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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

HISTORY IN THE BAKING: Indianapolis pastry chef defies odds

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Alvin Clark is a man of few words. Luckily, his accomplishments speak for him. 

Clark, 81, is the first African African man to become a certified pastry chef. Clark was named a certified executive pastry chef by the American Culinary Federation in 1987, the equivalent of being an admiral in the Navy. 

Throughout his career, he has fed stars such as Prince and Natalie Cole, served cookies at the 2012 Super Bowl in Indianapolis, and worked as executive pastry chef in Levy Restaurant, located in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the Indianapolis Pacers. 

These accomplishments didn’t come without struggle. The long years of training with chefs was nothing compared to his upbringing in Dallas. 

As a boy, Clark never formally learned to read or write and endured regular abuse from the uncle who helped raise him. Clark took odd jobs in local restaurants, just trying to get by. 

A chance meeting in 1957 changed Clark’s life forever.

“I didn’t get a good schooling,” Clark said, “so I take advantage of it [the opportunity], and the chef saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He stuck by me.”

That chef was Rudy Fisher, whom Clark met in the Baker Hotel in Dallas while working as a busboy when he was 17. For four years, Clark followed Fisher around the country, learning all about different types of dough and learning to bake everything from European cookies to classic American pies. 

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Clark said of his training. “It gave me something to look forward to and gave me a good work ethic. I was learning something. I ain’t know I would get this far up the totem pole.”

Working his way up that totem pole presented many challenges for Clark. Without being able to read or write meant he had to memorize every recipe he used, and when decorating cakes, he copied the words Fisher wrote. Despite the difficulty, memorizing 600 recipes helped Clark achieve his certification. 

Becoming a certified pastry chef required a lot of training and a lot of moving. Throughout his career, Clark trained and worked in several cities, including Dallas, Wichita, Kansas, and Indianapolis. In each city, he picked up new skills, and he’s won several awards at culinary shows in Indianapolis. But it’s not the awards that make Clark call Indianapolis home. Nodding toward his wife of 46 years, LaVada, Clark said it’s the family he found in the city that kept him here. 

Clark met LaVada in 1969 while working as a baker at the Columbia Club. LaVada went in to pick up a cake, and the pair have been together ever since. Clark married LaVada, a single mother of five children, in 1974. With Clark’s son, Alvin Clark Jr., they became a family of eight, and the experience was different than anything Clark had ever experienced growing up. 

Within their blended family, there was an equal amount of give and take. LaVada described her husband as being a great, loving father, and his stepchildren had no problem viewing Clark as a father figure. Two of his stepdaughters, Toni and Millicent, helped Clark learn to read while they were in elementary school. 

“I had good family values that I never had before,” he said. “It was a good strong unit as a family.”

While the world may know Clark as a world-class baker, those close to him know him as a loving family man. 

“He is loving and humble, he loves people, and he loves life,” Alvin Jr. said. “He loves giving and teaching his craft, and he loves sharing it with anyone who will listen,” he adds with a laugh. 

And while Alvin Jr., 61, has a preference for his dad’s pecan pie recipe, Clark views every recipe, every opportunity to bake, as a learning experience. 

“It didn’t matter what I was baking,” Clark said. “I was proud to learn the recipes.”

And as humble as Clark is about his certified status, it came as a shock, LaVada said. 

“Going back to my school days, I didn’t learn nothing, I wasn’t good at school,” he said “So to achieve all this … it means a lot to me.” 

Clark paid it forward by volunteering with nonprofits and 4-H groups to share his baking skills, hoping to inspire a future baker. 

“It’s not no easy job, but it’s a dying art,” Clark said of baking. 

While illness has forced Clark into retirement, a lifetime of baking, sharing his skills and making history as the first African American man to become a certified pastry chef have created a lasting legacy in Indianapolis and around the country. 

“I’m so very proud of him and his accomplishments,” Alvin Jr. said. “And so thankful that God has given me the blessing of making him my father.” 

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

Alvin Clark, certified executive pastry chef for Levy Restaurants of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, spoke about his early life when he could not read and the impact literacy has had on his life. Clark was the guest speaker for the 2016 annual Indy Reads Student and Volunteer Recognition Event. (File Photo)


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