Culinary Canvas

The Swedish Pastry Chef Whipping up Worldwide Acclaim

In conversation with rising culinary star Danna Vu.

Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.

Culinary champ Danna Vu very nearly chose an entirely different career path. But in what could be described as a move somewhat characteristic for a pastry chef, she chose to follow her gut feeling. Now, with a growing collection of gold medals under her belt, the 24-year-old Swede is fast becoming one to watch in the competitive world of pastry arts.

“Since school, I’ve always been interested in pastry,” says Danna. “But I had high grades so when I was applying for high school, I considered studying the sciences because I didn’t want to feel they’d gone to waste. In the end, I followed my gut instead of my grades.”

A self-described “practical person”, Danna knew she’d be happiest working with her hands in a profession that satisfied her creativity. As a teenager she baked non-stop, and when she wasn’t baking she was scouring the web to see what other pastry chefs were doing. Her creative process began to take shape, and she learned from a young age to use the inevitable slip-ups as part of it.

“The more you live, you learn. There were a lot of failures, but I’d try to switch out some ingredients until I found something I was happy with. There are a lot of steps before I can finally call it a recipe.”

“I love how varied pastry is. One day you can bake cookies and the next day a cake or chocolate. That’s my favourite thing about it.”

At just 18, Danna already had three years of experience behind her thanks to a part-time job at a local bakery. And so by the time she enrolled at the respected Culinary Arts Academy Switzerland, she already felt like something of an old hand. Despite this, the intense year-long programme - which included an internship at a five-star hotel in Geneva - really opened her eyes to the breadth of the pastry arts.

“I love how varied pastry is. One day you can bake cookies and the next day a cake or chocolate. That’s my favourite thing about it.”

But all that variety falls flat without creativity. Danna doesn’t seek out inspiration so much as handpick it from her surroundings. Anything and everything can spark an idea for a new recipe, from an ingredient stumbled upon whilst walking in the forest to a building she passes on her way to work.

“I love being out in nature, that’s where I find most of my inspiration. I might see a herb or a berry and then I’ll work out how I can use it. Or sometimes I see different buildings that have really cool shapes or forms, and I get inspired by that. Afterwards I go back to the bakery where I work and try to create a recipe. Then we’ll see if it works!”

She’s modest about it but whatever Danna creates will, in all likelihood, work. You simply don’t get chosen to compete with both the Stockholm Culinary Team and Sweden’s Junior Culinary Team unless you’re a cookie cutter above the rest.

“I’ve always been a competitive person, but I’m more of a team player than an individual competitor. I never thought I’d end up competing in all these competitions but I’m happy I’ve done it.”

Happy and, moreover, successful. In 2018, she was part of the team that won the Culinary World Cup and in February 2020 took home Gold at the Culinary Olympics. For the latter, the team was tasked with creating a three-course menu for sixty people as well as a buffet for twelve. Danna’s show-stopping ice cream bomb dipped in almond chocolate and served with a lemon coulis, apricot mousse and almond cake was part of the menu that earned the team the top prize. It was an amazing moment, says Danna, but glory wasn’t the only thing driving the team on.

“It was a big, big experience. It was one of the most magical moments of my life. And even more so because we weren’t just winning for ourselves, but for our team mate who took his life earlier this year. So there was a bigger meaning behind winning the Gold. We wanted to do it for him.”

With her culinary prowess baking waves throughout the industry, Danna’s toughest decision is what opportunity to say yes to next. She mentions several secret projects in the works as well as the idea of a pop-up cafe, although admits she feels she has more to see and do before embarking on her own venture. There’s a whole world out there and a lot of ingredients and techniques she wants to learn about first.

“I really want to go to Japan. Everything I’ve tasted from Japan is so satisfying, even though it’s not whipped cream or sugary chocolate. It could just be an airy sponge cake, and it’s the best sponge cake you’ve ever had. The simplicity is so perfect.”

Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.