Based in Canada, Anna Olson reaches out to the world by quite literally, teaching people how to bake and appreciate the finer things in life. Day in, day out, she showcases her unmistaken flair for creating some of the world’s most well-loved desserts. Only, she does it better with her own recipes – be it muffins, meringue, chocolate chip cookies, or apple pies.
Last week, the celebrity chef was in town as part of her “Fresh Flavours with Anna Olson” tour, thanks to the Asian Food Channel (AFC) and Berjaya University College of Hospitality (BUCH). Brandishing her over fifteen years of experience in the culinary field, some lucky Malaysians were able to snag tickets for a special up-close-and-personal dinner session with Anna herself.
We spoke to the culinary master herself hours before the dinner event to find out what it’s like a day in the life of Anna. Here’s the exclusive interview we “baked” with the “Sugar”y sweet Anna Olson:
Anna! How are you? How are you liking your Malaysian leg of the tour so far?
“It has been fantastic! This is not my first visit to Malaysia but it’s a treat to come back. I don’t know everything about Malaysia or Malaysian cuisine but it’s good to be able to come back to taste the different flavours and dishes. The last time I was here, we went for chili crabs at Fatty Crab Restaurant – we’re going back there tonight! Last night, we went down to Jalan Alor and we tried all sorts of new things that I hadn’t even heard of! I had the butter prawn with the shredded, crunchy goodness. We also had the salted eggs squid, string ray, and also, the chicken wings.”
Oh my. Yes, we definitely know which chicken wings you’re talking about! So here’s the thing, we’ve always wondered, what was your earliest memory of baking and cooking?
“I baked right from being a little child, when I was in grade school. I wasn’t very good at sports and most kids would play baseball or soccer after school – but I would go home and bake. My grandmother was the one who inspired that sense of passion. It’s my stress-reliever during tough times and eventually, I made a career out of it. Chocolate chip cookies! That’s my earliest memory of baking on my own. I had to be about five or six and I’m surprised that my Mom even let me! She let me turn on the oven and..actually, when I was a toddler, she’d clean the fridge of junk and pull out odd ingredients like bread and milk and eggs, and let me mix them. But she’d have to bake it and try it! It was probably horrible. (laughs) But she’d go like..that’s delicious, dear!”
And when you weren’t looking, she’d toss it out? Haha! What about your first memory of cooking?
“I remember, as a kid, more pre-teen years probably, my Mom used to subscribe to Gourmet magazine – it’s not in print anymore. In the early years, the centerfold picture was a full table spread with all the dishes and beautiful presentations. As soon as my Mom got her copy I’d analyze all the dishes that were prepared. I wouldn’t make them when I was younger but that sparked my interest in cooking.”
What would you say is your main source of inspiration when you come up with recipes and what is that process usually like?
“I use ingredients as the base inspiration. At home in Canada, we have four distinct seasons and within those seasons, there are ingredients that are specific to that season and are available together. So, when I’m developing..especially for writing an article or for a menu, I have to look at what time of year it is and what ingredients are available. This time of the year at home, we’ve got apples, cranberries, pears..and I look to baking for the cool weather so I use a lot of spices. If you asked me this in June, I’d be cooking with rhubarb and strawberries and my preparation styles would be lighter and a lot of refreshing to suit the weather. I take all of that into consideration first before getting into the techniques to achieve the desired end results of texture and taste.”
So even for Anna Olson, one of the world’s culinary masters, there’s still a lot of trial and error involved?
“In the development process, it is. There are lot of classic desserts that I still rely on some traditional preparations for. Say for example when I take something like a classic Napoleon – it has three layers of puff pastry with pastry cream. I have to respect that because it has to have those elements. But then I get adventurous and go okay, instead of a plain vanilla pastry cream, let’s do a chocolate hazelnut one. Then I just get in there and start playing. The first time I made the custard, I put too much chocolate in so you could actually cut it instead of spooning it! (laughs) I was like..okay, back off from the chocolate, can’t taste the hazelnut..put more hazelnut in. Essentially, I rely on my training and experience for the basic formula of proportion. Like, how much milk to egg to sugar, or for cake is..is it a sponge cake or a dense cake. I find more often that not, what the trial and error is..is not just about the end results but the proper yield. So I could be making cake batter and the balance of ingredients is great but I’d put it in the wrong pan and end up scraping cake batter off the bottom of the pan!”
