You could easily walk down one of the hallways at Tarrant County College’s Southeast campus and not realize that behind one of the doors you’re passing is a classroom with ovens and stovetops that calls to mind the kitchen of a reality-TV show like “Top Chef.”
On a fall afternoon, it kind of feels like that, too, as groups of students team together to make sweets: apple fritters, doughnuts, challah bread (which involves tricky twisting), cinnamon rolls.
“It should be a team effort,” says Alison Hodges, TCC Southeast culinary instructor. “What I give them, I can do in three or four hours, but I’ve had 30 years’ experience.”
Hodges’ experience has been reaping rewards: In summer 2017, she was named Pastry Chef of the Year by the Texas Chefs Association. She is also a regional semifinalist for the American Culinary Federation’s 2018 Pastry Chef of the Year Award. She’ll compete in the regional contest Feb. 16-18 at Madison College in Madison, Wisconsin; four regional winners will advance to the national finals at “Cook. Craft. Create.” ACF National Convention & Show in July in New Orleans.
“I really thought my days of competing were over,” Hodges says in a later email. She’s a fan of “The Great British Baking Show,” which airs seasonally on KERA/Channel 13, because it features amateur bakers. But as far as being on a cooking show like that — well, she’s happy to just be in the competition she’s in now.
“I’m not sure I have the temperament or patience to do a cooking show anymore,” she writes. “Too old and set in my ways. Besides, I enjoy imparting my knowledge on to the next generation of pastry chefs.”
Several of Hodges’ former students have found that they love baking enough to make it a career. Dunia Borga, the co-founder and pastry chef of La Duni Latin Cafe in Dallas, studied under Hodges. So did Nikky Phinyawatana, co-founder and chef at Asian Mint, a Dallas Asian-fusion restaurant. Michelle Tribble, a Dallas chef who won the recently concluded “Hell’s Kitchen All-Stars” on Fox, was a student of Hodges’ at El Centro College in Dallas.
Like a lot of bakers, Hodges was inspired by a family member — in this case, her grandmother.
“My grandmother ran a blue-plate diner back in the Depression, and she made the best pies,” Hodges says. “So whenever I make a pie, my mother judges all my pies on hers. She will flip the pie over and she will flake it very gently and she’ll go [sighs] ‘It’s not as good as my mother’s.’ And now I keep saying to Mom, ‘Well, your mother wasn’t Texas Pastry Chef of the Year.
“But my grandmother, I learned a great deal from her,” Hodges says. “She was one of those who’d grab a cup and say, ‘Yeah, that looks just about right.’ [I’d ask] ‘OK, so do you have all this written down so that when you’re gone, I can re-create it?’ ‘Nope! Hopefully you’ve been taking notes.’ ”
The restaurant life
In 1979, Hodges began a restaurant career, working as a server at Plankouse (now-defunct) and Tony Roma’s Steakhouse. During that time, she met her husband, Bill, who was a cook.
She spent the bulk of the ’80s working at Dallas’ Old San Francisco Steak House, then in 1990 joined the Hyatt Regency in Dallas, where she became a pastry cook in 1992. During that time, she put her husband through culinary school; he then returned the favor, and she received her associate’s degree in food and hospitality services from El Centro Community College in downtown Dallas in the spring of 1992. (Her husband currently teaches at El Centro.)
While working at the Hyatt, she began to develop carpal-tunnel syndrome in her right wrist — “You know, repetitive motion from doing rosettes.” She went to work for a friend’s catering company — but in purchasing, not on the food side.
She still had connections at El Centro, and she got a call that a pastry instructor there was leaving and that the school needed someone to finish the summer semester.
“I said, ‘Sure’ because I was missing the creativity of it,” she says. “When I was at the Hyatt, I would go in and have sessions with our bakers, because quite frankly, a lot of them would just go in and throw everything together and put on some cream sauce. That was wrong, and after I was hired full time I started telling them that, started doing little teaching seminars.”
Once she was at El Centro, she found that she really liked teaching. The school began offering her more classes. She remained there as an adjunct instructor for several baking and dining courses through June 2014. But her Tarrant County College time overlapped that.
“One of my purveyors said to me, ‘Tarrant County is looking for a pastry chef. Are you interested?’ What’s funny is I’d just gotten one of those stupid chain letters,” she says. “You know: ‘Your guardian angel ...’ It was one of the only times I’d ever sent [one] off.”
She says that she and TCC culinary arts coordinator Katrina Warner immediately hit it off. “I don’t even really remember her offering me the job. We just sat and talked and got along so well, and I’ve been here ever since.”
“I knew she was qualified,” Warner says. “And then, just talking to her, we got along, we had similar stories, we both enjoy teaching very much. Our personalities mesh very well. She’s like the sister I don’t have.”
Warner says that she continues to be impressed by the knowledge and skills that got Hodges to the competitive level she’s at now. “She’s my go-to when I have a question, because I’m not big on baking pastry, but she’s our expert here,” Weaver says. “She’s always put out quality work, no matter what you ask her to do, catering-wise or here on campus. She’s very detail-oriented, precise, timely, productive, organized.”
Shaping the next generation
At TCC, culinary arts is a two-year program offered only at the Southeast Campus. Although it can prepare students for a restaurant career, they’re also told about other career options, such as food research or styling. Students learn about food preparation, but also about nutrition, diet therapy and communication and computer skills.
Balancing the course load and preparing for the competition has been a challenge, but Warner says that Hodges has been immersing herself in preparation for the regionals.
“She’s using every free hour she has,” Warner says. “She’s actually in the kitchen right now. She finished up class this morning and she’s getting things together, coming in on Saturdays when there’s no one in the kitchen, sometimes on Sundays. . . . So she’s been practicing a lot.”
Although she’s teaching the next generation of pastry chefs, Hodges says she’s not hearing the mother/grandmother stories she used to hear from bakers.
“When the grandmothers became [women] my mother’s age, they didn’t cook a lot,” she says. “Everything was made from Campbell’s Soups and Jell-O. Most of them don’t [cook] with their grandmothers anymore. It’s sad. It’s changing.”
But she is making converts all by herself.
“A lot of my students will come in and they’re culinary arts students,” Hodges says. “They’ll come in and they’ll be like ‘I hate baking!’ And I’m like, ‘OK, I’ll bet I can change that.’ And I have changed the minds of many people, because they just need to learn the right way to put things together.”