Vancouverites get the chance to have chef Anna Olson in their homes regularly thanks to her presence on TV, where she shows Canadians how to bake delicious treats in their home kitchens. Luckily, Olson will be in Vancouver in person to take part in the EAT! Vancouver Food + Cooking Festival.
As part of EAT! Vancouver’s expanded line-up of engaging and hands-on experiences built in to this year’s week-long festival, Olson will be taking part in several events, including sharing the stoves with Vancouver’s celebrated pastry chef Jackie Kai Ellis (Beaucoup Bakery) at the Dirty Apron Cooking School for a sold out dinner, doing demos on the Celebrity Chef Stage, as well as participating in the Celebrity Chef Throwdown at BC Place (against Ellis and Chef Jonathan Chovancek of Café Medina).
Olson was born in Atlanta, Georgia, but grew up in Toronto. She studied culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University, and her professional cooking experiences between savoury and sweet aligns similarly with her experience in the States and in Canada. Olson lives in Niagara, Ontario, and in addition to her television work, has authored several best-selling cookbooks.
We connected with Olson via e-mail while she was on set for her Food Network Canada series “Bake With Anna Olson,” to talk about food in Canada, Vancouver, and in her own life, as well as to get some tips on being a better home baker.
Do you get to Vancouver often? What are you most excited about coming to Vancouver in terms of food? Do you have favourite places or places on your list of places you must visit here (bars, cafes, markets, etc)?
I usually get to Vancouver at least once, but usually twice a year. Granville Island is always a stop for me – I revel in the produce, cheese and FISH that is just SO BC – I’ll definitely be eating spot prawns and halibut when I’m here in May – they’re never the same by the time they get shipped all the way to Niagara.
How do you define “Canadian cuisine” or “Canadian food”?
I like to consider not just the ingredients or a dish as part of the definition of “Canadian cuisine”, but that combination of the ingredient PLUS the technique. To cook “Canadian” is to cook seasonally, with a different method depending on the time of year. In summer that means grilling meats & fish and serving with colourful fresh salads & sides made from what’s in season, while in winter, it means turning on the oven to slow-roast or braise, and utilize those vegetables that store well over the winter. Pot roast in July? That’s not Canadian, but in January, 100% Canuck!
You’ll be doing a (sold out) dinner with Jackie Kai Ellis of Beaucoup Bakery for EAT! Vancouver. Since you are both known for pastry, but are also highly skilled in savoury cooking, how are you approaching the menu?
We are challenging ourselves and the guests, since the two of us are baking together – double the power! We’re building on some fundamental techniques and really advancing quickly through the class. We’ll be making pate a choux, which we’ll turn into crullers and bake into profiteroles. Then we’ll get creative with some pastry cream-based fillings, and top it all off by assembling the profiteroles into stunning croquembouches. We want the guests to walk away feeling impressed with what they accomplished, and I’m guessing the croquembouches will definitely be social media-worthy.
Do you get to collaborate often with other chefs? What do you see as the benefits to diners and chefs for collaborative dining events and projects?
Success in the culinary field is dependent on mentorship, and as a chef your realize that there is ALWAYS something to be learned, and making sure you keep in touch and partner with other chefs allows for this professional growth.
What do you think of celebrity chef culture in Canada? In your experience does it differ in any way from celebrity chef culture in the U.S. or other countries?
I can’t really speak to this, since I’m not sure I know how celebrity “chef-dom” might be elsewhere. What I’ve always trued to stick to is my credibility – celebrity is determined by others, and it can also be taken away by others so whenever I regard another chef or introspectively, it is through the eyes of credibility not celebrity.
What are some of your favourite food experiences in your every day life?
The best experiences seem to be the simple pleasures…my morning coffee (Cafe Cortado – an espresso shot with a little hot milk), a properly made bowl of soup, warm bread with good cheese.
Do you have a “guilty pleasure” snack or indulgence?
Movie theatre popcorn, extra butter (and not the “topping”). Good thing I only go to the movies once or twice a year!
My grandmother always used to say “I judge a restaurant by its bread.” Now, she wasn’t a pastry chef, but it was her dining out litmus test. I’ve heard chefs see an omelette as a similar basic “test” for other chefs. Is there a baked good that for you perfectly demonstrates a pastry chef’s skill?
Creme Brûlée or Creme Caramel are good examples – such simple ingredients, but so easy to mess up!
So many people are afraid to experiment with baking because it’s such a precise science. What advice would you offer to anyone to help them be more confident bakers at home?
It’s true that technique needs to be respected in baking, but with practice and repetition you start seeing patterns and you get to know how ingredients behave in relationship to each other, and this will give you the confidence to push the limits in terms of creative expression in baking.
What are some must-haves for the home cook and baker’s pantry?
Good vanilla extract and vanilla bean paste, good quality chocolate, ground almonds, unsalted butter, and fruits in season.
What projects are you working on right now–what’s next for you?
I am in studio right now (seriously, I am actually in between takes of recipe segments as I answer these questions) taping a new season of my latest series, “Bake with Anna Olson” for Food Network Canada, Food Network UK and Asian Food Channel – episodes will start airing this fall.
See Anna Olson at the 2015 EAT! Vancouver Food + Cooking Festival. Event details and ticket info available online here.
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