Anna Hansen’s melting pot is an expression of fusion, home cooking, and nutrition
Anna Hansen was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1970. She grew up in New Zeland, from Danish parents: I guess the melting pot is in her veins!
Your background and how you fell in love with cooking?
There is always a grandmother behind it. But also because the grandmothers were the ones cooking those days. I spent a lot of time with her watching her cooking. My family liked eating good food: we came from a farm background, so it was simple to fell in love with this. In primary school, I loved the cooking class. At the age of sixteen, I started work in a delicatessen company, and I fell in love with the commercial part of the food. I started traveling and ended up in London. In 1992 I met Fergus and Margot Henderson and started to work there as a dishwasher at the “French House Dining Room.” Then before I realized I started cooking, helping out with everything. The cook at the moment, a kiwi girl, left the job, and I started taking care of the kitchen. I only worked, didn’t study; I often felt inadequate. Then, I met Peter Gordon, and I began to work for him: in 2001, he asked me to join him and partners in opening their Marylebone restaurant The Providores & Tapa Room, until 2005 when I decide to focus on my project: the Modern Pantry.
My idea of food has always been related to fusion and homecooked food. I love doing fusion because I like doing something always different and coming up with new things. I might find it hard if I had to stick with one cuisine.
Is there something that affected your way or idea of cooking?
I recently got diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and I had to go through a crazy diet of basically eating nothing. No tomatoes, aubergines, no beans grains or nuts. It was eyeopening; I started to appreciate the most simple thing. Since then, my approach to cooking is a lot more straightforward. I began to enjoy having boundaries, even though it is what I hated the most. Now I have limitations but not that crazy. So maybe now I can start something new: I began to study nutrition. I want to reinvent my way of cooking since nowadays there are a lot of food restrictions. I want to be able to understand nutrition because you need to know how your body reacts to food. Maybe my role could be how can you teach to eat delicious food even with restriction.
How would you define your cuisine?
It is a simple kind of cooking, respecting seasonality and sustainability, and liking to start something new — eclectic mixed of things with everyday food and a modern perspective. The so-called fusion is an ancient way of cooking.
How did you start the Modern Pantry?
The idea behind it was something accessible to everyone. It was 2008, and the crisis appeared, I got bored of the English cuisine, so that’s it. I didn’t plan to open a restaurant, but instead, I was writing a cookbook to teach people to use unusual ingredients in a daily life cuisine, and I ended up opening a restaurant doing the same thing. The concept was breakfast; lunch, dinner take away, all-day café style began seven days a week. I ended up with considerable space, and I was crying and laughing every day, it was my dream and my life. In the end, it was incredible having my restaurant.
Meanwhile, I didn’t have a family. Sonia, my daughter, was born in 2013. From 2008 I just worked, it is s a crazy life when you have your restaurant. I left in 2019 because it was enough and with a child and the disease…
You said sustainability is essential for you, what does it mean?
It is more than buying the right fish or meat. For me, it is a more significant thing related to your staff working in a sustainable way of living. You want to have happy people working in the right environment where they don’t resign every 5 minutes, but they want to stay there. It’s the most important thing. Life in a restaurant is not easy; you risk to become a workaholic. But it shouldn’t be as much hard as it is. Also, the big problem is that we are beginning to devaluating products: a bottle of water cost more than a bottle of milk, for example.
How do you express your cultural background in your kitchen?
I guess the one I relate most is my Danish heritage. I grew up more with licorice, cabbage, etc. and the flavors too. The way I grew up is influenced by all these different flavors that mushed together, with the New Zeland culture.
How is working as a woman in the kitchen?
I think I was quite lucky, and it didn’t touch me so much. The people I worked for where the most kind and good people. I did have a crazy experience because I was a kiwi, I’ve got discriminated for my accent in Australia, and I resigned.
The kitchen is changing; I was strict about this in my kitchen. What I saw in my experience is a lot of bullying, so it is the system that has to change.
Coming from a multicultural background, do you think food could be a vehicle through which we could break cultural boundaries?
Yes, I see that happening. Food is the time when people come together with a purpose in common, breaking down barriers.
Do you have an inspirational model in the kitchen?
Many over the years. Mostly women, not necessarily chefs. For sure, the people I worked with: Peter, Margot, and Fergus because they are stuck in their beliefs, on what they do. They have strong philosophy behind food.
Gastronomy and today’s society? How is it?
I think it’s very overwhelming. In the end, it’s just-food: everything is so much, there are too many choices, too much communication. I’m a quite private person, so that’s why I don’t like it! I’m antisocial, that’s why I stay in the kitchen.
Any future projects?
The nutrition thing for sure, but I wanted to take time to think about it properly and to stay with my daughter. I am going to India working for a month working in the kitchen with a couple; maybe it can start something there, or perhaps writing another cookbook.
Any emotional memory that brings you back to a dish?
Potatoes because of my grandfather: he was used to planting them on his farm. Also, whipped cream: it always makes me think about my grandmother.