Sitting down at a table in the school’s cafeteria, Karen Matias starts fiddling with her Chapman cap.
“I’m a little nervous here,” she admits, laughing self-deprecatingly. “Why would anyone want to hear about my life?”
She undersells herself – Matias is a daily staple of many students’ lives.
Matias works as a chef in Chapman’s cafeteria. Most days she can be found behind the deli counter, making an assortment of sandwiches and wraps to the exact specification of the eagerly waiting student. Watching her interact with those students, you see the different and personal relationships she’s taken the time to build with most everyone that goes through her line.
That very reason is why there’s a line stretching the length of the bar that houses the deli every weekday, with up to 30 people waiting to get a sandwich or wrap made specifically by Matias. Despite the fact that there is usually a second chef at an adjacent deli station, people wait for Matias, even willing to spending the majority of their lunch break waiting in line for her.
“Hello beautiful, what would you like today?”
“What kind of sauce baby?”
“Toasted, mi amor?”
Joey Mannino, a freshman creative writing major and a regular customer of Matias’, enjoys his near daily talks with her.
“She makes an effort to talk to you, remember you, know your order, and smile when making your food, it’s really nice.”
Matias makes everyone feel welcome and loved the second they step up to her station, and this warmth and acceptance is a major part of Matias’ personality.
With an extremely family-oriented upbringing, Matias admits that she’s cooked all her life.
“I grew up in a kitchen,” her eyes looking upwards as she recalls the time spent in her grandmother’s kitchen down in Mexico, before her family moved up to California when she was six years old.
The youngest of six kids, she grew up closest to the youngest brother and the eldest sister. As chaotic as life could get, the times she reflects back on most are those spent with her family cooking in the kitchen together.
Now, working at Chapman for the past eight years, Matias laughs thinking about how small the world can be.
“I wake up at about 5:30am and walk 20 minutes to work,” which happens to be across from her old alma mater, Orange High School. “I went there, and it wasn’t until I started working here [at Chapman] that I realized how close it was.”
Spending somewhere around nine hours everyday at the dining commons, it seems that though Matias’ world may be small by some people’s standards, it’s just the right size for her. “I’m happy here, I just want to keep working and be with my family.”
Working here at Chapman and moonlighting as a caterer on weekends, Matias seems to be true to her word. Content to work up the ladder towards a position as a sous chef here at the school, she spends her weekends with her boyfriend of nine years and family in between trips to the bookstore.
“Family comes first.” For Matias, that sense of community seems to stem from the kitchen, inside and outside of work.
“You feel the love when you’re cooking,” she said, trying to articulate her love for her work.
Calling students anything ranging from “My love,” “Baby,” and “Beautiful,” Matias said she strives to make every interaction special and personalized.
“I know how hard you guys have it, the least I can do is be nice to you,” she said candidly. “You guys are always running around between classes and all your other activities, if I can make somebody smile just by being nice to them, why wouldn’t I?”
“I like Karen because she actually takes time to ask about my day and makes my experience personal,” said Olivia Boyd, freshman kinesiology major. Boyd goes to lunch at Chapman’s cafeteria everyday just to get a sandwich or wrap made by Matias. “Her sandwiches are genuinely the best, so the line is worth it – there’s just something about them.”
Some, like Boyd, are regulars, continuing conversations with Matias from previous days, talking to her about her recent posts on social media or personal lives. Others can be quiet and need some level of coaxing from her, but eventually Matias usually manages to get them to crack a smile and join in the conversation.
While many students seem to adore her, Matias has admitted that there are some instances where students are less than polite. Citing an instance earlier this year where a student came up to her and demanded food when she had just closed up for the day, Matias does her best to downplay most interactions between herself and students.
“Basically this guy just came up to me with a chicken breast and wanted me to make him a sandwich, but I had to tell him that the deli was closed,” Matias says. The student, who Matias refused to name, proceeded to toss his chicken towards her and angrily ask what he was supposed to do for lunch. At this point, a student who Matias considers a friend, Erik Gonzalez, stepped in and told him to back off. Gonzalez, a junior biology major, said that the response from the other student was unacceptable. “His response was out of line, that was no way to act.”
“Not everyone is going to like me and that’s okay,” Matias said, completely matter of fact about the whole situation. “I just don’t want any animosity, so if someone says something to me I just say, ‘Okay, god bless you.’” Regardless of the intention of most men, Matias said she didn’t want any trouble for either of them and eventually managed to diffuse the situation.
Most people aren’t able to be that pacifistic about those types of scenarios, but Matias stands by her attitude. “I just try to understand because you never know what other people are going through.” Shrugging, she says that she just chooses to wake up happy, and that she simply reminds herself that if someone is saying something bad about you, you must be doing something right.
“At the end of the day, as long as I’m happy, that’s what matters.” That positive attitude is no doubt what draws so many students to her, and keeps them coming back for more.
This relationship goes beyond just an everyday civility between two people; many of the students consider her to be a friend more than anything else. Boyd and Gonzalez wholeheartedly agree with that. “She’s always super nice to me and all my friends, yeah, Karen is a friend,” Gonzalez added.
Ultimately whatever comes her way, Matias takes in stride, brushing off negativity in the name of good karma. “I just try to be patient, be better everyday. That’s how I want to live my life.”