BORN IN CANADA to a Danish mother and then raised in New Zealand, Anna Hansen was always destined to create globally inspired dishes. But her creations – chicken liver parfait with liquorice brulé, celeriac and tonka bean gratin made with fish stock, chilli-sugared donuts – go well beyond international inspiration, and she’s truly earned her status as one of the best fusion chefs in London.
Following the opening of her second Modern Pantry in Finsbury Square, we talk to Anna about a genre of cuisine that’s growing rapidly, what makes flavours work together and why London's restaurant industry may soon be in crisis.
What’s your first memory of food?
I've got a series of food memories from a similar age, so there are a couple of things. My mum’s Danish, so I think some of the first vivid memories are having things like pickled herrings and smoked fish roe, and remoulade, which is like a blend of mayonnaise and piccalilli, on open sandwiches.
The first thing I remember cooking is coconut ice at primary school, although it was more mixing and squashing it into a tin than cooking. It’s a pink and white layered thing – it’s really just sugar with coconut.
Has your Danish heritage influenced the way you cook?
It definitely has, but maybe more in terms of the different kinds of foods that I was exposed to from an earlier age. I always have red cabbage, especially around Christmas time. The Danes love liquorice, and I ate salted liquorice from a young age – I love liquorice, I like anything that's aniseed-y – so we always have liquorice on the menu here somewhere, which we actually buy from Denmark, whether it’s in desserts or something savoury.
We put it in a jus for a venison dish or beef, which it goes really well with. We're doing a chicken liver parfait at the moment that's got a liquorice brulé with it, and sour cherry. We use it in desserts as well, we've got a liquorice and urfa chilli-sugared donut. Liquorice and chilli is a really fabulous combination, and it’s also amazing with dark chocolate.
You grew up in New Zealand. What's the food scene like there?
The food scene is thriving, it's amazing. One of the cool things about New Zealand is that it's quite small and most people from there will travel overseas at some point in their lives, probably for quite long periods. When they go back home, they take the influences of their travels back with them, so food is a constantly evolving theme down there. There are so many good restaurants, and not just in Auckland or Wellington or Christchurch, you can find brilliant almost anywhere now, which is really great.
You were born in Canada, has that influenced your cooking, too?
I love Canadian and American style breakfasts, with pancakes and waffles and things like that, so we always have those items on our menu. I love maple syrup and smoked streaky bacon, which I always think of as Canadian rather than anywhere else. Bagels, again – I see them as quite Canadian, because I think Montreal has got one of the largest Jewish populations outside Jerusalem or New York. A good bagel is standard there – not one of those horrible, doughy kind of things, and, of course, amazing salmon.
What did you learn by working with celebrated chefs such as Fergus Henderson and Peter Gordon?
Fergus was my first chef, along with Margot, his wife, and I spent my foundation years with them. They taught me all the basic cooking skills. They're very clean, British, not too many ingredients and try to just use British produce, so we weren't allowed coriander or rice or so on and so forth.
It taught me to really appreciate each ingredient and its uniqueness, and letting each ingredient stand out on it's own and speak for itself. I developed a real appreciation for game because we had rabbit, pheasant, woodcock and so on on the menu, which we had to pluck and gut at times. It broadened my already deep appreciation of food and those early years really helped me stand in good stead for the rest of my career.
Then I met Peter in my second year of cooking professionally, so I was obviously still learning loads, and he introduced a whole other repertoire of ingredients into my world. His approach was very much give anything a go and don't be afraid to cross cultures food-wise, and if you think a couple of ingredients will work well together, then try them. That taught me to be really open minded and to explore, so I feel like those two together, along with my own travels around the world, have really forged the foundations of what I do completely.
I learned to appreciate each ingredient and its uniqueness
They sound quite different in their approach. Why did you change from one to the other?
I was already experimenting with different flavours, different nationalities, different cuisines, things like that. So I think I got them the right way around, and I've often thought that maybe if I hadn't discovered fusion cooking then I might not have stayed in the cheffing career, because what I love about the food that I do is the endless possibilities and the endless opportunity to be creative and I like that. Of course, you can be creative within any food genre but I just think what fusion allows is probably the greatest freedom out of all the genres of food and that's why I like it.
What would you have done if you weren't a chef?
That is a damn good question that I don't have the answer to. I probably would have been in something food-related. I quite like the idea of running a bed and breakfast or something like that. I don't know if that would have suited me at a younger age, though.
Being a chef, no day is ever the same, even in terms of the hours that you work. It’s flexible, even though you work really hard and you work a lot. I don't think I would have done well in a Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 job. I would have had to find something that ticks all those boxes. It would have been difficult, so it's fortunate that I found food.
Would you ever open a restaurant outside of London?
I always fancied the idea of doing something in New York but I'm not sure if I'd still be up for that. I'm starting to think about going to places with really nice climates most of the year. I think that would the draw, so I'd base my decision on that more now than I would have done previously. I now want to go somewhere where I know that in my downtime that sun is always going to be shining and I can have a nice garden, all that sort of idyllic mumbo jumbo.
How similar are your two restaurants?
The style of the food is the same – I don't really know how to do anything other kind of food, so it's fusion cooking on both sites. The new restaurant on Finsbury Square has a tapas bar, which is actually one of the things about it that I'm most excited about. It's a 20-seater, proper sit-around-and-eat-at bar. So that’s a very different element. The menu isn’t more Spanish-influenced though –I just take the small plates. I use a lot of Spanish ingredients in my cooking anyway, but the restaurant isn’t more Spanish.
