A Conversation With Almaz Dama:
Former White House Pastry Chef
Q. What turns a great pastry chef into an exceptional one?
believe the degree of love and passion for the art, dependability,
cleanliness, taste, presentation, individual artistry and creativity
distinguishes one pastry chef from another. As you know, in order
to succeed in any profession and to be regarded as an exceptional,
one has to have dedication and passion. The best cake artists
are passionate, enthusiastic and love their profession. While
they enjoy the aesthetic and architectural challenges that the
art of pastry presents, exceptional pastry chefs are also unwilling
to compromise taste at the expense of appearance. For them, the
appearance has to justify the taste. They also understand the
needs and values of their clients.
be exceptional one also has to come up with creative and innovative
ideas. Throughout history, food preparation, preservation, packing,
marketing, and consumption have evolved. As new technologies emerge
and new ingredients are introduced, consumers' taste and preferences
evolve as well. In today's innovative world one cannot afford
to dwell on the same products or imitate others year after year.
To be exceptional, one has to come up with new ideas and introduce
new recipes. Creativity never stops. It is a lifetime venture.
Therefore, loving what one does and creating exotic and healthy
recipes certainly turns great pastry chefs into exceptional ones.
What makes the perfect harmony of taste, texture and appearance?
And what is the secret to extending shelf life, preserving freshness
and creating beautiful deserts?
this line of business, the harmonious relationship between taste,
texture and appearance depends on the pastry chef's training and
experience. Perfectionism in pastry artistry also comes from an
innate ability that surface at an early age. There are no shortcuts
to becoming a great pastry chef. To perfect such harmony, the
individual pastry chef has to be an accomplished chemist who can
select quality ingredients, maintain the seasonality and freshness
of natural products, and know precise measurements of mixes, all
while balancing the flavors so that any one flavor does not overpower
the other. The flavors should compliment one another creating
a tasty and irresistible pastry. Designing artistic shapes, maintaining
the appropriate room and storage temperature, creating eye-catching
and breathtaking displays, designing well the setups and delivery
packages, and punctual deliveries all contribute to the perfect
harmony of taste, texture and appearance. They are also the secrets
to extending shelf life, preserving freshness and serving mouth-watering
Although your day-to-day work requires you to be part chemist,
part businessperson, and part pastry chef, how do you see yourself
first and foremost?
and foremost I see myself as a pastry chef: someone who is passionate
about her craft and loves to spend her time (dawn to dusk) in
the kitchen. I take my profession to heart and pride myself on
the best pastry assortments I can offer. Bakery and cooking has
been my life since childhood. I grew up smelling the sweet aroma
of sweet delights. First and foremost, I prefer to be called chef.
To me, the business aspect of it comes with the name.
Where did you grow up and how did you get into the art of pastry?
was born and raised in Debre Zeit, Ethiopia. I grew up in an environment
where food preparation and service was a family tradition and
an income-earning profession. My father, the late Dama Nademo,
was a self-made, industrious, hardworking, and successful businessman
in Ethiopia. He had a chain of food preparation and food service
establishments in his country. He was the main supplier of processed
food for the Air Force and Airborne Academy. My mother, Tameche
Huteret, who still lives in Debre Zeit, was also a strong-willed
lady who raised nine children and many relatives to be educated.
She emphasized discipline and hard work at an early age. Our parents
were our mentors and role models. As children, we were encouraged
and inspired by our parents to spend few hours after school to
work in the family-run bakery. As a result, at a very early age
I developed the interest and fascination with baking and kitchen
early childhood interest and coaching was supplemented by the
formal education and experience that I gained since I came to
the United States. I hold a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nutritional
Science from Howard University and a Diploma in French Cooking
and Pastry from L'Academie de Cuisine, a highly regarded food
science institution. While at L'Academie de Cuisine, I studied
under Chef Mesnier Ronald, a White House Executive Pastry Chef,
and other world-renowned culinary experts. So the combination
of my early upbringing, formal training, and professional experience
all worked to complement each other and improve my skills.
Do you have an original pastry creation that is exclusive only
to your establishment?
the vegetarian delight pastry that I created is Dama's exclusive.
It is free of animal products, but extremely tasty and irresistible.
It is especially popular during "Toseme" (Ethiopian fasting season).
Dama's exclusive pastry menu also includes tempting sugarless
pastries for clients who request them.
Would you encourage young adults to pursue career in pastry arts?
indeed! You see, the best cake artists are open, enthusiastic,
and passionate and more than willing to talk at length about what
they do. To encourage others who are interested in following your
step is very gratifying. If one has the drive for the art of pastry
and strives to be the best, then no doubt success will follow.
First and foremost, one must develop an intense interest for the
art and the business aspect must be secondary. God willing, it
is my vision to open a culinary school and teach young adults
to become nutritionists and pastry chefs.
What is your advise to those who might want to follow in your
and foremost, I will advise young people that in order to become
a pastry chef, one has to have dedication to the profession. Second,
in order to succeed in this profession, intensive training is
a must. Interest in the art, preparedness, positive attitude,
excellent organizational skills and focus is important. People
who venture into this business should always be as sweet as their
What are you most proud of in your career?
me success as a pastry chef is a dream come true. When people
come and say to me, "Thank you, you provide a beautiful and colorful
addition to my wedding day, to my child's birthday, to my Christmas,
to my Eid", it is so gratifying. Writing a child's name for a
birthday, preparing beautiful wedding cakes for a bride and groom,
conveying best wishes and happy expressions is always delightful.
You see, the happiest moments for my clients are also my happiest
moments as well.
Every couple want their wedding day to be a magical experience,
so choosing a wedding cake that will turn it into a real fairytale
is all important. My god, I don't know what brings out the sweet
pleasurable taste of your wedding cakes. I feel guilty for indulging.
Its pure natural flavors are pleasing to the palate without being
overpowered by sugar and butter. What is your secret?
the art of pastry, one has to pay special attention to the minute
details of how mixing one ingredient with another, can, if done
correctly, create a refined, delicate, and pleasing flavor that
imparts natural taste and displays elegance. Focused minds, perseverance
to one's enchanting artistry, firm hands, and balance are some
of the secrets in producing mouth-watering, eye-catching, and
breathtaking pastries, without being overpowered by sugar and
Almaz, it has been a pleasure chatting with you and we greatly
appreciate your time. Is there anything else that you would like
to share with our readers?
of all I am thankful to God Almighty who gave me the talent and
the blessing and who shapes my professional destiny. I am also
thankful to my sister Yeshi Dama, who is my mentor and role model
and who helped me to excel in life. Without Yeshi I would not
have been where I am today. I am also most grateful to the unfailing
support of my husband Negussie Nega. I am also thankful to my
whole family, friends and dedicated staff who keep me going and
succeed in the business. Last but not least, I am extremely grateful
to my clients, particularly to my Ethiopian community, who uphold
my work and reward my dedicated service. To me, life as a pastry
chef is a dream come true.
Dama Restaurant and Pastry
1505 Columbia Pike
Arlington, VA 22204
Tel: 703-920-3559 (Restaurant)
Tel: 703-920-5620 (Pastry)