Celebrity chef Anna Olson talks fresh flavors

By Jonathan P. de Santos

Posted at Dec 11 2012 01:15 PM | Updated as of Dec 12 2012 07:01 PM

Anna Olson during a cooking demo at the EDSA Shangri-La hotel. Photo: Handout

MANILA, Philippines -- Celebrity chef Anna Olson may have three shows on the Asian Food Channel, but she believes the real stars are the ingredients.

Meeting with reporters and food writers at a recent media lunch at EDSA Shangri-La's HEAT restaurant, Olson said sometimes a tomato is so fresh and juicy that all you really have to do is slice it open. But when it isn't perfect, “you just have to help it along.”

That's when the techniques she has learned in 15 years as a chef come into play, she said.

Finding good ingredients has not been a problem for Olson, though. A bowl of sweet potato soup with coconut milk and ginger is "better here in the Philippines than at home,” she said, noting that while the canned coconut milk she buys in Canada has the same flavor, the fragrance is lost during processing.

“Your sweet potatoes are absolutely amazing,” she gushed.

The soup, which Olson said is simple enough to serve to unexpected dinner guests, is made from little more than onions, chicken stock, sweet potato, coconut milk, and ginger. The way the sweet potato and coconut milk play off the mild heat from the ginger makes the soup sophisticated enough for a dinner party.

Olson has also fallen in love with Philippine pineapples, using them in an arugula salad with pineapple, pine nuts, and Piave cheese. The sweet-tart flavor of the pineapple complements the nutty and slightly sweet taste of the cheese well. With good pineapples, you get a hint of that flavor in the cheese, Olson said.

Olson's arugula salad with pineapple, pine nuts and Piave cheese. Photo: Handout

Olson, who hosts "Bake with Anna Olson," "Sugar" and "Fresh with Anna Olson," is known more as a pastry chef.

For the meal she made for the lunch, she adapted recipes from her show using locally available ingredients. She topped mini versions of her coconut cream pie with mangoes, for example.

She also used calamansi for a calamansi and raspberry mousse cake, a specialty that, she said, presents “everything good about the baking world.”

Everyone can bake

Olson, who worked at a bank in Ontario before taking up culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University in Colorado, dispelled a common fear among many first-time bakers: that they will never learn to do it right.

“It's just like golf,” she said. “You're never good on your first try, but you get better as you go along.” All one needs to make it as a baker, she said, are patience, practice, and respect for the science of baking.

Olson prepared mini versions of her desserts during her visit to Manila. Photo: Handout

She explained that recipes are written a certain way because of the way ingredients react with each other during baking.

“You have to be fascinated by that process,” she said, adding volumes and measurements have to be exact and ingredients should be added to the mixture in a specific order.

She admitted to receiving complaints that her recipes don't work, only to find out that the beginner bakers changed the recipe without taking into account the ratio of the ingredients.

“'Oh, I don't like eggs so I just used egg whites, and I didn't want to make so much so I just put half the flour the recipe called for',” she said mimicking an imaginary caller.

“It won't taste very good and that's not my recipe,” she stressed.

But following the recipe and baking a perfect dessert is a stress-reliever for a lot of people, she swore.”It's sort of like yoga,” she said.

Olson shared a story of her friend who wanted to quit medical school to be a pastry chef. “I told her 'You can always become a pastry chef, but—and I think your mom will agree—that you should finish medical school first',” she said.

Back to basics

Olson reported that she has seen a resurgence in “old school techniques” among chefs and culinary artists, which she said is good because although using good ingredients is important, it's also easy to use an ingredient as a “chef's crutch.”

“Like truffle oil. I love truffle oil, but sometimes it can be used to hide a cooking technique that isn't so good. Like you have an okay soup, and then you put truffle oil, and people will be like, 'Wow, truffle oil!',” she explained.

Used too often, a gimmicky ingredient could keep chefs from growing in their art. Using too many fad ingredients could also spell doom for a dish, she said.

Anna Olson with executives of EDSA Shangri-La. Photo: Handout

“Try just one properly cooked thing on a plate, (don't try to cram in) 16 things,” she said.

True to form, Olson shared the best thing to have with truffle oil: “Have you tried truffle oil on popcorn? That stuff is so good,” she cried in excitement.