Young, bookish and personable, it's not difficult to imagine Matt Duske at the front of a classroom. And it shouldn't be, since the bespectacled bartender spent two years teaching math to disgruntled high school students. He recently made the change from enriching minds to enriching livers, and has been at the boisterous Vig Uptown (6015 N. 16th St., 602-633-1187) serving drinks among the restaurant's ample windows, earthy colors and bocce ball court since it opened in March. Granted, it's a decidedly different setting than a school, but Duske doesn't mind --he still gets to use the whiteboard.
How long have you been tending bar?
Since college. Six, seven years. I went to Whitworth, a little liberal arts school in Spokane, Wash., and bartended while I was going to school, then jumped on down to Phoenix to teach. I taught high school math down here for two years. I supplemented my income by bartending, and I realized I didn't want to teach for the rest of my life, so I went back up to Seattle for a bit to work with my dad in real estate development. I actually came down here to get my master's. Out-of-state tuition at ASU for the master's program is like 12 grand, so I'm waiting to get my residency in December, then I'll hopefully start school again.
Why did you decide to stop teaching?
It was $34,000 a year. It was long hours. I did it with the Teach for America program. I felt like I wanted to make something of my life and give back to have a positive impact on others, so I volunteered for the program, in which they place you in low-income schools for two years. After I finished my two years, I decided it wasn't what I wanted to do at that point in time. Will I go back to it? I don't know. But I really enjoyed the intrinsic value.
Where did Teach for America send you?
I was in Surprise, Ariz., but I did my training in Houston. A month in inner-city Houston was an eye-opening experience. I was thrown into the fire, but when I got here, it was a piece of cake. I was there before any of the other teachers; I stayed until after they were gone; I coached two sports, basketball and football; I ran the student council program. I definitely worked my ass off, but I kind of burned out.
What's been the biggest difference between teaching and bartending?
Going to school every day, I had a 45-minute drive and I would try to figure out how to get kids excited about the quadratic equation, finding the volume of things, cubes, spheres. Now, everybody's excited to see me! I'm not forcing anyone to be here. I feel like I did a pretty good job of keeping the kids entertained and making a fool of myself for education's sake. It's weird going from teaching -- where I'd have to manufacture ways to keep the kids entertained -- to just kind of goofing around behind the bar, and getting paid well for it. You can't beat it. It's not something I want to do forever, but while I'm young and still able to stay up until 2 a.m., 4 a.m., I might as well take advantage.
Does it ever seem like a step down?
Every once in a while I think about it. I go from challenging the intellect of high school kids to essentially getting people drunk -- from expanding minds to killing brain cells. I get through it with the knowledge that this isn't what I'm going to do forever, that I'm giving someone a product they want, and that I'm building relationships. I get a lot of people that come in and we become friends. For me, the most important part of the job isn't counting the money at the end of the day. It's building that relationship with people and providing them a quality time.
How do you translate that into your bartending skills?
I have 15 seats at the bar; there's no reason I shouldn't know everybody's name, and no reason they shouldn't know my name. I introduce myself to every person there, shake their hands. I think that's one of the reasons that people come here.
Do you ever use some of the skills you learned in teaching behind the bar?
Absolutely. I mean, entertaining people, like with my students. That's how I got them to learn. I drop some knowledge on people from time to time. Oftentimes, people don't necessarily give bartenders credit, as far as intelligence goes. The other day, I had a couple customers who were talking about density and why one thing is heavier than the other. I explained to them how density is related to mass and volume, and why a certain volume of gold weighs this much whereas a certain amount of helium weighs this much. They just looked at me in amazement. I don't think they expected that to come out of my mouth. It put a smile on my face. When I can show people that bartenders aren't just people that go through life trying to do as little as possible, and that they have a story, can be intelligent, I try to.
On the drink-making side of things, what sets you apart from the next bartender?
I'm pretty run-of-the-mill when it comes to creating drinks. I like to do it efficiently and effectively. The thing about making drinks is that people know what they like. I mean, sometimes you get people who have absolutely no idea, and the strategy there is to just make it pink. If it's a shot or a cocktail, it doesn't matter what's in it -- make it pink and they'll like it. But with other people, you have to make it exactly how they want it. I had a woman ask for a cosmopolitan, and I decided to throw some fresh-squeezed lime juice in there. She said it didn't taste right and sent it back. People want their drinks just like they've had them before and just like they'll continue to have it at Applebees. The bottom line is to give them what they want, and do it while making them feel special.
What do you drink when you go out?
I'm a Jack and Coke guy. I feel kind of bad about it, because it seems so lame. For the longest time after I started bartending, I experimented. I'd have a gin and tonic one day, a vodka rocks the next, whiskey rocks, even cosmos, though I had to hide those so no one knew I was drinking a girly drink. But I'd always be thinking, "I wish this was a Jack and Coke."
Once you've got your master's, you've found your passion and moved on to greater things, you think you'll miss bartending?
Yeah, I'm sure I'll miss it at times. Once it gets in your blood, it's hard to get rid of. Whenever I go out, I always go sit at the bar and ham it up with the bartender. You've been there. You know what they've gone through, and you share a connection with them. Hopefully by then, though, I'll have somebody that cares for me and get's pissed about me coming home at 3 a.m.