Chef’s Table: Anna Hansen

Anna Hansen Modern Pantry

Have you ever wondered what a chef cooks at home or if their kids behave any better than yours in a fine dining restaurant? We grill some of Britain’s best chefs for the lowdown. This week, Anna Hansen.

Family Cooking

Who does the cooking at home?

It’s pretty equal. My partner Peter and I manage to split it 50/50, although I tend to cook more at the weekends.

Who taught you to cook?

I learned a lot at school. Cooking was a class we were taught right through school in New Zealand but I also learned a lot from my mother and my grandmother. When I started out professionally it was Margot and Fergus Henderson who really taught me to cook. My step-daughter Molly (11) likes to cook too. She is interested in eating healthy, nutritious food – she follows a largely gluten-free diet, with the occasional gluten ‘treat’ day – but I think that comes more from influences at home than from school.

Do you make sure your daughter gets her 5 a day?

Yes. Sonja (2) eats really well. I think it’s probably nearer 10 a day. She has a very healthy appetite! I always try and make sure she gets lot of fruit and vegetables, particularly the green things. I think that it’s really key. She has plenty of fruit too and lots of protein. I try and keep her away from having too much wheat – it’s not actually necessary to have gluten with every meal even though that seems to be where we’ve been lead to nowadays. I limit dairy too. She certainly eats it but I try and use things like ewe’s or goat’s milk yoghurt instead of cow’s milk the whole time. Or coconut yoghurt instead. I tend to avoid the soy-based alternatives. I am very conscious of what she eats but without being stupid about it – I’m entirely happy for her to eat a sandwich for instance.

Which grains and carbohydrates do you choose for her if you cut back on wheat?

It is tricky as it’s easy to get stuck in a mindset around feeding kids wheat. The truth is though it’s just as easy to boil a pan of brown rice as it is pasta. My daughter loves quinoa and barley too. I’ve read a lot about children becoming pickier eaters as they get older so I have tried quite deliberately to expose her to a wide range of things like that now, so that they won’t seem alien to her as she grows up. I love lentils for her too. Even if you don’t want to cook lentils yourself you can buy really good pre-cooked lentils as long as you avoid the ones with loads of preservatives like sulphates. I often buy chickpeas that are already cooked too – I’m all for anything that makes it easy.

You are famous for fusion, eclectic food with unusual ingredients and flavours. Do you cook like that at home? 

I think we do eat pretty adventurously at home but I love making comfort food too when I am away from the restaurant, so it’s a balance. When I roast potatoes, for example, I always grate fresh turmeric on top and add fresh curry leaves. I am always adding in a bit of chilli or a few fennel seeds to dishes so it’s really more small touches like that, rather than really complex dishes, but it definitely means the girls are exposed to unusual and different flavours. My brother has two kids and they eat pretty much everything – I think it is because they were fed a wide range of things from when they were babies.

Do you feel more pressure as a chef for your daughter not to be a picky eater?

Absolutely. I would hate it if Sonja didn’t like food. It would make things really difficult! I do think though that many people just assume that kids aren’t going to like certain things before they’ve even had the chance to try them.

Modern Pantry is renowned for its breakfast and brunch menu. What’s the perfect family weekend brunch in your house?

Molly and I make her favourite gluten-free pancakes a lot. We are both big maple syrup fans and they are a nice thing to make when we’ve got time to potter around in the kitchen together. It’s a really simple recipe but it makes us feel virtuous. We always have scrambled eggs and chorizo, too.

I probably shouldn’t say this as a chef but we got a bread maker for Christmas and I have to admit that, while it’s not the sort of loaf I would make in the restaurant, it actually makes really brilliant bread. We make a virtually gluten-free loaf with loads of grains and nuts. You just chuck it all in, switch it on and ta-da! It’s really useful.

Do you have any favourite home cookbooks, or do you just wing it?

I usually just wing it but I am a massive Ottolenghi fan. I look to his books for inspiration. He’s written such beautiful books, particularly Jerusalem. It’s such an interesting read and the food is so exciting. I’m looking forward to the new NOPI book too – I will end up with a shelf just dedicated to Ottolenghi books at this rate. When I first started cooking I followed recipes religiously but creativity and inspiration is really what I look for in cookbooks now. The exception is baking – I do tend to go to recipes for that. I am big fan of Dan Lepard. His books are beautiful. And I recently bought Justin Gellaty’s book. He was the pastry chef at St John. It’s a great book.

Anna Hansen Modern Pantry

Restaurants

Do lots of people bring children to The Modern Pantry?

Yes. We had our first brunch service at the new restaurant this weekend and I was really pleased that there were lots of babies and children there. We have a great breakfast and brunch menu which is popular with families. Being in the City we tend to get families in mainly at the weekend. Brunch is more of a relaxed affair.

