I am honored to interview my friend, Dawn DeStefano, whom I first met while taking Italian classes. I knew then that Dawn had a special talent, not only in her skills with the Italian language, but in her ability to “whip up” these melt-in-your-mouth Italian lemon cookies.
Since then my friend Dawn has become Pastry Chef Dawn and co-owner with her son, Chef Brent DeStefano, of B&D Culinary Sensations in Tampa, Florida.
How many times have you been to Italy? How old were you the first time you went?
I just returned from my 5th trip to Italy this past March. I make it a point to get there about every year. I am very fortunate to have family there to connect with. I try to bring a different family member with me each time so everyone can stay connected. I was probably 40ish the first time I went to Italy. I took Mom there for her for her 70th birthday and was hooked ever since then. As you know, it is quite an intoxicating country, even without the wine.
How fluent are you in Italian?
I would rate myself as middle, intermediate. I would love to be able to stay in Country for several months to improve. Perhaps someday.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a pastry chef?
I am pretty sure I was born with pastry cream in my veins. I can recall being in the kitchen with my Great Grandmother at 5 years old learning about bread. My Grandfather was a chef and there was always something delicious being made it the house. Who wouldn’t want to play with dough?
Is there a specialty item you consider your signature dish?
I would like to think my Tiramisu is up there with the best of them. I find it comparable to the ones I have had in Italy and I am proud to say, mine is up there. I love to cook though, also. I make some insanely good ravioli.
Where did you gain your culinary skills?
As with most chefs out there it started in the family kitchen. Everyone had to teach me “their way” of making the family treats, because as you know, “their way” is the best way. Formally though I attended Lincoln Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach FL for my formal pastry degree. Then I was incredibly blessed to attend a professional level culinary program in the south of Italy. How I ever drug myself back on that airplane I will never know.
How long was the program and how intensive were the courses?
The pastry program was about a year, give or take general education classes. We were in the kitchen every single day of class. It was definitely hands on. Yummy. The full course in Italy goes 3 months. There are shorter versions if need be. This was immersion teaching at its best. Pasta was just the beginning. Bread, seafood, desserts. The class teaches how to take the entire pig and make everything from every part. Wine pairing, plating, cheeses, the list seemed endless. Nothing from a box or a can, we even fixed fish that was caught that morning. There are trips to the market for produce selection and a fun day trip to Sicily for some cultural food days.
Did you really take a gelato course in Italy?
We learned about gelato making in class, you bet. It is an art form for sure. Once you have it fresh, it is impossible to have it anywhere else. I know there are many gelato places popping up in our country, but buyer beware. Many of the gelatos come from pre-made mixes and are popped into a machine and turned out like a soft serve from the drive through. If it leaves a filmy feeling on your tongue instead of melting gently down your mouth, send it back.
Tell me about B&D Culinary Sensations in Tampa and how it came to be that you and your son opened this business.
My children and I have grown up in the kitchen together. Brent is an accomplished chef already for more than 6 years. We wanted to offer more than the frozen meals and mediocre foods we have found from some caterers. We offer personal chef services for home and office. We keep the numbers of plates catered at one event to under one hundred so we can keep our meals fresh and avoid having to use pre-made foods and having things sit too long to get stale.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in culinary school?
That I didn’t know as much as I thought I did, and at the same time I did know more than I thought I did. It was great to have the skills I already had from over the years confirmed, but it was more enlightening to open up my world to the many things that were out there that I did not know about.
Is there anything you would like to add that I have not asked?
I would love for people to explore a life with real food. I know cooking at home is not as fast as the drive through, but a nice, healthy meal can be made at home in no time at all. It doesn’t have to be fancy. As we are finding more and more health concerns with prepared foods, fast foods and genetically altered foods, it is incredibly important that we get back to eating what Mother Nature was kind enough to bless us with. As a human animal we were made to move and made to eat. As we live longer the need for a healthier “real food” lifestyle is becoming more and more evident. Preparing meals together is bonding, eating together is bonding, taking that short little stroll after dinner is bonding, sharing that little dessert is bonding. Bond, get healthier and live a happier life.
I really admire Dawn’s perseverance to follow her life-long dream. Thanks so much for sharing, Dawn. Be sure to check out Dawn’s website B&D Culinary Sensations, where you can discover much more about this full service personal chef and catering company in Tampa, Florida.