Anna Hansen

by Geraldine Johns / 25 December, 2010
"My god, this young woman can cook."

Seventy fat and festive pork bellies, five or six kilos apiece. Chef Anna Hansen has three December days to ready them for presentation at London's Taste of Christmas food show, where she is making a guest appearance.

From the other side of the world, you can almost smell the treatment the porkers are going to get. "They'll be poached in Chinese five-spice, palm sugar, star anise and fish sauce," enthuses Hansen in her eloquent phone tones. Beautiful.

Then there's her day job to consider. Hansen is chef and co-owner of the Modern Pantry, a London cafe/restaurant that has fast become an address of considerable cuisine significance. The punters have been coming in numbers since she opened in August 2008 - just as the financial skies were falling in London.

The reviewers - some of them, at least - say nice things about Hansen, such as "the food is simply beautiful. My god, this young woman can cook." They talk about the "welcome element of frivolity in her food, after too much gastronomic worthiness" elsewhere.

Do they know she has no formal cooking qualifications? That she had wanted to be a teacher - but failed to gain entry to a New Zealand teachers' training ­college not once but twice?

Probably not. But they probably have some inkling of her links. Before she set up her own place in Clerkenwell - in the Islington bit of London - Hansen was a protégé of New Zealand's favourite chef export, Peter Gordon. She worked with him, first at the Sugar Club, in Soho, then at the Providores, in Marylebone, where she became a business partner.

Her own place certainly feels like home. Before opening as the Modern Pantry - 100 seats, 35 staff - the two-storey building underwent considerable renovation, after which "it felt completely natural and perfect. It felt like it had been mine for a million years."

Hansen describes her menu as "an evolution. Things just change as we go." And that's reflected in what's on offer. She tweaks the conventional, amalgamating a bunch of seemingly dysfunctional ingredients into one happy family.

For her steak and chips she grills rib-eye steak and serves it with roast sweet potato, a Cashel Blue (cheese) brique, cavolo nero, and pickled walnut and prune relish. Thanks to her Danish mother's influence, she's big on licorice at present. Recently, she did figs and red onions with pomegranate molasses - and served it with baby mozzarella balls, sprinkled with licorice salt.

But she doesn't dismiss nursery essentials. The breakfast menu includes soft-boiled eggs with buttered Vegemite soldiers. "I think part of the reason for my success is it's very friendly, very refreshing."

Hansen didn't leave high school with a lot of qualifications and, after her efforts to get into teachers' college proved fruitless, did a business management course at Auckland's Carrington Polytechnic - which is what she took to London with her.

When she got there, she started working in kitchens, and it's been a hands-on learning experience ever since - first with Fergus Henderson at what was his initial restaurant venture, the French House Dining Room. She started out as a dish washer and left as a chef. Then it was on to Peter Gordon.

Inevitably, comparisons are made with Gordon - the master of fusion-style cooking. "Some say it's Pacific Rim. It's not. It's globetrotting." At the Taste of Christmas event - an annual big-ticket do - Hansen is listed as one of Britain's top culinary talents. She will share billing with the likes of Heston Blumenthal of TV programme Heston's Feast.

Not that you'd guess that from talking to her. In this conversation, she makes repeated mention of not being in the five-star league - as if that is a failing.

However, she has clearly proved herself in the kitchen despite her lack of formal training. The Modern Pantry has clocked up two AA rosettes (excellent restaurant, achieving higher standards and better consistency) since opening, and has also made its own Michelin mention, listed as a "Bib Gourmand" (an inspector's favourite, offering good food at good value) in the 2009 guide.

Earlier this year, Hansen was named New Zealander of the Year (UK) - an award that recognises the outstanding contribution a New Zealander or British national has made in presenting a positive image of New Zealand in the UK. She was up against cheese champion Juliet Harbutt and opera/pop crossover singer Geoff Sewell. Previous winners include golfer Michael Campbell and former Commonwealth Secretary-General Sir Don McKinnon. Hansen wasn't expecting to win, so she hadn't prepared an acceptance speech. But the judges said she "absolutely embodies that Kiwi spirit with her huge drive and commitment for things New Zealand in all her efforts in the UK culinary scene".

The Modern Pantry's punters get a taste of New Zealand wines - Seresin Estate, Pegasus Bay, among others - although antipodean staff don't have such a presence. It's the same the world over, bemoans Hansen: "The biggest single issue of running a restaurant is staffing. There's a lack of able-bodied chefs, which is why I often end up in the kitchen." But she recently hired a New Zealand pastry chef. And she spends a lot of time "doing stuff with New Zealanders, for New Zealanders".

One of the Modern Pantry's silent partners is designer, restaurateur and writer Sir Terence Conran, who goes there to eat, taking his family along, obviously liking what he's got a share in. Hansen is looking for another site to add to her restaurant suite, this time in Soho.

Before then there's the book. Hansen has already been celebrated as one of the world's up-and-coming world chefs in Phaidon Press's Coco: 10 World-leading Masters Choose 100 ­Contemporary Chefs; now she's writing her own cookbook featuring recipes from the Modern Pantry that reflect her "unique" style. It will not be to everybody's taste. Sunday Times critic AA Gill wrote a highly dismissive review of the Modern Pantry. And, Hansen says, "sometimes people come in and look at the menu and they can't relate at all to it and they have to leave ... Sometimes I do something quite crazy" with food.

Who is she thinking of when she cooks? "I'm not thinking of a [particular] person. I'm thinking of flavour, profiles and textures and what's in season."

And she's also thinking of a quiet Christmas. The seven-day-a-week restaurant is closed on the 25th, so she won't be doing a 7.30am to midnight shift, as is often the case. "No, on Christmas Day I think I'm going to stay in bed, move the TV into the bedroom and watch the EastEnders omnibus."

There is a certain symmetry to this story. Midway through her training stint in London, Hansen returned downunder, where she did the odd cooking spot in New Zealand, as well as in Australia, working there for high priestess Stephanie Alexander. In March she'll be making a guest appearance at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. "They didn't know that I had worked with Stephanie Alexander, and they paired me up with her restaurant. I'm quite happy about that."

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