Recipe for success

SMU alumni across the country are cooking up sweet treats and savory snacks — and using the skills they learned on campus to do it.

Snack VS Chef
Becky Nelson

Becky Nelson ’78, Le Gourmet Baking

A chance opportunity to hear Ina Garten speak at the Dallas Country Club ended up changing the trajectory of Becky Nelson’s career — she just didn’t know it at the time. She had focused on raising her family when she found herself emailing Garten for advice after that fateful fundraiser (it was 2003, and email addresses were still easy to find). “She advised that I get a well-rounded exposure to all the areas of the food industry,” explains Nelson.

She did — working part time at a local restaurant in various capacities. Fast forward to 2012 when Nelson launched her own cookie company using Garten’s shortbread recipe as her base. “What I ended up doing was taking that recipe and cutting them out thick, so it makes them more of a specialty item,” she says. “I topped it with a glaze, which became a canvas to personalize and make it a special treat.” She credits her salesman father as well as her marketing professors with preparing her for customer research. “It’s a strength of mine, and I serve it well,” she adds.

Lauren Kitchens

Fancy Cakes by Lauren, Lauren Kitchens ’98

Lauren Kitchens was a film major at SMU when she started baking cakes for fun on the weekends. Not wanting to throw out her completed experiments, she would send them home to her friends’ moms in the Park Cities. When she started booking business from there, she knew she was on to something. “An SMU mom had a niece who was getting married, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, weddings! I hadn’t even thought about wedding cakes, where I can make big cakes every weekend,’” says Kitchens.

More than two decades later, she has a thriving, eponymous business and is one of the most sought-after wedding cake designers in the city, if not the country — she recently completed a cake for Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani’s nuptials. She credits her art history minor for helping her develop her artistic eye when she first competed on Food Network Challenge in the 2000s. “I was constantly bombarded with visual composition,” she says. “It helped me learn how to balance and helped me with design. Both of those fields are extremely visual.”

Tyrell Russell

Tyrell Russell ’16, The Kookie Box

You could say that a service trip to Zambia with the George W. Bush Institute got Tyrell Russell where he is today. “I had never left the country,” says Russell. But that trip introduced the Hunt Scholar and biology major to international travel, leading him to teach English in China following his graduation. There, he launched cooking classes Tykoo Eats, his first foray into the food industry. “I discovered I could reach people through food,” he says.

Empowered by the know-how passed on to him by his grandparents, Russell decided to stick with cooking and baking once he returned stateside. Today, he owns and operates The Kookie Box — a cookie company that “puts a story behind flavor,” as Russell puts it. He promotes a new international flavor each month, such as stroopwafel, tiramisu or even sweet potato. But he hopes to provoke thought through his flavor profiles. His Black History Month cookie, double chocolate with blood orange and sea salt, was inspired by a line in the Black national anthem: “stony the road we trod.”

“It’s a very dark and textured cookie,” he says. “The blood orange jam seeping through with sea salt is a metaphor for tears. … I don’t want the cookie to make people feel sad, but I like the idea of a food making you feel something other than full.” A cookie podcast is next in the works, to continue the conversation about what people eat and why.

Yasmeen Tadia

Yasmeen Tadia ’04, Make Your Life Sweeter

To hear Yasmeen Tadia tell it, “necessity is the mother of all invention.” When the Cox School of Business alum found herself as the single mother of a 6-month-old son, she rolled up her sleeves and went to work — on something deliciously sweet. Make Your Life Sweeter is Tadia’s dessert line of organic cotton candy, gourmet popcorn and assorted sweets that are available as gifts or for events. Though Tadia’s coursework as a business student certainly helped her become an entrepreneur, she credits student involvement more so — she was involved in Program Council, Asian Council and a number of other organizations on campus. “I would help coordinate and plan small and large events,” she says. “A lot of the experiences I had helped me get to where I am.”

Tadia worked in HR for 10 years prior to making the switch into sweets. “I love developing relationships with people all over the world,” she says. “I loved bringing smiles to faces in HR, but that was very difficult in my role — as you move up, you’re making some very difficult decisions. So I realized I enjoyed bringing happiness to people by making them smile.”

Lauryn Bodden

Lauryn Bodden ’14, S’noods

Soccer brought Lauryn Bodden to SMU instead of going to culinary school, as she had originally planned. But it was her summer internship in London where the communications major did a research project through Engaged Learning on global food systems for her honors thesis. “That pulled me back into food,” she says. After graduation, Bodden moved to New York City and ended up going to culinary school, after all — where she could marry her undergraduate knowledge with on-the-job training. “I felt like I was ready to do anything,” she adds.

And she has—Bodden sails with Sailing Collective charters in the spring and summer, cooking and learning new cultures and cuisines. She works in recipe development with food magazines; she plans multicourse menus for private chef clientele; and she works with brands to develop meals for clients. But right now, her main dish is S’noods, an “upcycled noodle snack meant to bring (together) different cuisines and cultures,” Bodden says. The end product is the result of her win on Netflix’s Snack vs. Chef in 2022. “There’s this whole world out there of different shapes and flavors,” she says. “It’s a way to travel through your taste buds.”

Eleni Gianopulos

Eleni Gianopulos ’86, Eleni’s New York

When Eleni Gianopulos first arrived in New York City after graduating, she found herself among a group of women who all set their sights on starting their own companies. “It was an exciting, bumpy and thrilling journey,” she says. Knowing that she loved to bake, she decided to use cookies as her canvas. “There’s comfort and consistency,” she adds.

While Eleni’s New York no longer has a storefront, you can find the signature cookies in high-end grocers and retailers all over New York and across the country — and in the hands of celebrities, including Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Katie Holmes and Suri Cruise, just to name a few of her clients.

But she credits her days at SMU, where she studied psychology, as preparing her for how to network. “You learn how to interact with your colleagues and be part of a community,” she says. “Some of my college friends are my closest friends … and some people from my freshman floor are supporters.”