2 years ago
One day, Teresa Hall was standing in line at a grocery store waiting to check out. In front of her was a couple speaking to each other.
“They said ‘It smells like birthday cake,’ ” Hall said.
That may very well have been the case since Hall spends her days creating all kinds of wonderful desserts from scratch, including birthday cakes, for the Dolphin Bay Cafe, the student dining area. Hall is the head baker for ASMSA’s dining services, and her desserts are one of the highlights of each day’s menu. It’s hard to pass up the desserts, and often it’s even harder to choose just one.
And that doesn’t even take into account the many special decorations Hall has done over the years — from making a cake shaped and decorated like the Student Center for the dedication of the building to the Minions from “Despicable Me” that helped celebrate students’ birthdays one month. The desserts look as good as they taste.
As for the couple’s comment about the smell, Hall’s husband made a good point when she told him the story. “He said it’s better than smelling like a chicken house,” she said with a laugh.
Hall has been with Ameriserve since 2010 when she saw an ad for a baker’s position at the school. She already knew her daughter Ashley Clayborn (’12) had been accepted to attend ASMSA. The family was living in southwest Arkansas, but an opportunity to move to Hot Springs presented itself.
Hall applied for the job, although she had never served as a baker before. She had an advantage, however. She had 20 years of experience as a cake decorator. She knew how to make a cake look really special.
She had learned how to decorate cakes while working at a grocery store chain in Hope. She was a cashier, but one day the bakery was shorthanded and she was asked to go help. Hall told them she didn’t know what she was doing, but agreed to help out. They put her to work on a cake.
“It just came natural. I was icing the cake, and they said, ‘You’ve done this before.’ I said, ‘No, not really.’ Some people it just comes natural to, and some it doesn’t. It’s easy for me, but other people will say ‘Gosh, how do you do that?’ That’s the way I feel about other people when I see them sewing and making things like that. That’s out of my realm of possibilities, but it’s easy for them,” Hall said.
When she interviewed for the job, Hall made it clear that she hadn’t baked from scratch before. Beth Jaeschke, food services director at the school, said that didn’t matter.
“I can show you how to bake the cake, but I can’t decorate it,” Jaeschke said. Hall’s cake decorating talents more than made up for her lack of scratch-baking skills, she said. “It’s great because there are a lot of advantages I have that a lot of (Ameriserve’s) other schools don’t because she’s so talented. I’ll send pictures of specific ones to my boss and the other directors. I’ll get a response with a ‘wow’ or a ‘I wish my baker could do that.’ ”
Early on, Hall relied on box mixes and recipes, keeping it simple. She said there were some flops along the way, but she learned quickly. Now she bakes almost everything from scratch or takes a recipe and adapts it.
When she first started, she stuck to one or two desserts a day. Now there are usually at least four or five out at one time, including one sugar-free dessert.
She said she always tries to stay ahead of herself so that she doesn’t run into a time crunch that can’t be overcome.
“Decorating a cake is a step-by-step process. I plan it out in my head. It has to be baked and cooled before I can ice it. It’s a little stressful at times, but I always do well under stress,” she said.
Students and parents send her their favorite recipes, and she’s usually able to accommodate them. For example, one mother let Hall know that she always bakes chocolate muffins for her son’s birthday. His birthday one year was going to be during the school week. Hall surprised him with chocolate muffins.
“He was grinning from ear to ear. It was something from home, something his momma did for him. I love to see these kids smile,” she said.
She bakes a cake to celebrate the students’ birthdays each month. She will also make cupcakes, one for each student whose birthday is that month, labeled with their name. The cupcakes often compliment the cake design. For example one month each student had an individual Minion cupcake. She’ll ask the students for suggestions just to get away from the traditional cake decorations.
“I’m always worried if they are going to get it, but they always get it. I like to pull up a cartoon from when they were kids. They were so excited about the ‘Rugrats’ cake,” she said.
She said she tries to use a lot of fresh fruit in her recipes as well. Some of the students prefer the fruit desserts to something heavy. Her favorite desserts to make are different kinds of bars with dried fruit, chocolate and many other fillings and toppings. But no matter how creative she gets, there is one dessert that beats all others.
“Their absolute favorite dessert is chocolate chip cookies,” she said, with a big smile that is familiar to anyone who has visited the dining hall. “No matter how many I make, they are all gone by the end of the day. One day I baked almost a thousand cookies. They ate every single one of them.”
Mom away from home
Her willingness to give an extra effort for the students comes naturally to her. She cares for the students, and being the parent of an ASMSA graduate, she understands the stress parents go through.
“I love these children,” she said. “I tend to get involved in their lives. There have been situations where the school was shut down, and parents can’t drop everything to come pick them up. I’ve been in contact with the parents and they ask can my child come to your house for a few hours. Even though these are some of the top students in Arkansas, they are still kids. Of course they can come home with me.”
She also understands all of the concerns parents have about their children being away from home. Hall had the advantage of working on campus when Ashley attended. She would see her almost every day. She was also always in close vicinity of Ashley’s teachers, so if there were problems, she could address them quickly.
That experience helps her relate with parents of new students. Parents tend to ask her a lot of questions.
“I do think it’s comforting for some of these students. I’m willing to be their mom when they need it. Sometimes they do. Sometimes it’s something as simple as getting something for them from Walmart. Sometimes it’s just having someone there to talk to,” she said.
Outside of work, she does bake some at home, but she said her family doesn’t actually eat a lot of sweets. She doesn’t have any interest in starting her own bakery.
“I’ve worked in a specialty bakery. On Fridays and Saturdays, it was really stressful. Here, I get to decide what I’m making, and as long as I make my timeline, it’s not so stressful,” she said.
The owners of a local bakery offered her a job, but she turned it down, saying she enjoys having Spring Break and the summers out of school.
And she’d miss the kids, too.