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[InC-terview] Celebrity Chef Anna Olson Shares Her Culinary Adventures!

By Flora  /  25 Jul 2016 (Monday)

Master of the pastry world, Chef Anna Olson travels around Southeast Asia for her upcoming Asian Food Channel (AFC) show ‘Inspired with Anna Olson’ where she meets renowned Asian chefs, explores new ingredients and recreates the dishes with her own signature twist. 

In one of the 10-episode series, she meets and learns from Singaporean chef, Peranakan Chef Violet Oon who shows Anna the cooking techniques and the rich heritage behind the preparation of Peranakan favorites such as Ayam Tempra (braised chicken) and Kaya Toast (coconut jam with butter on toast).

During her promotional tour stop here earlier this month, we met with Olson, who shares more about her culinary journey; the inspirations, challenges and joys of making the series. 

InC: Hi Anna, what is the biggest challenge you faced during your years as a chef?

The biggest challenge I faced is the parallel of ingredients because in Canada, there is no excess to fresh and good coconuts. Our coconuts come from Costa Rica and by the time they reach us, it is all dried out and they are not the same. So it’s also finding to see can I replicate the flavour and expectation I want using the ingredients I have excess to as our fruits are different… and therefore sometimes I have to look to a technique than an ingredient to fill what I want to in a dish. 

How about during your early days?

The challenge relates to learning the techniques. Sometimes the best way to perfectly cook a custard is to overcook it so that you know ‘Okay! I should have stopped 2 minutes ago’. So a lot of trial and error is part of it. Being willing to be humble and be an apprentice. Sometimes I think we rush and we want to be the expert. A baker’s apprenticeship is longer than a cook’s apprenticeship because that technical side is so much more… with more information involved and there are so much more repetition. That’s where I have to remind myself to be patient and allow myself that repetition and I think that has translated to my recipe developments. I never go into a recipe thinking: “I’m going to make this and it’s going to great the first time”, I have to be ready (to fail). 

The show is called ‘Inspired With Anna Olson’, can you share with us how have you been inspired when filming the show?

The inspirations came from a number of places. The obvious and the simplest would be from the ingredients - to find something new. 

The first time I tried a young coconut. You would think that as a chef, and I’ve been a chef for 20 years, I’ve dined out my whole life, tried lots of new things and flavours. You hit a point where you think you’ve tried almost everything. Well what I’ve learned is I don't know the half of it. Part of it was the ingredients, part of it was the technique. 

Because I got the opportunity to cook with chefs - not just to taste their dish and learn how they did it, but also hear their stories and passion behind their dishes. Chefs like Chef Violet Oon, she grew up with dishes that her grandmother made and tells me why they are important to her. It just gives the food more value. That is eye-opening and a special part of my experience. 

What’s the biggest takeaway from being part of ‘Inspired with Anna Olson’?

It really comes down to people. Whether you’re eating at a restaurant or knowing what’s behind the dish. Singapore’s cuisine is Singapore cuisine - you can’t move it or take it out of Singapore if not it loses its character. It’s humbling, it’s exciting and that’s what inspirational because you can’t not stop coming to Singapore because it will keep changing here and you got to keep on top of what that is by coming back. The first time I was here was 6 years ago and there’s still of course, Chilli crabs, Pepper crabs and all the essentials but salted egg wasn’t a hot thing. So I want to keep coming back because there will always be something new.

Why these six selected countries? 

There were cities I knew I wanted to visit and countries I had to visit, like Singapore and Malaysia. These are places that I’ve been to and I know I needed to learn more about the food. I had only been to Thailand briefly, so I knew I wanted to make a trip there. I wanted to explore other cuisines, open that conversations. In terms of the chefs I cooked with, some were introduced to me and some that I’ve know like Chef Wan. 

Now that I’ve done ‘Inspired’ and have worked on these new recipes, I have a new level of confidence that I didn’t have before and I’m willing to stretch the boundaries in the way of ingredients and techniques that I never knew. In my world, making a mistake is important. I need to fail to learn.

You mentioned learning new ingredients and fusing them into your dishes. How much of it is knowing what’s the science behind it and how much of it is purely experimenting.

I will say a good part of it, I have to rely on my training and experience to know how those ingredients will behave together. So I’ll probably say 70-30? 70 will be already knowing the science and know what effects may happen in the presence of acidity in terms of the amount of proteins it has, as that speeds up in coagulation. Or to know how to get that smoothness or silkiness in a custard or a certain type of texture if I’m making something like kaya.

I didn’t grow up with kaya, but understanding the presence of the coconut, the gula melaka and the egg yoke, helps. I understand how that happens and how the cooking method I need to have to get me to that end result. That 30% is just ‘let’s just see’ and then trying, and failing a couple of times and try again… that’s where the lesson comes in. So that the 70-30 becomes 80-20 and by the time I get to the recipe, I get to the 100% and I know what’s going to happen. By the time it airs on TV, there should be no guessing involved. 

‘Inspired With Anna Olson’ premieres 29 July, every Friday at 9.00pm (Starhub Ch. 435) on Asian Food Channel!
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