If this were 16th-century Europe, David Pham would be considered a renaissance man. Not only does Pham, hands-on owner of Bamboo Bakery on West Glendale Avenue, have a degree in computer science from Phoenix College, he's also an artist and painter, as well as a radio host whose weekly, three-hour Vietnamese interview show spotlighting singers, dancers, musicians, and visual artists is broadcast internationally.
The bakery owner's real métier, however, lies squarely in the culinary arts. David, whose real first name is Hông-Ân, which means "blessing from God," is a classically trained French pastry chef extraordinaire whose west-side establishment specializes in custom cakes.
The extravagant cakes in the cases and in a jam-packed floor display at Bamboo Bakery are not for sale, though the pastries, cookies and other desserts filling several cases like espresso mousse, swan-shaped cream puffs, bear claw cake pudding, and wildly colorful individual tres leches cakes can be purchased and immediately snarfed. The intricately formed and highly decorated cakes on display are merely examples of what Pham and his small but efficient staff can whip up for weddings, birthdays, quinceañeras, anniversaries, holidays, holy days or any other event that seems like a good excuse for a party.
But you'll have to place your special order at least a week in advance. "I want to make something not only good to eat, but something wonderful to see," says the slightly built, perpetually smiling Pham. "We sit down with every customer and create whatever they need. We handle emergency requests very well, but we don't want to do it on a regular basis because we want time to create a special cake for a reasonable price."
And with more than 150 different flavors of cakes and fillings to choose from, you'll need time to choose. Fresh strawberry with Bavarian cream cake, peaches and cream cake, and pink champagne cake with champagne raspberry filling are just a few customer favorites; more exotic filling offerings include mango, taro, durian (a stinky, thorny tropical fruit, known as the King of Fruits, that tastes like a divinely nutty cream custard) and jackfruit (another olfactorily distinct tropical fruit that blends pineapple and banana flavors). Sugar-free cakes come in at least seven different flavors. Bamboo Bakery's well-organized Web site lets you mix and match personal options for cake flavors, fillings and frostings; it also will give you an idea of how thematically and sculpturally imaginative Pham and his team can be. From basic Hello Kitty and Spider-Man vignettes to towering under-the-sea and stairways-to-heaven scenarios if you can think it up, Pham can render it three-dimensionally in cake and frosting.
Born in 1973 in Quy Nhon a seaside city of 200,000 near Da Nang in central Vietnam known for its gourmet bird's nests and ancient Cham temple ruins David Pham did not always live a life of peaches and cream. After the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces in 1975, both Pham's father, a highly decorated South Vietnamese military officer, and grandfather, an assistant to the mayor of Quy Nhon, were imprisoned. Pham lived with his mother, Anh, who also works at the bakery, from 1980 to 1987, when his father was finally released and allowed to return home. Because of his family's history and political affiliations, school was tough for the artist, who was not allowed by the communist government to attend the university to pursue his dream of becoming a teacher. That's when he hit on the idea of making cakes.
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"I attended three different private culinary schools to become a pastry chef," says Pham, now the married father of two small daughters. "I would also go online to see how other countries were doing stuff." After completing school, he opened a bakery and on-site baking school in Quy Nhon, where he gained a reputation for high-quality cakes crafted from low-quality domestic ingredients.
"In Vietnam, it was difficult to create good-quality products because the country didn't have high-quality ingredients available to cook and bake with like the French had brought in," says Pham. "Those ingredients went with the French. That's when I learned to make [cakes] taste good and look good." The culinary artist was so successful that he opened a second bakery and was requested by other baking schools to teach his baking and decorating techniques. Pham's lifelong love of painting and drawing was the magic ingredient added to his distinctive confectionary creations.
In 1997, Pham and his family moved to Phoenix. "When I came here," he recalls, "I said, 'Where's the ocean?'" Three years ago, he opened Bamboo Bakery, more patisserie than boulangerie, which now caters to a large Mexican, as well as Vietnamese, clientele. "At the beginning, we also baked baguettes, croissants, eclairs and pâté chaud, but because of the area, we couldn't make a profit and it meant getting up at 2 or 3 a.m. to have things ready for the day. Now we concentrate on cakes and pastries." Customers come from Scottsdale, Casa Grande, Sedona, and Tucson to the inconspicuous bakery, located in a nondescript strip mall that's home to a satellite Greyhound bus depot and a dollar store. "That means we are something," says Pham. "A lot of people are looking for something unusual to make sure their party is unforgettable and we can provide them with that."
Pham's claim is one with which an elegantly dressed Hispanic customer from Scottsdale, in the bakery that day to place an order for her daughter's quinceañera celebration, heartily agrees. Apparently, the woman visited a number of bakeries all over the Valley before landing at Bamboo Bakery. Her quest for the perfect cake ended when, predictably, Pham suggested a lacily iced doll cake in the shape, style, and color of the daughter's pink bouffant coming-out gown.