Restaurateur’s passion is aiding others

After conquering his pride, Italian found joy in tackling poverty by building school in Manila

by Stefania Viti

Christmas is a time of prayers, dreams and wishes, of children waiting for a gift from their parents and for an appearance by Santa Claus. But about 150 poor children on Smoky Mountain in Manila have a special Santa to wait for.

Giorgio Matera, an Italian businessman based in Tokyo, decided several years ago to embark on a mission to help children in that desolate place.

Matera, 45, comes from Monopoli, a small village in Apulia, southern Italy. After coming to Tokyo 21 years ago, he now runs seven restaurants in Manila and a restaurant and catering company in Tokyo.

Eight years ago, he read a newspaper article in the Philippines that changed his life. It was about a baby born with heart disease who needed a very expensive operation to survive. The parents were very poor and couldn’t afford the operation, so they were looking for donations.

“I thought about that story for a few days then I told my wife, ‘Each year we do a great party for my birthday but this year I would like to give that money to this baby.’ “

She agreed, so he did. Matera did his best to save the baby: He paid the hospital, bought the medicine and organized the surgery. But after everything was prepared, the baby died just a day before the operation.

“When the doctor called to give me the bad news, I realized that I was late, toward the baby of course, but also with myself for not having started yet to do something for the others,” he explains.

Moved by this feeling, Matera started thinking of what he could do.

During his research, he was taken on a visit to Payatas, the poorest area of Manila, better known as Smoky Mountain, a place where people live on and off garbage.

“It is a place forgotten by everybody. I saw entire families, including children, drinking alcohol all day, others snorting. It was shocking,” he said.

To face that kind of situation was not easy, and his reaction to poverty and injustice was very emotional. He began to quarrel with authorities and demand more rights for the poor. Once he even risked going to jail.

“Spending time at Smoky Mountain and knowing better the problems and lives of those people, I realized that the best thing that I could do for them could be to build a school because only knowledge can change their life and give dignity to them.

“I never gave money to the poor. It is too easy: You give money and then you leave. But people like them do not even know how to use the money,” Matera said. “I understood that if I had given money to some of the parents they would have used it to buy alcohol instead of feed their children. They need to learn how to respect themselves and the others, they need our time more than our money. This is the reason why, when I started the project, I took care of everything. It was an investment of time rather than of money.”

Fast-forward seven years and the school is educating 150 children in four classes. They got their first computers just last year.

“We still do not have chairs and desks — the children study on the floor. We have some volunteer teachers and others paid by us. A family is in charge of the school, and we pay a little rent to the parents. It is important to make them nurture the feeling of responsibility toward their children,” he said.

A lot of things have changed over the years Matera spent establishing the school. The feelings of mistrust the people of Smoky Mountain first had against this “stranger who wants rights and justice” have changed into something positive, and more people are ready to help.

“Now people trust me, in the offices of the city as well as in Smoky Mountain. When I go to visit the school I often bring my children with me — Riana, 14, and Sebastiano, 10.”

In the school, everybody is welcome, and with so many children to care for there is a new challenge to fulfill: how to build a second floor so the school can take more children.

To find the money, the children made bracelets and sold them on different occasions. Even Matera’s son, Sebastiano, contributed to the fundraising effort by selling the bracelets to his friends.

Other friends are now offering to help — even in Japan. Matera’s philanthropic efforts have become known among friends and customers of his restaurant, Piadina, in Tokyo’s Aoyama district. A group of eight people from Japan have already traveled to Manila to visit the school, and others are planning to go as well.

“I would like to be an example for all of the people who would start doing something of this kind but lack the courage. I know that the first step is the hardest, but I have learned that life can be more beautiful if you do something for others. Everyday. Because for people and children who have nothing, it must be Christmas every day.”

As Matera’s experience taught, to do something to help people doesn’t mean to renounce your life. Matera, for example, never stopped running his company, Passion Foods K.K.

The name of the company has a story of its own.

“When I arrived here in Japan 21 years ago, I couldn’t speak any Japanese. It was really hard. Then doing my job I discovered that I could communicate through food maybe even to a deeper level than with words. When I realized that, my job became a passion and that’s why my company has that name.”

Japan brought good luck to Matera. A few months after arriving in Tokyo he met his wife, Maria Teresa, a former model from Manila. But that was not the only unforgettable encounter.

“On one of my first days here, I went out to go to visit the Imperial Palace. While waiting like other tourists, I saw people (lining up) to enter and I joined them. In a few minutes I found myself in front of his majesty. I was so lucky I could see him almost 300 meters away from me. When I realized what was happening to me, I made a wish and a promise to myself: ‘One day I will serve for him.’ “

Several years later that dream came true: Matera was chosen by Italian Ambassador Giovanni Dominedo to organize a party and private dinner for the official visit between then Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro and Emperor Akihito. “That night I served the Emperor and talked to him. And when he left he also greeted me. My wish really came true.”

A few months later, he moved to Manila. At that time, Matera, who was still running his catering company, was the manager of a Tokyo restaurant but wanted to open his own place. So he decided to move to Manila with his family.

“After much research I was offered a little 20-sq.-meter location in a mall. I was a little astonished because that was not what I had in mind. I had no choice, so I decided to go on with it anyway and open a piadineria, a place where you can eat piadina, a special kind of bread from Emilia Romagna in Italy.”

Six months after starting his new business he was desperate. The business wasn’t working.

“I talked to my wife about what was happening and she said: ‘You are the problem.’ I didn’t realize on the spot the meaning of those words.”

“But one day, I was in my restaurant working at the counter when I saw outside one of my Japanese customers (who had visited his place back in Tokyo). As soon as he approached the shop, I naturally hid under the counter. I remained in that position for 15 minutes and started crying. The truth was that I was too proud. After all of the success and all of the famous people, I was ashamed of my job. It was an important experience that allowed me to conquer my pride.

“After that, everything changed for the better, I opened other restaurants, and years later I was also able to realize the dream of my youth: to have my own restaurant in Tokyo. Selling piadinas, of course.”