Do you offer a separate kids menu?

No. We have never offered a separate menu for kids. A lot of the things you tend to see on kids menu, like pasta, just aren’t what we cook at The Modern Pantry and I don’t believe in doing stuff for the sake of it. You can’t tick every box all of the time. I feel that we have an extensive enough menu and are flexible enough to accommodate children from the same menu as adults. As families tend to come for weekend brunch that sort of lends itself better to kids anyway: boiled eggs and vegemite soldiers, pastries, porridge, fruit salad etc.

One thing I do find strange is that many people have this thing that you should feed their children for free. I know it’s maybe only a half portion but I don’t really follow the logic as to why that should be free!

Do you think fine dining restaurants should be child free?

No. Why should they be? Life isn’t child-free. If you are a parent and you’re taking your child out to any kind of restaurant you need to think about whether it’s the right environment for them at that stage. If they are in the running around and screaming phase then maybe it’s not a great choice.

When Sonja was between 1 and 2 she was pretty much uncontrollable and I wouldn’t have chosen to go to a fine dining restaurant with her as I would find it really uncomfortable. Eating out when she was that age really just became a tag team game: one of us would be on duty while the other wolfed their food down really quickly and we’d leave completely exhausted. It wasn’t a very relaxing dining experience at all.

But I would be upset if someone didn’t come to The Modern Pantry simply because they had children with them. It’s about making appropriate choices of restaurants for what stage your kids are at. There are load of restaurants now geared towards young families that do great food too so there are good options.

Would you be happy for your children to follow you into the restaurant business?

I don’t know if I would really want them to live the life of a chef as it’s quiet intense. But if it were something they were really passionate about I would support it, of course. I’ve loved the restaurant life but when I was 16 I wanted to be a chef and my mum was adamant that I finish school instead. So I carried on at school and then studied business management and came around to cooking again when I came to London aged 23. I found myself back in a kitchen and the penny dropped that this was definitely the life for me. My mum was absolutely right and I am glad that I didn’t jump into being a chef at a younger age.

Running a restaurant is pretty relentless and quite anti-social. What’s your secret to finding the happy balance with family life?

To be honest, it was only the arrival of my daughter that first made me try and strike any sort of balance at all. Up until that point my whole life was about my career. There wasn’t a need to find a balance as I really loved my job and it made me happy. It’s been quite interesting since having Sonja to go through a period on maternity leave where I had to extract myself from my own business and entrust it to other people – even now that I am back, I find it really hard to be away from her and it’s a strong motivator to achieving balance.

I don’t really look at it though as balancing two separate lives (one at work, one at home). This is my career and my passion and it’s really just one life and family is part of it. We do always aim though to eat together as a family every weekend, usually an early dinner on Saturday so that Sonja can eat with us or Sunday lunch.

What you are most excited about with the new Modern Pantry?

The tapas bar is the big new feature. There are no printed menus, just blackboards and the dishes will change daily. And we’ve got a great cocktail guru to pair drinks with the dishes. That is really new for us and something I am particularly excited about. The main restaurant will offer a similar style of food to the original Modern Pantry but everything on the menu will be different as we wanted it create a genuinely new restaurant, not just transplant everything from St John’s Square into a new space. As always there will be plenty of vegetarian dishes though and the flavours are still very eclectic.

Top places to eat out with your family?

We moved to Streatham last year and tend to go out around there. There is a place called Hood on Streatham High Road which is great. They’re doing funky modern British food which is really healthy and it’s very family-friendly. They do an amazing sloe gin and prosecco cocktail, which is pretty lethal but very nice.

We also really love The Railway on Streatham Common. It’s really family focussed and even has a children’s library at the back. The menu is great, simple British cooking.

If we come into town we do eat at The Modern Pantry a lot (but I guess I can’t really say that?). We spend a lot of time in Brixton Village as I love all the great coffee places and cafes there. We recently discovered Kricket at Pop Brixton, which is an amazing Sri Lankan street food place. It’s awesome.

 Anna Hansen was born in Canada and raised in New Zealand. After training as a chef under Fergus Henderson at the French House Dining Room, she went on to co-found award-winning Marylebone restaurant, The Providores, with Peter Gordon. She opened her own restaurant, The Modern Pantry, in Clerkenwell in 2008 and was awarded an MBE in 2012 for her services to the restaurant industry. Her second Modern Pantry restaurant, featuring an 18 seater tapas bar alongside the main restaurant, opened this week in Finsbury Square, EC2. Follow Anna on Twitter @sugarcuredprawn or visit The Modern Pantry.