Eight years ago, Allan Hecht came to Weehawken High School from Stroudsburg, Pa. in response to an online ad for a culinary arts teacher. After operating the well-known local diner Mollie’s with his wife Catherine for 27 years, he was ready for a change.
Hecht set his sights to take over the district’s state-of-the art facility, which included both kitchen and in-school restaurant, replete with its own small catering operation.
“It was a 74-mile, two-hour commute, and that was without traffic,” Weehawken High School Principal Dr. Peter Olivieri said. “And Allan wasn’t quite a young man.”
During his interview, Hecht proceeded to point out the less-than-finer points of restaurant operation and ownership – points fans of the many celebrity chef and food shows on television today tend to gloss over for glamorization’s sake. Like the 16 hour days and the holiday labor, for instance. Then there’s the heat of the kitchen, the constant demands of the customers, and the pressure of turning a profit.
“Mr. Hecht was always in a good mood and always made us laugh, even with all he was going through.” – Elizabeth Tejada
He was hired.
“The man just drew you in with his passion and his personality,” Spinosa said. “He made you feel like family, even if you had just met him, and everyone – students and faculty alike – felt it.”
Fight till the end
On Aug. 10, Hecht, 65, lost his two-and-a-half year battle with pancreatic cancer surrounded by family and friends, including his wife and two children Amelia and Elliot, at Visiting Nurse Agencies Hospice House in East Stroudsburg.
He had originally been given four to six months to live.
“You have to understand that this was Allan’s way,” Olivieri said. “He always had a positive attitude, even after he began to deteriorate. He didn’t stop until the end.”
“We were devastated when we heard, and we knew it was coming,” student and new senior Devereaux Blanco said. “He taught us what it was like to truly be strong. He always had a smile on his face, no matter what. He thought of us first before his own illness.”
Toward the end while Hecht underwent chemotherapy, he hired assistant Michael Fiorentine to stand in when he couldn’t make it to class in order to give his students a consistent quality education.
“We were speechless when we heard,” Elizabeth Tejada, 16, recalled. “We didn’t know how to react, and nobody expected it. But Mr. Hecht was always in a good mood and always made us laugh, even with all he was going through.”
No boogers, and have fun, always
Shortly after being hired, Hecht quickly became one of the most popular teachers in the school, as evidenced by the fact that his elective was the first class to fill up every year, Guidance Counselor Chiara Ziek said. Ziek has a theory as to why this was, despite the fact that Hecht held students to impeccably high standards.
“They adored Mr. Hecht,” she said. “He was just so wonderful with them. He was hands on and attentive, and when they participated in Taste of Weehawken, he didn’t even have to ask for volunteers. His kids just showed up, which is unusual.”
Taste of Weehawken is an annual library fundraiser held by the town that gathers local restaurants professionals to show off their culinary stuff.
Hecht’s very personality and openness drew them in, even though he’d make his students work until they got it right. Particularly with omelettes.
Tejada made more omelettes than she could count in Hecht’s eighth grade class, and when they weren’t just right, he’d throw them out and make them start again. But she went right back in her sophomore year.
“Most of the time I was unsuccessful with the omelettes, but sometimes I was,” she laughed. “Mr. Hecht made everything fun, and funny. We had to learn a lot, but he taught us in a funny way.”
For example, the first of Hecht’s class rules was “No boogers,” Tejada giggled, which in Hecht-speak meant, “Wash your hands.”
The fifth rule was “Have fun, always.”
Sharing the love
“Allan brought our culinary department to impressive levels,” Spinosa explained. “He knew just how to bring out the talent in the kids, and many of them went on to begin their own culinary careers.”
He made quite an impression on faculty as well. He shared his famous chicken salad recipe with grapes in it made popular at Mollie’s, and his recipes were all the rage for those looking to impress family and friends during dinner and parties.
“He was the faculty recipe consultant,” Ziek laughed. “The aroma coming from his classroom was always wonderful. The kids were so lucky to have him, and so were we.”
A memorial was held Aug. 18 at East Stroudsberg University, and among the memorial’s 200 attendants were eight Weehawken teachers and 14 kids. Shortly before, students organized a candlelight vigil outside of the high school and prayed for him.
There are grief counselors available to students, Olivieri said.
“He was a fighter,” Spinosa recalled. “I don’t know if I would have been as strong as he had been, but I know we all miss him terribly.”
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org