Anna Hansen: The flavour of the month

By Stephen Jewell

Britain-based Anna Hansen's star is on the rise, with a new cookbook out and plans for a new London cafe. She talks to Viva about her recipe for success.

Chef Anna Hansen says the theme for her book is that 'it's really just everyday cooking but with a kind of a twist.' Photo / Supplied
Chef Anna Hansen says the theme for her book is that 'it's really just everyday cooking but with a kind of a twist.' Photo / Supplied

Though it offers a fabulous range of evening dishes, The Modern Pantry in London is best known for its impressive selection of brunch and breakfast options. That makes mid-Sunday morning the perfect time to meet up with the popular restaurant's Auckland-raised owner Anna Hansen and sample a couple of the choice selections from her debut cookbook, named after her Clerkenwell establishment.

"It's one of my favourite meals," the former Green Bay High School student declares when I arrive at her north London flat. "You've got the whole day ahead of you so you can lounge around and have a feast. You're not in any rush to go anywhere because normally you've got the day off.

"I love it. It's that whole Kiwi thing because breakfast/brunch culture is massive in New Zealand and Australia. It's starting to come into its own over here but there are still very few places that offer decent food for breakfast during the week or brunch at the weekend."

Chaos descends on the 41-year-old's compact kitchen as she scurries around, searching for an appropriate blade to slice up the pile of tomatoes on her chopping board.

"Don't tell anyone else but I'm a chef and I don't have a proper knife in my house," she admits with a laugh. "But I hardly ever cook at home to be honest. I love it but when you cook at work the whole day, it's usually the last thing that you feel like doing when you get back at night. I'm really good at Vegemite on toast! When friends come over, I'll make paella or something like that. It's easy, it's in one pot and it's really delicious."

Hansen is busy preparing Turkish menemen with sumac yoghurt, a deliciously aromatic dish she first discovered while working at Newmarket restaurant Saffron, where she achieved her first head chef position. "It was run by a Kiwi lady and her Turkish partner," she recalls. "They were both really into food and were always coming into the kitchen to teach me stuff."

Hansen begins by frying a few teaspoons of cumin and a handful of fennel and mustard seeds in some olive oil. "I love it but I try not to put too much in because you've got to consider people's arteries," she says wryly before adding a pinch of Turkish aleppo chilli flakes. "I really love these because they're quite oily. They're not the same as normal chillies. They harvest them and lay them out in the sun all day. In the evening, they bring them in and massage oil and salt into them and wrap them in a blanket so you get this really oily and delicious dark chilli."

Hansen next throws the tomatoes, some diced onion and red pepper into the sizzling pan before topping it off with a couple of poached eggs that rest majestically on top.

With its modern slant on traditional fare, the meal is typical of the cross-cultural fusion style pioneered by Hansen and her former mentor and ex-Providores partner Peter Gordon. However, Hansen attributes it to her Danish grandmother, whom she credits as her greatest culinary influence. "She moved to New Zealand in the early '50s and back then it was a far cry from what she or any immigrant would have been used to," she says. "So they spent a lot of time trying to recreate their own food with local ingredients."

Next up is a sugar-cured prawn omelette, renowned as the Modern Pantry's signature dish. Hansen pulls a Tupperware container of crustaceans out of the fridge. She readied them the night before, marinating them in lemongrass, ginger, fish sauce and Maldon salt. "I was running around the restaurant kitchen at 1am with my little shopping basket - but it's great to have my own private supermarket," she laughs.

"You rinse [the marinade] off the next day. It gives it quite a sweet, delicate flavour, which is also quite Asian."

She serves the omelette with smoked chilli sambal, an alluring but potent Southeast-Asian condiment. "One of our regular customers is from Singapore and he really rates our sambal," says Hansen, who was first introduced to the fiery pickle by fellow chef Gianni Vatteroni when she worked at Peter Gordon's now-defunct Sugar Club.

"He told me that it was really authentic, which is great because it isn't based on anything authentic. He said that back home they eat it spread on toast with nothing else, which is quite brave because it's quite intense and feral tasting, but in a good way."

Although she slightly burns the bottom of the omelette on her first go, Hansen successfully proves that the recipes in The Modern Pantry can be attempted in a standard domestic environment. "The thing about the book is that it's really just everyday cooking but with a kind of a twist," she says. "There's a steak but it's marinated in tamarind and miso, there's chips but they're cassava chips and there's a beetroot and mint salad but it comes with pomegranate molasses and orange dressing. Not to understate it but it's really just simple cooking. There isn't anything in there that I couldn't easily whip up here one way or another. It's just about having certain ingredients to hand."

Hansen first planned to write a cookbook after leaving Providores in 2005 but ended up opening The Modern Pantry instead. "It was probably best to get the restaurant going first," she says, conceding that assembling the recipes has been a more involved task than first anticipated. "It's been really hard work as I was doing a lot of it after work in the middle of the night or on my days off. The first three-quarters of the book were like 'oh my God, what am I going to write now?' From that point on, it was really quite intense. Then there's that last push where you think you're finished the book but then there are endless questions."

She struck a careful balance between Modern Pantry perennials like the sugar-cured prawn omelette and old favourites like the Turkish menemen.

"That's something I would cook at home but would never do in the restaurant," she says. "Because of the way the book is broken down, I needed to have a certain number of recipes for each section. Then it was just a case of choosing the things I think are the tastiest and knowing that I wanted to incorporate certain ingredients like cassava. It was really about the ingredients and how I was going to best put them in the book in a way that would serve each section and show people that things are not necessarily made for a single purpose."

As Hansen notes in the introduction, she is often asked how she conjures up such mouthwatering results from seemingly bizarre and disparate combinations. "Whenever I go travelling, food is always my priority and I always come back with something new that I've discovered, or a new piece of equipment for the kitchen," she says. "But most of my inspirations come from conversations with my chefs or other people. I also tend to focus on a particular ingredient like liquorice or pumpernickel. 'What can we do with that without just serving it up in an open sandwich?' I'll then go off and have a brainwave."

Others are inspired by dining experiences, such as the "porkalicious" thit heo kho, which is adapted from a similar dish Hansen encountered in a Vietnamese restaurant in nearby Islington. "You tweak and change them and make them your own," she says. "There are very few original recipes but every now and then you come up with something that is truly unique and yours."

The future certainly looks bright for Hansen, who is ambitiously intending to follow Peter Gordon's example by opening a new restaurant later this year in the West End, which will expose her cooking to a whole new audience. "It's very exciting," she says. "We're looking at a site right this minute in Soho, which I'm hoping is going to come off. It'll be a 40-seat cafe-type place, which will be much smaller than the Modern Pantry and only one level."

She was shocked but honoured to win last year's UK-based New Zealander of the Year award.

"Just being nominated was really lovely and I really didn't think that I was going to get it," she says. "I didn't even bother preparing anything because the other nominees were clearly far more worthy than I was."

Despite being born in Canada and having lived in London for nearly two decades, Hansen proudly calls herself a New Zealander.

"I still say that I'm a Kiwi and I'm happy about that," she says. "I have been over here for a long time and I think of England as my home, but New Zealand is my other home first and foremost."

* The Modern Pantry Cookbook ($69.99, Ebury Press) goes on sale in New Zealand this Friday.

- NZ Herald

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