“Baking is absolutely my passion,” said Doris Alford, a test-kitchen cook in Bevier Café and a lab assistant in the department of food science and human nutrition. Alford’s zeal for life in the kitchen also has earned her a third – unofficial - title from her colleagues: the crazy pastry chef. A mid-life career changer, Alford turned her favorite pastime into her profession after doing office work for two decades. Alford shares her passion by mentoring two students from University High School, whose recent culinary explorations have included Buche de Noel (a sponge cake filled with butter cream), apple pies, baked Alaska, soufflés and cannolis. Alford started at the UI as extra help in January 2007 and became a permanent employee in September.
What does each of your jobs entail?
In the café, I instruct the students how to prepare food items for lunch. I oversee the pantry and bakery departments. The pantry does set menu items such as salads and fruit cups, and students create a featured salad and a hot sandwich every day. We also do three bakery items daily – a cookie or a bar, a pie or a cake, and a third dessert of a student’s choice. Many times students come in with recipes they’ve made at home, and I have to figure out how to make those recipes work on a bigger scale. Some recipes will scale up to serve 25 people very well and other recipes won’t. That gets to be problematic sometimes. Sometimes students don’t understand that a recipe that’s been scaled up is going to take a lot longer to bake.
We have to have everything ready to serve when we open for lunch at 11:30. We have a meeting at 8:30 every morning and discuss the menu items and what we expect of the students. We have a tasting period at 11:15 to make sure that we didn’t forget a key ingredient and that the items have turned out the way they were supposed to.
And what are your responsibilities in your second job, in the kitchen/classroom?
I set up the four kitchens/labs for the classes. The teacher gives me a food order for the semester, and every week I buy the groceries. I set up the food and equipment in each of the stations, tear it down afterward, and make sure that everything is clean so they’re ready to go the next day.
What were you doing before you came to the university?
I owned my own business in Rockford called Bouchee (pronounced boo-shay), a gourmet dessert and pastry business for restaurants and for private clients who wanted unique desserts.
How did you get started in the food business?
I was an office manager for 20 years and decided I needed a change. Every time I thought about what I really wanted to do, it always came back to baking. When my husband suggested I go to culinary school, I was very apprehensive because I’d never thought of baking as a career, and I had been out of school for quite a while. But I went to Blackhawk Technical College in Janesville, Wis., and loved it so much that by the second day of school I had signed up for the Knowledge Bowl Competition Team and had become president of the Epicurean Club.
I earned a general culinary arts degree in a year and a half – it’s a two-year program – because I was anxious to get going. There was so much to learn, and it was very comfortable to me because it was what I wanted to do. I wish it had been a longer program so I could have learned more.
While I was in school, I worked at an upscale French restaurant as garde manger (gar-muh-zhay) and pastry chef. I was responsible for the salads, cold appetizers and desserts. I’ve also worked at upscale restaurants in Chicago and New York.
Were you a recreational baker before you went into the profession?
Yes. One of my biggest fears was that I wouldn’t enjoy it as a profession because the pressure of doing it as a job would change everything.
They call me the ‘crazy pastry chef’ in the Bevier kitchen because I just continually bake – after work, on the weekends – and bring stuff in. I play a lot at home: I try different techniques and ingredients.
The sous chef in the kitchen gave me some handpicked black raspberries, and I made blackberry ice cream.
For their final exam, the students that I mentor are making cream-puff swans for their prom.
Besides baking, what other hobbies or interests do you have?
My husband and I dine out frequently and travel when we can. We also enjoy attending Illini games and other community events. I particularly enjoy shopping at ethnic grocery stores and learning about their foods. I grow vegetables and herbs and preserve them. I have a crazy cookbook collection; I probably have more than 300. They’re in every room of the house.
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