Coco chef close-up: Anna Hansen
From washing dishes for Fergus Henderson to founding The Modern Pantry
In true fairy-tale fashion, Anna Hansen started out washing dishes at Fergus Henderson and Margot Clayton’s French House Dining Room in London, and ended up as the head chef there. Having subsequently worked with Peter Gorden on a number of ventures, she launched her own restaurant, The Modern Pantry, in Clerkenwell, in 2008. Scandinavian influences (from her Danish grandmother) and nose-to-tail eating form the basis of exciting fusion cooking that is tempered by the charm of the traditional. She was selected by Fergus Henderson as one of the most significant young chefs working today for Coco, Phaidon's comprehensive book on who to watch in the culinary world.
Q: You were selected by Fergus Henderson in the book Coco as one of the most significant chefs working today. What does it mean to be included in such a book?
I was very flattered indeed. It feels like a great achievement - Fergus is a chef that I obviously admire. He taught me, so it feels great that I’ve reached a point with my food where he would name me as a great chef. It feels thrilling to be in the book alongside so many brilliant chefs and it is great for business!
Q: How has your approach to cooking changed since your inclusion in Coco?
I don’t think our approach has changed, but it has re-instilled our belief in what we’re doing.
Q: Which of the other chefs included in the book do you feel closest to?
Although our food is quite different I feel closest to Jonathan Jones, mostly because we have come through the same school: Fergus Henderson’s!
Q: Which recipe are you most proud of creating or re-inventing?
My signature dish, the sugar cured prawn omelette It is truly representative of my approach to cooking and I think it has the perfect balance of flavour, texture and aroma.
Q: Good food and cooking is a mixture of many things, what elements do you feel underpin good cooking?
Fabulous ingredients and creativity You have to have good ingredients and you need to be able to respect the flavours of those ingredients. A lot of people drown things in sauces or don’t let things don’t speak for themselves or overwork or over handle them. I think simplicity is key. Other than that you just have a lot of fun and experiment.
Q: Can you tell me about your approach to cooking and creating new recipes? Do you start from the same point or do different dishes always require a different approach?
I come across an ingredient that I like and then see how many different things I can do with it. Or I try to replicate a process or ingredient that I love– the sugar cured prawn omelette for example began with me trying to make my own dried shrimps.
Q: How has the idea of sustainability become more important in your cooking?
We’re part of the Sustainable Restaurant Association and are sustainable in whatever way we can be, from traceability - who we buy our fish from to how we dispose of our waste. Everything is recycled if at all possible. So it is really important to us and something we are working on constantly.
Q: Who do you most admire in the world of cooking today?
I am a big Nuno Mendez fan. He is currently breaking new territory in the London restaurant scene with his super refreshing tasty dishes that look like perfect miniature landscapes. Almost too good to eat and totally inspirational. I have also long been an admirer of David Thompson and his tireless commitment to serving authentic Thai cuisine. His book is in constant use in my kitchen.
Q: Who would you most like to cook for and why?
I think it would be great to cook for somebody like Elizabeth David. She has been such an inspiration in my world of food and such a stalwart for traditional cooking. I’d like a chance to inspire her!
Q: Where do you like to eat on a night out?
There are a few excellent local restaurants I frequent. Viet Garden, who do a perfect hot and sour soup; Hana, who are great for sashimi and miso aubergine, or Fig restaurant which is brilliant for Danish inspired food.
Q: What’s your advice for aspiring chefs?
I think you have to be very open-minded, prepared to work hard and really be willing to learn. A lot of people come through the kitchen who have been to culinary school and feel they knew everything. That’s really not the way to approach it. You spend your whole life as a chef learning and your attitude should always be one of seeking out knowledge and new techniques. It’s also a good move to show that you have some kind of work ethic!
Q: What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
I used to wish that I’d been to culinary college to learn the names of different pieces of kit or dishes in French but then I discovered that every kitchen speaks a different language. It wasn’t a serious disadvantage – I think I just would have felt more confident.
Q: What’s your view of today’s restaurant community and the state of the food industry at large?
There are aspects that are quite exciting; there is a lot of creativity out there for example. But it is also terrifying with issues such as sustainability, genetically modified foods and their impact globally, the decline of bees etc. I believe a lot more responsibility/accountability on the part of chefs and restaurateurs is a must if we are ever to progress.
Q: How do you see the future of cooking?
I think it’s going to become more and more relaxed in terms of environment and offer but that the general public will increasingly demand more from chefs in terms of thoughtful and responsible cooking.
Anna Hansen, thank you.