TV host, cookbook author and chef, Anna Olson is Sugar and spice and all things nice.
Text by Debbie Soo
We first became acquainted with Anna Olson more than 10 years ago when she presented the TV series, Sugar. Decadent crème brûlées, summer peach crumbles, feather-light soufflés, peanut butter chocolate cups … Olson’s shows never failed to stimulate our sweet cravings. Each episode focused on one ingredient – sour cream, bananas, blood oranges – showcased in a number of recipes. With each viewing, Olson drew us further into her sugary world. Her bright personality, inspiring recipes and fresh approach made baking accessible, captivating us along with a legion of loyal viewers.
Though Olson is a natural leader in the kitchen, it wasn’t her first choice of career. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, and raised in Toronto, Olson studied politics and sociology at Queen’s University before entering the world of finance.
“Food was something I wanted to explore even as a child,” she says. “But professionally, it wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I realised I wanted to take that next step. It was a second career choice for me. I transitioned from banking to baking after a horrible day at work. I was up in the middle of the night worrying and stewing, and within moments I realised I had to do what makes me happy – it became crystal clear.
“My fascination with the world of baking and pastries came from a love for the balance of technical thinking and creative exploration. You have to put the two together to achieve growth and effective results. My father is a talented artist and that’s his form of expression. I didn’t have his gift of drawing or painting, but I did have a need for creative expression, and pastry was my outlet for that.”
Wasting no time, Olson left her position in Toronto to enroll at the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University in Denver, Colorado. She worked in Colorado and New Orleans before returning to Canada’s Niagara Falls as the pastry chef at Inn on the Twenty, where she met her husband, chef Michael Olson.
“I have been living in the Niagara region for more than 18 years,” she says. “It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. My intention was to come and work for a year, but I have to give credit to the real reason I stayed … it was true love. I fell in love with my now husband, Michael, and the two of us as chefs [and partners] have really inspired each other. Living outside a big city gave me a new appreciation for ingredients and how to treat them.”
The couple has co-authored and published a number of cookbooks. Olson has also written a series of solo cookbooks, but her widest reach comes from her television shows, notably Sugar, Bake with Anna Olson, and Fresh with Anna Olson, which all air on the Asian Food Channel.
“When I first started hosting 12 years ago, I was in a state of pure, unadulterated fear,” she says. “But what I have learned is that it’s simply a mode of communication. I have always been comfortable writing and speaking with people, so why should a camera lens be any different? That made me more comfortable and I used it as a tool to share my message. I’ve realised the impact I can have as a mentor, and I take that to heart. It makes me feel less nervous.”
Olson draws strength from her ability to inspire the masses, finding satisfaction in encouraging novice bakers to roll up their sleeves and start experimenting.
“My message is about empowerment. I know my show is about cookies and I don’t mean to over-exaggerate what I’m doing,” she says. “But what gives me satisfaction is feedback from readers and viewers about the success of their own experiments. The ability to instill confidence or self-esteem in someone tackling cooking for the first time is my ultimate goal.”
Her own projects involve plenty of trial and error, she admits. The recipes that make it to air are the successful results of home experiments.
“I love the recipe development process when I’m in the kitchen and messing around with a recipe. You learn the most from your mistakes,” Olson says. “The number of trials I do depends on the complexity of the recipe. A salad recipe you can tweak as you go, but baking takes a lot longer. I try things a minimum of three times and if I’m not making progress then I back up and look at the techniques again. After six or seven tries, I pass things on to the recipe testers – people who make a recipe independently without my guidance or instruction to make sure the results are how I intend them to be. By the time I’m on camera, I’ve learned my lessons and can share them.”
While Sugar and Bake with Anna Olson focuses on pastries and sweets, in Fresh with Anna Olson she whips up seasonal savoury recipes that showcase the bounty of the Niagara region. What’s her favourite forte?
“It’s hard to choose between baking and cooking, that’s like asking me to choose between my children,” she says. “One feeds off the other. Once I started baking more, my cooking improved. There was more creativity in the savoury kitchen because of my understanding of techniques. And because of the liberal perspective in cooking, I pushed the boundaries in baking. I don’t know if I could have one without the other.”
My Favourite Things with Anna Olson
1. Essential tool for making pastries?
Offset spatula – it becomes an extension of your hand for lifting cookies off a hot tray or for spreading frosting flawlessly on a cake. You don’t move around the kitchen without it in your hand.
2. Favourite seasonal ingredients?
In spring it’s rhubarb, summer is all about peaches, and in autumn and winter I love apples – especially honey crisp apples. This versatile Canadian variety carries a beautiful balance of tartness and sweetness and they don’t turn to mush when you cook them. It’s the perfect apple.
3. Best restaurant you’ve tried lately?
It’s a little restaurant in Niagara Falls called Napoli that has been around for decades and that I revisited last week. It’s a family-owned Italian restaurant and the homemade gnocchi (pictured) with osso bucco sauce is to die for. It’s an unassuming place and serves some of the best Italian food I’ve had in years.
4. Favourite cookie?
A chewy molasses cookie with all the spices … mmm.
5. Best thing to make on a rainy day?
It has to be homemade bread. If it’s rainy or snowing and I’ve got an afternoon, I make a simple homemade loaf. Use equal parts bread and whole wheat flour, toss in a little yeast, maple syrup or molasses, melted butter or salt, and mix until it feels soft and comfortable. When you put it in an oven, there’s no smell better than bread baking.
6. Cooking philosophy?
It all comes down to respect – respect for ingredients, respect for technique and processes, and respect for the people for whom you are cooking.