MAYHEW – Cooking has always been the easy part for Allie Clark.
The tricky part came when she began mixing business with pleasure. And that’s what led her to East Mississippi Community College.
The 59-year-old Starkville resident graduated Friday at EMCC’s Golden Triangle campus with an associate’s degree in Hotel & Restaurant Management. She walked in the Career-Technical ceremony at 2 p.m., which was followed by the academic ceremony at 6 p.m. Almost 600 students graduated from all of EMCC’s campuses over the weekend – bringing the total number of graduates for the 2012-13 school year to about 900.
Clark’s road back to school for the first time since graduating high school was a long one. She spent 31 years working plant jobs – first in a shirt factory, then at Weyerhaeuser – before going pro with her love of cooking. After some volunteer work catering friends’ weddings and directing kitchen volunteers at Greater Ebenezer Baptist Church in Starkville, she founded Clark’s Catering in 2007.
She kept the business afloat for several years before something in her conscience told her to “apply.”
“Apply to what?” Clark wondered aloud. “I had been out of school since high school.”
Acting on faith, Clark enrolled in classes at EMCC, took out a student loan and bought books before she had even passed the prerequisite test for admission. She failed the admission test the week before classes began, but turned around and took it again the next day and passed.
Once in Dr. Linda Farrar’s Hotel & Restaurant Management program, Clark realized how much she didn’t know about the business side of food services.
“You’ve got to know the math part to calculate serving size, which affects food costs. You also have to know your biology from a safety standpoint because there are a lot of things that need to be done to make sure the food isn’t harmful,” said Clark.
Add to those the certificates Clark earned from the National Restaurant Association, contacts made while working events, customer service tips learned and advertising and Internet marketing experience.
Farrar is used to opening students’ eyes to the complexities of food service. But in Clark she found not only a willing pupil but a willing leader.
“She’s the trendsetter for class. For getting homework done. For being professional. For staying the full length of time at events we cater,” said Farrar. “This semester was the first time she went to the DECA culinary competition, but she’s always been at school at 5 a.m. for DECA fund-raisers as long as she’s been here.”
Clark’s leadership extended beyond the H&RM program, as well. Golden Triangle campus Dean of Students Cathy Kemp said Clark was instrumental as a member of the Student Government Association.
“She helped with the blood drive. She made posters and worked events. And she made the most amazing pecan pies and coconut pies for our bake sale fund-raiser. And she represented us in Jackson for Capitol Day,” said Kemp.
With her two-year whirlwind of school responsibilities finally completed, Clark is looking forward to getting back to catering family reunions and cooking her staple down-home Southern favorites like chicken and dressing. But she’s thankful for the experiences that took her outside her comfort zone.
She also got to sharpen her floral arranging skills at EMCC when the school hosted its first event at Lion Hills, the former Columbus Country Club and now the college’s newest extension.
Beginning in August, Lion Hills will be the new home of EMCC’s H&RM program, its sister one-year certificate program in Culinary Arts and the new Recreational Turf Management program.
Farrar and EMCC administrators are currently working with Mississippi University for Women on an articulation program which would allow EMCC students to continue their culinary training at MUW while creating opportunities for on-the-job training for MUW and EMCC students at Lion Hills’s restaurant.
A Recreational Turf Management program has been in demand for years but, before acquiring Lions Hills, EMCC did not have a suitable facility to host the program.
Elsewhere on the new extension, improved drainage systems have been installed for the golf course and bunkers. A fleet of 45 new golf carts has been purchased along with maintenance equipment. Restrooms are being renovated on the course and in the clubhouse. The clubhouse’s ballrooms have been renovated featuring extensive wood paneling. And plans to build a driving range are also under way.