How do you ensure that your recipes are tried, tested, and “passed with flying colours”?
“When it’s in development, I could do about six to eight recipes in a day. We would have people over at our house then..like friends and family and what I’ll do is, I’d set out a big cutting board and I’ll basically put a piece of everything and everybody around the table takes some, shares, and offers their insights. But without people commenting, I can see which ones goes and which ones doesn’t. Even the little things like say..if the crust doesn’t go with the filling then I know to make the crust more tender so that it goes with the filling better. I watch their plates! Like a hawk!”
While we’re on the topic of trial and error, what would you say was your funniest or biggest baking mishap?
“One of the most dramatic disasters was..that lemon strawberry wedding cake. Michael and I worked together one time, he was executive chef and I was pastry chef for a June wedding. I made a custom wedding cake – I even went to a strawberry farm and handpicked strawberries so that I could have strawberries with the long stems on them to put on top of the cake. It was an elaborate mousse cake and the bride was well aware that because of its delicate state, it wouldn’t be able to stay out on display throughout all eight hours of the wedding otherwise it would collapse on itself. So it would have to go back into the fridge to keep it stable. I spent hours on this cake to put it together, stacked with pillars in between the four tiers. And so..as a pastry chef, I went in early in the morning to get everything set up and the last thing I did was get the lemon strawberry cake set up. Then I went home and my team would take care of everything afterwards. Through the course of evening, the sous chef went in and told my team, okay now it’s time for the cutting of the cake. What he meant was, it was time for the cake to go out to the bride and groom for the cake cutting ceremony and everyone applauding and the picture taking. What my team took that to mean was, it was time to portion up the cake for the guests! He comes back in after giving the order and was greeted by..hundreds of pieces..of lemon strawberry mousse wedding cake.”
Oh dear! That’s some mishap, alright. What about disasters on the show?
“Oh yeah on a regular basis! I get clumsy on set all the time. I do remember one time when I was preparing an ice-cream portion of a dessert and..the thing is, when we shoot the episodes, we actually have to do the recipes two times over. So I do it once, clean up, and reset the kitchen exactly as it was the first time. Then I do it again for the different camera angles. We had washed the bowl from the first take and it was still warm from being washed. I put the cold ice-cream into the warm bowl and it exploded everywhere! I had glass in my pockets and for days after, I was still finding tiny little glass shards in them.”
Speaking of shows, what’s the biggest difference between “Sugar” and the newly released (in Malaysia, at least) “Bake with Anna Olson”?
“‘Sugar’ was all about desserts whereas ‘Bake with Anna Olson’ incorporates savoury and sweet. ‘Sugar’ was based on a single ingredient and see what we can do with it. ‘Bake with Anna Olson’ was inspired from the baker’s apprenticeship. It’s like learning how to use fundamentals through application so each episode of ‘Bake with Anna Olson’ takes that one simple concept and allows you to first master that before you move up to the next level. By the end of an episode, the viewer would be a graduate of that said concept, whatever it may be. Whether you’re a novice baker or an expert one, there’ll be something in there along your level to test out or try. It’s great fun!”
So it’s like going to school with Anna Olson. Nice! Alright last question then we’ll let you go – what is the best and not-so-best part of your job, of being Anna Olson?
“The best part is..everything. That sounds silly but I love about what I do is that no two days, two weeks, or two months are the same. I could be on set shooting for 12 to 15 hours during one time of the year and then here I am in Asia on a wonderful tour tasting butter prawns or squid with salted eggs! What I don’t like most about my job is..typing. I hate typing! Because I do all my own recipe work, I’m usually in the kitchen with my notepad – I can’t bring my laptop into the kitchen so while I’m testing and tasting, I write such messy scribble notes and I have to type it all out after. I hate that. Hate it, hate it, hate it.”
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Aww! All in a day’s work, Anna. Thank you so much for speaking to us – and we’ll see you on “Bake with Anna Olson” on AFC!