Skip to main content
Skip Navigation LinksRio Salado College / Café at Rio / About Us / Café Leadership

Contact Us

Call Us

Café Leadership

Michael Hodgins

Michael Hodgins


Sustainable Foods Systems/Café @ Rio

Michael Hodgins comes from humble beginnings in the restaurant industry. At 15 years old, he began washing dishes at a country club in upstate New York. Spending many hours in the club kitchen would prove to be the spark that ignited his passion for food. In the ensuing years, Michael held various positions in the culinary field across the U.S., including stints as Executive Sous Chef for Levy Restaurants at the Staple’s Center in Los Angeles, Bank One Ballpark and U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix and Executive Chef at the Oakland Arena. Chef Hodgins also led the team at Bon Appetit as Executive Chef overseeing 7 kitchens on two campuses at Intel Corporation in Chandler.

Michael is a graduate of the Scottsdale Culinary Institute and holds a Bachelor’s Degree from the University at Albany and a Master’s Degree from Northern Arizona University.

In 2004, Michael developed a serious interest in serving sustainable foods. He moved back to the Valley of the Sun and began locating sustainable farmers, ranchers and artisans, debunking the notion that “nothing grows in the desert.” Michael’s current role finds him as Director of Sustainable Food Systems/Café @ Rio at Rio Salado College.

Michael thinks that this provides the winning formula: Buying from local farmers who use sustainable practices will yield the freshest, most flavorful products available.

Michael also believes that, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work another day in your life!”

Chef Ballas

Chef Ken Ballas

Executive Chef / Instructor

Ken’s passion for cooking arose by watching his mother prepare nightly dinners while  he finished his homework at the kitchen counter. Often he found himself mesmerized by the sights and smells of what was being made as he peered past his text books. Ken’s introduction to the culinary field began when he started washing dishes at a valley restaurant and he quickly moved up the ranks holding line cook, lead line cook and Sous Chef positions; all before graduating high school.

After high school he took a hiatus from cooking and attended trade school. After two years away, his passion for creating new and unique dishes drew him back to professional kitchens. Chef Ballas returned to in the industry cooking at two notable restaurants in North Scottsdale over the past several years.

Hard work, dedication, a wealth of experience and a growing passion for sustainable food has led him to a chef/Instructor position at Rio Salado College where he is able to share his passion and knowledge with students, staff and the community.

Mark Cavalli

Mark Cavalli

Chef / Instructor

It all started for Mark at about 10 years old. He walked into the kitchen and asked his mom if he could help cook dinner. She said “yes, stand here and stir this gravy.” After a few minutes he asked when it would be done, to which she responded, “when it’s done…now keep stirring, good food takes time and love.” Over the last 30 years, Mark has not forgotten this early lesson. 18 years later when he first went to culinary school, it all made sense.

His start in the business came at Native New Yorker and Domino’s Pizza where he learned about hustle and speed. There he fell in love with the adrenaline rush of a busy night. It didn’t take long for him to realize this would be his calling. After a few more years he packed up and headed to California Culinary Academy.

Over the last 11 or so years , Mark worked his way up through the ranks holding cook, head cook and sous chef positions at a variety of restaurants and resorts in the valley, including Top of the Rock at The Buttes Resort, Gold Canyon Golf Resort and House of Brews, to name a few. His efforts brought him to House of Brews as Executive Chef where he helped to open the restaurant and establish it as a food and beer Mecca in the east valley.

After 20 plus years in the industry, Mark is happy and eager to be here at Rio Salado College, where he can share his knowledge, experiences and tricks of the trade with a new group of eager cooks. Whether they be professional cooks or community members that want to cook better meals for themselves and their families, Mark is excited to share his knowledge and train a future generation of sustainably minded culinary professionals.

John Verdun

John Verdun

Catering Coordinator

John began his career in the hospitality industry at an early age as a dishwasher at a local bar/restaurant in his hometown of Odell, IL. While attending college at Northern Illinois University John landed his first job as a server and his passion for the hospitality industry grew even stronger.

After attending the annual food show in Chicago, John discovered there were universities and colleges offering degrees in Hotel/Restaurant Management. He choose the University of Wisconsin where he earned his B.S. in that very discipline with a concentration in convention services.

After graduation, John headed south to warmer climates and a management position at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, FL. It was there that he had the opportunity to hold different management positions in banquets, catering and convention services. He discovered that catering and convention services were his true passion. He has worked for major hotel chains in convention services for many years.

“I threw the first boy/girl party of my 7th grade class in our basement. I planned it for months and it was a huge success! I still remember every detail.” That had to be a sure sign of the direction his career would lead him.