Sweet hire

Sweet hire

Pastry chef brings new treats to Shands at UF

By Allyson Fox

Pa Houa Vang and one of her creations./Photo by Maria Belen Farias

Pa Houa Vang has vivid memories of growing up and baking cookies with her mom and her sisters. It all started when she was 5, and she would sneak tastes of batter when her mom was not looking.

Though she loved baking, Vang didn’t take a formal cooking class until her last year of high school.

“I was good at it,” she said.

From there, she pursued a culinary career, attending Johnson & Wales University for bakery and pastry arts.

Now, Vang is the first pastry chef Shands at UF has ever hired, and her specialty brings changes to the cafeteria.

“We’re starting to do everything from scratch,” Vang said.

She knows baking from scratch is a big task, but the result is better taste.

“You put more love into it,” she said.

Prior to coming to Shands, she worked in restaurants, so Vang is used to starting with just flour and sugar. The difference at Shands is she knows exactly how much she needs to bake each day. There are no surprises.

A pastry chef’s schedule doesn’t follow the traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday. Vang’s workday starts at about 5:30 a.m.

When she arrives people have already started baking biscuits. The key is to stay a day ahead, so she preps desserts for the next day. Some days are hectic, and others are more laid back. One day she may make about 100 baked goods, but other days she bakes 300 to 400.

But Vang doesn’t do it alone. She has a team to help her bake treats like banana muffins, cookies, cupcakes and cakes for patients.

“It’s a team atmosphere,” she said. “Everyone is willing to help.”

Her favorite baking ingredient: vanilla. And when the treats come out of the oven, Vang works on the presentation.

“Baking is such an art form,” she said. “You have to make it look good too.”

But Vang is excited to take on the challenge.

“It’s been a challenging transition,” she said. “I think it’s really something amazing.”

Scott Erker, a catering manager at Shands, said Vang’s pastries are exceptional.

“It looks good and tastes awesome,” Erker said. “She’s not limited.”

The big thing in the Shands cafeteria is quality, Erker added. Shands is moving toward using more natural ingredients, and there will be changes to the cafeteria coming in January, including more food options.

“It’s going to be an upgrade in food and atmosphere,” Erker said.

And Vang believes desserts are an important part of every meal.

“It’s the last thing you eat. It’s the one thing you always remember,” she said. “It’s the best way to end a meal, whether it’s with a savory dessert or a sweet one.”