Anna Hansen, The Modern Pantry, Clerkenwell

The  Staff Canteen

Anna Hansen is chef-patron of The Modern Pantry. She grew up in New Zealand where she first studied Business Management before falling into cooking whilst travelling in the UK, where she got a job on pot wash at Fergus Henderson’s The French House Dining Room in Soho.

She quickly moved up the ranks before moving on to work with legendary New Zealand fusion chef, Peter Gordon, at Green Street and The Sugar Club. In 2001 Anna opened the award-winning Marylebone restaurant, The Providores, with Peter Gordon and two other partners. In 2008 she opened her own iconic restaurant, the Modern Pantry, where she cooks everyday food with surprising international twists. Anna was awarded an MBE for services to the restaurant industry in 2012. She has recently given birth to her first child, Sonja Olive.

Your food style has been described as ‘fusion’, ‘global’ and ‘making a twisted kind of sense’; how would you describe it?

I’m happy with the label ‘fusion’ because it’s a genre of food which is entitled to be respected. I’m happy having that name because it is what it is; you can call it all the other things you want to avoid calling it that but at the end of the day, it’s fusion food. It’s about using ingredients from across the globe and fusing them together.

In this day and age most people incorporate some element of fusion in their cooking; everybody uses lemongrass and ginger and miso. But the food we serve here is very much everyday kind of cooking; it’s very approachable but with a twist, so for example we do steak and chips but it’s tamarind miso steak and cassava chips.

It’s not the most ‘on trend’ food style when you think about the whole local, seasonal thing; does that bother you?

Our food may be global but we are very strong on local, seasonal ingredients. All our fresh produce, aside from the occasional ingredient, is local. It’s sustainably farmed; we spend a lot of time focusing on where we get our fish from and most of our vegetables are seasonal.

Most of the fusion elements come from the dry stores cupboard, which is the same boat everyone’s in, unless you ask people to stop using pepper. People often say: “How can you reconcile the style of food you do with being a sustainable restaurant?” Well I can because of that. And to be honest, the more exotic items that we use from around the world probably get here more sustainably than a lot of vegetables from Italy, if you know what I mean, and with a lower footprint.

How did working for Peter Gordon influence your food style?

With Peter, it was literally: let your imagination run wild. Fergus Henderson’s food was very simple and cut back with very few ingredients and it was all about letting the ingredients do the talking, whereas with Peter it was: here’s a cupboard full of spices and here’s a whole load of other ingredients you’ve never seen before and what are we going to do with it? It was incredible but it was also really scary because I had become really good at cooking with a small number of dishes but I didn’t know how to incorporate all these different flavours; Peter was the master at that. And he was really good at making me not feel nervous and to trust my instincts about flavours.

Which is pretty important cooking that style of food, right?

Yes and I think that era of cooking has almost gone now. I mean you get people come to work for you and they don’t even really understand seasoning. When I learnt to cook, we never used recipes but nowadays you need recipes because not everyone in the kitchen would necessarily know what to do without them. Peter Gordon was obviously an inspiration but do you think it’s also something about being a New Zealander living in the UK that gives you that global perspective? Peter Gordon summed it up when he said that New Zealanders do magpie cooking, because we’re such a young immigrant nation I guess, so there’s lots of little bits from all around the globe all converging on a pretty small couple of islands, and people are creative because of that. My grandmother was a great example; she came from Denmark and there were a lot of Danish ingredients that she couldn’t get in New Zealand so she adapted her recipes to fit what was available.

What was it like when you first decided to go it alone and open The Modern Pantry and did your business management studies help?

Because I’d been part of the opening of The Providores, I knew a lot about what was going to go on and in a lot of ways it was much easier because it was just me, whereas before it was four of us with all our different views and desires. But at times it was a little daunting that if it didn’t work out it all rested on my shoulders. My business management qualification meant that I did understand stuff and could talk reasonably convincingly about what I wanted to do and I think that’s really important. I think people are looking for confidence above a lot of things when it comes to trying to get people to give you their money. I understood a profit and loss statement; I did my own business plan so yeah, it definitely helped.

You’ve recently had your first child; how has that affected you as a chef and restaurateur?

I’m very lucky that I have a really strong core crew here at The Modern Pantry who have been very happy for me to take some time out. Because I’ve worked alongside most of them since we opened, I was able to leave the restaurant and turn off my I-own-a-restaurant brain and focus on what I was doing, and I feel pretty privileged to have been able to do that. Of course I’ve been in touch with the restaurant; there’ve been emails and phone calls and things like that but I really haven’t had to be concerned about anything. I’ve been 100% baby focused for quite a few weeks but then you start thinking: “I quite fancy getting back on the stoves and doing something.”  I don’t think my restaurant has suffered from me not being here but I’m glad to be back.

What’s the next step for you?

We want to open another Modern Pantry which will hopefully include a bar because that’s something we don’t have here. I don’t really want to say much else without jinxing myself but it will be lots of fun and should be opening towards the end of next year. View Anna's recipe for Sugar-cured Prawn Omelette with Smoked Chilli Sambal View Anna's recipe for Salad of slow-cooked octopus (with confit artichoke hearts)

If you like the look of the Modern Pantry and what Anna does, check out our head chef jobs for similar positions.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 2nd January 2014

Anna Hansen, The Modern Pantry, Clerkenwell