Mary Jo Toohey didn’t really do a whole lot over the summer of 2016—if you don’t consider developing a private-label apple fritter that’s now sold nationwide in eateries, at in-store bakeries and on frozen-food aisles in packages bearing major brand names that big a deal.
She doesn’t have much lined up for this summer, either—outside of spending eight weeks in Paris as a pastry chef–in–training at the world’s crème de la crème of culinary schools, the legendary Le Cordon Bleu.
Not too shabby a track record for a 20-year-old who’s still a year shy of a bachelor’s degree in food science at Auburn University. But, then, the way Toohey sees it, no goal is too high, no dream is too wild—if you’re willing to thumb your nose at your comfort zone.
“When you dream of doing something, it may mean challenging yourself and doing things you aren’t all that comfortable doing, but no dream is too big to realize,” she says.
Take her first big dream, for instance. She was but a child when she found her calling in life, and she found it in the kitchen of her family’s suburban Chicago home.
Baking was her thing, and that kitchen was her lab. Inspired by her mom’s career in food marketing and product development with such industry giants as Quaker Oats and McDonald’s, the young Toohey was forever experimenting with ingredients, flavorings and techniques, not merely to create a trove of “secret” recipes for in-demand cakes, pies and confections but to investigate how simple tweaks in a recipe would alter the end results.
“I’ve always been good in science, and I love food and cooking and baking, so I made up my mind a long time ago that would I go to college and become a food scientist,” she says.
As her college years approached, Toohey went to work. As for which college she would attend, her only criterion was that it have a superior food science program. After a great deal of online research and deliberation, the exceptional high school student applied to 20 universities across the U.S.—including Auburn, which was way down south and about that far down her list—and received 20 acceptance letters in return. When her senior year arrived, she and her parents began crisscrossing the country to make the rounds.
“We visited 15 schools,” Toohey says. “Auburn was the last one.”
OK, stop her if you’ve heard this story, but for Toohey, it was pretty much love at first sight.
“I fell in love with it, and so did my parents,” Toohey says. “I knew Auburn was it."
“I came from a small private high school, and I think it was the family atmosphere here that we loved,” she says. “You could feel it. Every person we met on campus and especially in the College of Ag was so incredibly friendly and welcoming, and I could tell the food science program was definitely a fit.”
Her college search was over, and in August 2014, Toohey officially joined the Auburn and the College of Agriculture families.
Toohey is what Auburn food science professor Leonard Bell calls “a go-getter.” She’ll spend her senior year at Auburn as a first-time Ag Ambassador, an Ag Peer Mentor and Food Science Club president, all while completing her studies and conducting research, under Bell’s mentorship, as an Auburn undergraduate research fellow.
“There isn’t much that Mary Jo has not done while at Auburn,” Bell says.
And not much she hasn’t done even when she isn’t at Auburn.
Because she had always dreamed of studying in Italy, she spent spring semester of her sophomore year in Rome as a student at John Cabot University. She returned to the U.S. last May, and before the jet lag had worn off, she was reporting to work as a food science intern at Clyde’s Donuts, a fourth-generation family-owned commercial bakery up in her native Chicagoland.
It was at Clyde’s that she accomplished the apple-fritter feat.
As a general rule, Clyde’s isn’t big on interns, but Toohey had an inside connection and, besides, the market-leading private-label doughnut maker was in need of specialized summer help.
“Clyde’s knew I was only a rising junior in food science, and they hired me as an intern, but they didn’t have any personnel with a food science degree, so they relied heavily on my knowledge and came to me for a lot of advice and input,” Toohey says.
The apple fritter was a case in point. Although the fritter was already in Clyde’s product portfolio, it posed a freshness issue that Clyde’s clients weren’t too happy about. Once the frozen, prebaked fritters were thawed and warmed, they only stayed fresh—and, thus, salable—for two days. The challenge Clyde’s presented to intern Toohey was to find a way to extend that shelf left to five days. Definitely a tall order for a college intern two years shy of a degree.
“I spent most of my time running trials, with usually six different dough formulas and 250 pounds of dough per trial,” she says. The formulas were ones she developed using the talents she honed back in her family’s kitchen, making slight tweaks in the basic recipe, until she arrived at perfection.
Both her Rome study abroad and the Clyde’s internship were Toohey’s doings.
“That’s what I mean by a go-getter,” Bell says. “Mary Jo arranged her own study abroad and her internship.”
And, he might add, her upcoming pastry training at Le Cordon Bleu, which, for Toohey, will be yet another dream come true.
Like her Rome adventure, Paris will be another solo act for Toohey, but that’s no big deal. She is a seasoned, unflappable world traveler whose family often vacationed abroad, so often, in fact, that, a few years ago, she announced another big dream.
“I made up my mind that I was going to visit 21 foreign countries before I turned 21,” she says. “Even I knew that was a crazy thing to say."
But guess what. Over spring break 2017, she was with a delegation of College of Ag students who visited Peru on a food and farming study tour. And Peru made number 19.
While she’s in Paris this summer, she plans to make weekend jaunts to Norway and Denmark.
“That will make 21,” she says. “And I turn 21 in August.”
Like she always says, no dream is too big.