an amazing opportunity to have at such a young age. I was getting real-world work experience while in high school. I loved it so much that I’m still with them, and I’ve been with them since I was 16.”
After graduating from ESBOCES, Spyridon went to college – first at SUNY Cobleskill, and then at Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island, where he majored in Food Service Management. It was during his time at Johnson & Wales that Spiro realized his desire to teach.
“I was part of Johnson & Wales American Culinary Federation Competition team,” Spyridon said. “While I was on the team, I got a lot of mentorship from the coaches, and that was when I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to give back and provide mentorship and guidance, just like those chefs did for me. It made me realize that being a chef isn’t just working in a kitchen every day for 120 hours a week. You have the opportunity to be a leader and create a community.”
Four years after graduating from Johnson & Wales, Spyridon’s former teacher, Richard Simon, announced he was retiring. Spyridon had his chance to do just what he’d dreamed of – giving guidance to the next generation of chefs. Now in his second year of teaching full time, his focus is on giving his students the kind of knowledge his teachers gave him.
“The biggest thing I learned, and what I tell my students, is you have to cook with love. Cook what you love to cook, and cook with the spices and flavors you love to cook with. If you come to the kitchen and you’re having a bad day, it’s going to show up in your food. That’s one of the best things that my coaches told me – and it’s something I want to pass on to them.”
However, while Chef Spiro is now leading the class, he never forgets where he once sat in room 126 at MTC not so long ago. “It’s unreal that I’m on this side of the desk,” he said. “The kids teach me something every day, but now that I’m here, sometimes I still can’t believe it.”