If I hadn't discovered fusion, I might not still be in this career
Would you ever consider doing something a bit different?
I quite like the idea of doing something smaller and more limited. Like Mama Lan at Brixton Market, for example, where there's something like three dumplings and five other dishes on the menu and that's it. I think I would like to do something like that but it would still be the food that I do, but it would just be a really focused venture.
What do you think is the ideal number of restaurants to run?
One?! Staffing is a really big problem in London at the moment for any restaurant owner. There’s a huge shortage. London has boomed in the last five years – it's been booming on the restaurant scene for a while – but it's just really taken off in a new way, with quality restaurants. The demand for chefs is great, and that coincided with the government stopping sponsorship of medium-level chefs. It used to be this really great thing – they used to sponsor people from the Commonwealth for a couple of years, but now you can't do that anymore. You can only sponsor people at senior sous to head chef level, with untold experience. That’s put a spanner in the works and it's kind of compounded everything, and everyone's always crying out for chefs and waiters and front-of-house staff.
Why do you think there is such a shortage?
I think there's just so much choice. More restaurants have opened than there are people who have entered the industry to support them. When you consider a place like London, the incredible number of short-term residents from abroad and we rely on those people to come and work for us. You rely on visitors, you rely on students studying whatever, and they do waiting to get themselves through uni and other years, and I think the sector has grown faster than the interest from joe public in working in the industry.
The Modern Pantry's best bits – in pictures
Do you think there'll be a crash?
I think that at some point the government will have to acknowledge that there's a crisis in the industry and, given that it relies on income from the restaurant sector in terms of tourist trade, at some point they're going to have to loosen the restrictions again. I think on that factor alone, I would seriously consider not opening another restaurant without knowing that there was something changing, because it's just too hard.
The other thing that's happening which makes it difficult is that chefs are going to agencies to find work rather than looking for work themselves. That’s really hard for restaurants because the fees are astronomical – it costs two or three thousand pounds a pop. A lot of restaurants can't afford that.
What's the difference between the hackneyed fusion food of the 1970s and what you’re doing now?
I think more and more chefs are becoming fusion chefs without realising it. Angela Hartnett does an incredible tonka bean soufflé and, to me, that's fusion. It’s now normal to see lemongrass on the menu, so in a way the dining culture has moved to accept that style of food.
I also think that you have people who cooked food and used influences from other parts of the world and then you have somebody who's really fusion who really mixes it up. As it’s kind of a new style of food, people have to learn it and like any kind of cuisine there are kind of shit versions of it. There are bad examples of every type of cuisine. So I guess it's one of those things that's been evolving and more and more people are embracing it because actually they want to have fun as well, and it's cool to find a new ingredient, or to play around with a new flavour or to think about a different texture.
What's the most unexpected fusion creation that you've made and how do you find new pairings?
It’s really about flavour profiles. If you take something like salt, sea salt or rock salt, but also fish sauce or soy sauce or miso, you can see miso as a form of seasoning. And when you think that, you realise you can add some miso to your beef stew and it's probably going to taste quite nice, and it’s really just seasoning it. Then you start to think about other ingredients across the board, like spices. If you think about star anise, in that sort of flavour profile you've got liquorice, you've got fennel, you've got ashuan. All of a sudden, something that you were going to do like a star anise and chocolate tart, you start thinking, maybe I'll try it with liquorice instead, or maybe I'll infuse milk with fennel, because fennel and chocolate will probably be really nice too. That's how I approach it. You start having a bit of fun, and some things really don't work, and then other things that you thought were never going to work are really amazing.
I guess one of the weirdest things I ever did was a celeriac and tonka bean gratin. It sounds really weird, and I cooked the gratin with fish stock. It sounds horrendous but it was really surprisingly delicious. I also made a mollet which you don't usually think of on fish dishes – I think of it more as a meat or vegetarian sort of thing. I served it with monkfish and it was bloody delicious, but it was really weird. I have to admit it wasn't a top seller, but the people who had it really enjoyed it. It was pushing the boat out a bit.
What ingredient do you always have in your fridge?
At home, I always have tamarind and miso and chorizo. I can't live without my spice drawer, and that's got about 40 spices in it. That's my one item for my desert island retreat. I wouldn't be able to take just one, I'd have to taken them all.
Which is your favourite culinary nationality?
That's actually a really hard question to answer because I would like to use all of southeast Asia, and the reason for that is because everything there tends to have freshness and vitality, It’s fast and it's fragrant and it's revitalising. I also love Spanish food. That was probably my first kind of thing as a professional chef, when I started to use the different vinegars, nuts and peppers.
How do you ensure your type of global cuisine uses sustainably sourced ingredients?
People often mistake fusion food for unseasonable and unsustainable, because they think we're just using pineapple and sugar schnapps all year round but what we do is use seasonal produce, meat, fish, whatever, and we add interest and the fun using the dry stores cupboard, because it's about the vinegars, the pomegranate molasses, the spices and all the rest of it. It's not stuff that's air freighted from South Africa, it's stuff that's in the dry store cupboard and has a long shelf life.
The Modern Pantry, Alphabeta Building, 14 Finsbury Square, EC2A 1BR. For more information: themodernpantry.co.uk.