Q&A: Anna Olson

Canada’s queen of pastry on how she became a chef and how she stays inspired


 

Pastry chef Anna Olson creates delectable masterpieces with her tools of choice: sugar, butter, flour and eggs. Best known for her popular Food Network Canada shows Bake with Anna Olson, Sugar and Fresh, she is also an ex-banker, an avid traveller, the best-selling author of seven cookbooks, a demonstrator of pastry prowess at culinary schools across Canada and co-creator of the Olson Recipe Maker app with her husband, chef Michael Olson. Based in the Niagara region, the pair often finds inspiration in the orchards that border Ontario’s fruit belt, bringing the best of the season home to their kitchen.

Have you always been a baker?

I was professionally trained as a chef first, but in my heart I’ve always been a baker.

How did you make the leap from a degree in political science and a career in banking to writing recipes?

It took me a while to realize that I could turn my passionate hobby of cooking and baking into a professional career. I left the banking world to attend culinary school, then worked in restaurants for many years. Recipe writing came about as an evolution of customers asking for recipes where I worked. My collection of recipes started growing, and so did my development, testing and writing style with it.

What is it like collaborating on projects—from cookbooks and TV shows to a recipe app—with your husband?

I love the variety that these different projects offer. A cookbook is a long, laborious project; television production is busy and bustling; and working on the Olson Recipe Maker was an altogether new arena that involved matrices and beta tests—something I’d never expected to find in cooking! But Michael and I are constant mentors to each other. I value so much the fact that I have someone to bounce ideas off of, and that we challenge each other, but respectfully. It’s sort of like having an angel and a devil on your shoulder at the same time, keeping you on your toes.

With so many projects going on, how do you stay inspired in the kitchen?

It’s the variety of tasks that keeps me motivated—no two days are alike, and I thrive in an environment without a routine. Also, I very much rely on my cooking demos and classes to take the questions I am asked and gauge what people are interested in. I’m not the one who sets the trends—my readers and viewers are.

What’s on your holiday baking list?

I always have to prepare some of my grandmother’s recipes, as she is my inspiration. I always make her Cherry Walnut Icebox Cookies and a bread called pagach. It’s a Slovak bread made with a simple soft yeast dough rolled out and filled with mashed potatoes.

What advice do you have for home cooks intimidated by the baking process?

The key bit of baking advice is to have patience. Like most things worth doing, it takes practice. I compare baking to golf. If you play golf, I’ll bet you weren’t very good the first time out on the course, but, with commitment, patience and practice, you learn something each time and improve.  

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