Love of food helps Glenelg grad to early culinary success

As a kindergartner, Aaron Hodge was mesmerized by chef Emeril Lagasse's noisy approach to cooking on TV.

"He got hooked on 'Bam!' and would repeat that even when he used a salt shaker at dinnertime," said Leroy Hodge, chuckling at the thought of his son, now 18 years old, imitating the popular chef's shtick at such a young age. "But he wasn't just watching him. He was fascinated and really absorbing it."

Now the 2011 Glenelg High School graduate is ratcheting up that early interest, parlaying it into his own catering website called Aaron's Ambrosial Culinary Delights while also interning at Cattail Creek Country Club in Glenwood.

"I think I've made people realize that I really want to pursue this career," Aaron Hodge said, as he prepares to enter the four-year program at the Culinary Institute of America. He'll take core classes in English and math at Howard Community College this fall before starting at the Hyde Park, N.Y.-based school in January.

Cooking may have started out as one of his many hobbies, he said, but it's become a full-blown obsession — of the good sort.

"I'm totally focused on culinary arts," he said. "It's captured my passion from the beginning."

Just ask around the Hodge family's Cooksville neighborhood. Several weeks ago, Hodge and his cuisine were the stars of a thank-you cookout for 150 people thrown by a family that was involved in a recent car accident and had relied on the kindness of neighbors to see them through their recovery.

The chef-in-training was tasked with devising a menu and preparing nine dishes that would meet the hosts' requirement for a set number of chicken and vegan entrees and a range of side dishes.

The process required a full 21/2 days from start to finish, including taking the orders, pricing the food and quoting a per-person price, Hodge said.

"Then I just spent all my free time in the kitchen, and everybody loved the results," he said. "I think that's what I enjoy the most about cooking — making people happy."

But Hodge's prowess in the kitchen goes beyond neighborly approval.

Tom Caswell, executive chef at Cattail Creek, has seen Hodge's talents grow over the past two years as Caswell helped mentor Glenelg's culinary arts team, which is taught by Karen Johnson.

"Aaron is a superstar," said Caswell, who watched his protege blossom from being "too slow and methodical" in 11th grade to a take-charge team captain as a senior. "He picked my brain a little bit and then performed phenomenally in school competitions."

First and third place in March's 18-school Culinary Student Invitational were separated by a mere 2.17 points, underscoring Caswell's impressions. The chef said he was surprised by Glenelg's last-tier ranking after hearing judges rave about the fennel-scented sea scallops appetizer, sweet potato-encrusted tilapia entree and dessert of caramelized pear panna cotta with chocolate ganache.

The team also took third in 2010, yet managed to beat Towson's widely respected Carver Center for Arts and Technology that year with a menu of trio-of-crab appetizer, Caribbean-rubbed chicken with mango sauce, and chocolate-and-berry crepes.

"Chef went crazy when we beat Carver because it's a fine-arts school and they get to cook all year round," Hodge said.

So interested was Caswell in continuing to guide the teen's budding career that he's taken him on as a paid apprentice in Cattail Creek's kitchen, where Hodge currently tends a grill on the restaurant's lower patio.

But even more impressive is his temperament when he takes on challenges, Caswell said.

"Nothing fazes Aaron, and that's important in this profession," said Caswell, who's seen a lot in his demanding 60-hour-a-week, 32-year career. "I like to call him 'Joe Cool.'"

The apprentice chef's mother echoed that sentiment, reliving his toddler years when she, as a first-time mother, let him taste all the spicy ethnic foods she favors. When he was 6 months old, he lapped up cream of crab bisque, not reacting to the Old Bay seasoning or sherry it contained, said Sabrina Hodge.

"We never hesitated to take him as a young child to Tio Pepe, a personal favorite, or any fine dining restaurant, and he always quietly ate from the regular menu — no kids' dishes for him," she said.

Leroy Hodge wasn't always on board with his wife's food experiments, he acknowledged with a chuckle.

"I would always say, 'Let's apply a little reason here,' because I was a little afraid of Aaron's reaction, yet he always would happily wolf it down," he said.

Aaron Hodge nodded vigorously in agreement.

"Dad's still protective, and mom's still out there," he said of his parents' divergent approaches to life.

Yet both recognized early on their son's preference for individual sports, his willingness to try all foods and his attention to detail — clues they say might have tipped them off long ago that his life would take this direction.

"Even now he cuts food with such precision that it looks like it's been put through a food processor," said his mother of the work Hodge has done on catering Super Bowl parties, book clubs and other events in the community. His chicken tortilla casserole is a neighborhood staple.

The Hodges' support for their son's dream of becoming a master chef and owning a restaurant or catering business is "refreshing," Caswell said.

And the couple said they're lucky the executive chef, who graduated from the CIA's two-year program, has their son's "best interests at heart." They also credit Karl Schindler, Glenelg's principal, for contributing to Hodge's future success by bestowing on him a principal's award for his culinary achievements.

Leroy Hodge said his elder son cut his teeth on an annual cooking competition and fundraiser called "Men in the Kitchen," which they've jointly entered for several years. Sponsored by the Howard County Center of African American Culture, this year's edition brought together 76 men who enjoy a little friendly rivalry.

"Aaron may have taken over as the male cook in our family, but he hasn't quite beaten me on grilled salmon — yet," he said. "Aside from marinating it and adding lemon-pepper seasoning, the key is grilling it at the right temperature."

Hodge's brother Jaydon, 8, is elbowing in on the culinary scene after recently taking two after-school cooking classes offered by the county at Bushy Park Elementary.

"He's my taste tester, even though he pretends he doesn't like my food," said Hodge. "He gives me thumbs up or thumbs down — with a little smirk."

But it all boils down to perseverance and confidence.

"The most important ingredient to Aaron's success is him," Caswell said.

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