It's amazing what Vanessa O'Donnell, pastry chef and owner of Ooh La La Dessert Boutique, has accomplished in the four short years since she opened her first location. Even more amazing is the fact that she was just 26 years old when she started, and that she did it all by herself.
Barely 30 years old this month, last week, she just opened her third and largest location in the Town & Country Village at I-10 and Beltway 8. While admiring her cute new shop with the great patio seating, pastel-colored cupcake-painted chairs, and cheerful neon "cupcake" sign, we caught up with O'Donnell for a chat, and to see how she made it so far, so fast.
EOW: Tell me about about yourself, are you from Houston?
VO: I'm originally from Sealy, which is 20 min west of Katy. That's where I grew up. When I graduated high school, I went to the University of North Texas in the hopes of studying fashion and absolutely hated it. I like buying clothes, but buying clothes for other people -- I didn't like. So I went to my parents and told them I wanted to change my degree, and they were very supportive, so I went to the Art Institute and got a degree in baking.
EOW: Have you always baked? Why baking?
VO: Growing up, my parents got divorced when I was very young. My mom does not cook at all. We had a lady that took care of my sister and I, and every day I watched her bake and cook. I don't know if it's the memories and the feelings that I had, because it was so comforting, or if it was the food that I loved, but I wanted to do something that would remind me of that.
EOW: So you were halfway through college...And you switched completely?
VO: Yes, it would have been my junior year. The good thing is that some of the core classes transferred over. I wanted to do just baking and pastries, but my parents were afraid that I would get out of school and not be able to find a job, so I got the whole degree.
EOW: When you graduated from school, was it easy to get a job or was it difficult?
VO: It was easy in the sense that there were a lot of jobs available. It was hard because I didn't have any experience. And if that's anything that you can tell culinary students - it's that you have to have some kind of knowledge.
EOW: What kind of knowledge?
VO: You can learn a lot in school, but what you learn in school is just the techniques. It's totally different when you get on a line, or you get in a restaurant because you're going so fast. I worked at a little cake shop, non-paid, when I was at the University of Texas...I filled cakes, I iced cakes, I decorated them, but I didn't get to decorate a lot of cakes because I was basically a nobody. Then, in culinary school, I went to Brennan's of Houston, and started as hostess before they let me in the kitchen, where I eventually worked in pastry. When I graduated I did my internship at the Houston Country Club, and that's where I learned the most.
EOW: Was it hard getting a job there?
VO: At the time, Master Chef Fritz Gitschner was there, and he didn't want to give me a job. But Jeffrey Guy, the executive pastry chef there -- he went to A & M to be a veterinarian, but decided to change his degree -- he was the one who said "give her a chance."
EOW: When you say you got most of your learning experience there, was it the pace, or the tasks, or the quantity...
VO: I was there for almost five years, and it was all those things. At the Houston Country Club, they do a lot of banquets, so a lot of plated desserts. What Jeffrey did was, one day he just put me there, and he said, "You're gonna have to learn." So he left me there overnight, he just put me in there and made me do it. And that's where I learned how to write on cakes. He made me write over and over "Happy Birthday" and "Happy Anniversary" until I got it right. I can remember doing that 500 times.
EOW: Were there any lessons learned or mistakes that you made along the way?
VO: I wish that I would have graduated high school and gone straight to culinary school, but I think everything happens for a reason. As far as mistakes or goofs I made, yes, I made lot. I remember one time, they made us take breaks at the country club at 4:30pm. I put 19 key lime pies in the oven, went downstairs to break, did not have the timer on me, and didn't pull pies out until 10 o' clock that night -- and only because I smelled something burning! I got in so much trouble, so they made me wear this timer on my apron and I couldn't work unless I had the timer on my apron. [laughs at the memory] So when people in the kitchen make mistakes, I go back to that time, and think, "I've done that before." It's a costly mistake, but things will happen.
EOW: Did you choose the Houston Country Club because you knew you would get a good work experience or was it just a good job?
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VO: I was looking for an internship and part of the program at the Art Institute was that you needed to get an internship before you graduated. The Art Institute suggested Rainbow Lodge, but they weren't doing internships. A guy who worked there suggested the Club, so I interviewed and got the job. Now looking back, I'm glad because if I were in a restaurant I wouldn't learn how to do plating for 500 people. And it also worked out well, because that's where I met my husband.
Check back with us tomorrow when Vanessa tells us how she started Ooh La La Dessert Boutique.