A Conversation With Almaz Dama: Former White House Pastry Chef
by Emmanuel Mekuria

Q. What turns a great pastry chef into an exceptional one?

I 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.

To 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.

Q. 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?

In 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 deserts.

Q. 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?

First 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.

Q. Where did you grow up and how did you get into the art of pastry?

I 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 life.

My 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.

Q. Do you have an original pastry creation that is exclusive only to your establishment?

Yes, 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.

Q. Would you encourage young adults to pursue career in pastry arts?

Yes 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.

Q. What is your advise to those who might want to follow in your footsteps?

First 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 cakes.

Q. What are you most proud of in your career?

To 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.

Q. 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?

In 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 butter.

Q. 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?

First 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.




Almaz Dama

Business Address
Dama Restaurant and Pastry
1505 Columbia Pike
Arlington, VA 22204

Tel: 703-920-3559 (Restaurant)
Tel: 703-920-5620 (Pastry)