When Anna Olson attended Queen’s she could be found among other bobbing heads in a Tragically Hip music video filmed at Alfie’s.
Today, the celebrity chef has authored seven cookbooks, hosted three of her own cooking shows on the Food Network and recently launched the Olson Recipe Generator App.
After completing her degree in political studies, Olson, ArtSci ’91, chose a career in banking before pursuing the baking that made her famous.
A few years later she found herself up at 2 a.m. contemplating life and baking muffins. This event would soon become known as her “muffin epiphany,” which set her off into a world of culinary adventures.
On Saturday, Olson came back to Kingston to give a talk to the Queen’s community in the BioSciences Complex.
Olson sat down with the Journal before her public appearance to talk baking blunders, successes, the value of an arts degree and more.
When you first came to Queen’s, what kind of career were you hoping or expecting to have?
When I came to Queen’s I did not have a career in mind. I feel lucky that growing up, my father was a university professor, he taught at York, so I understood that coming to university was about the pursuit of knowledge and education and it didn’t have to about a career goal going in.
Where was your favourite place to eat here when you were a student?
Well, Chez Piggy was the ‘it’ spot. There was a restaurant called the Chinese Laundry Cafe that was the date place and it was just a little dessert-coffee shop … a little dessert and coffee after a movie.
How does one go from undergraduate student to celebrity chef?
It didn’t happen overnight — that’s for certain. I spent years building up my repertoire, working in the industry and when I was doing this there was no Food Network. There were no celebrity chefs other than Julia Child and Jaques Pepin and the Galloping Gourmet.
How did you become more known for your baking/pastry?
I worked as a line cook for years before I got into baking, but I always worked in places where they were small enough where when the pastry chef took a day off someone had to fill in, they didn’t have a staff, so I would always volunteer. I was able to learn from my mistakes and really that’s what I like to share through my cooking shows … if you’ve made a mistake I guarantee I’ve made it four times over and I want to figure out how to fix it, or prevent it.”
How is baking for an audience different than baking for your family?
I don’t have to be quite so organized when I bake just for home. It is very different. I can spend all day on set and get home and cook and it feels completely different. When I’m just cooking at home it’s my kitchen yoga — I’m clocking out and it’s my relaxation.
What is your favourite thing to cook or bake?
I am a seasonally motivated chef so it changes season to season. Now, we’re heading into our hothouse season here in Ontario where finally we can see locally grown peppers and tomatoes and cucumbers. Rhubarb will be the first fruit of the season, so as these seasons come in that’s what gets me excited.
In terms of your baking, what is your philosophy when you get into the kitchen?
It is to enjoy the process and I find for people where baking has clicked, they understand that it’s not about just getting to the chocolate brownies, it’s the joy of making them and then the satisfaction you find when you share it. Baking is selfish and selfless at the same time.
What does the future look like for you?
The book-publishing world is changing, I have seven cookbooks and now with e-books, where is that going? So, I’m fascinated by what could happen, what is going to happen — I’m leaving it wide open.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
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