On Sunday, my nieces and I went to see Anna Olson, the amazing chef from Fresh and Sugar, present a cooking demonstration at Le Meridien. The entire event was presented by the Asian Food Channel, which has really revolutionised access to food television here in South East Asia, and Mumm Champagne – with a free flow of champagne and sparkling apple juice. We were so excited about the event – and my nieces, the youngest at 15, were starstruck.
Even though admission was expensive (USD$100 each), we felt it was worth it – time spent watching a master chef at work, a five course meal at Le Meridien, and the chance to meet Chef Olson and get our cookbooks signed. We were excited beyond belief, and ready to have a luxurious, fun and decadent day.
Let me start out by sharing the good with you – Anna Olson was wonderful! Warm, witty, charming and a brilliant cook. She made three desserts: a Lady Baltimore Cake – a white chiffon iced with an Italian meringue studded with nuts and dried fruit; a Banana Caramel Cheesecake – gorgeous cookie crust, a layer of caramelised bananas, a stunning cheesecake, all enrobed in “ooooooh” sticky caramel; and a Cappuccino Nanaimo Bar – a Canadian sweet treat that consisted of dark cookie layer, a fudgy custard layer and dark chocolate ganache.
The desserts tasted as good as they looked, and the cooking demonstration was brilliant. Chef Olson is extremely knowledgeable, and shares her tips, tricks and information openly and intelligently. She explained how sugar worked, how it interacted with various elements of baking. She worked quickly but calmly, explaining why each ingredient when into the recipe at a given time, and what it would do.
And oh is this woman charismatic and funny! The audience was a tough sell. I am not sure why – Malaysian audiences can be notoriously “dead” – may be it was because it was a Sunday morning, but there was little to no response at the beginning. By the end of her presentation, however, she had the audience laughing, clapping and excited. A true professional, and it was thrilling to watch her cook, see how she worked with her off set spatula, timed her ingredients, and all the while, speaking, joking, teasing and teaching. I was impressed. She brought her beloved husband, Chef Michael Olson, out at the end of the demonstration, and that personal touch really seemed to warm up the crowd. My nieces were so impressed by him that they also wanted to take photos with him at the end as well!
Chef Anna and Chef Michael seemed like down to earth, interesting, intelligent foodies, with a great breadth and depth of knowledge about cooking and baking. They were interested in everything unique and Malaysian – from durians to pandan to kaya, and they looked like they were really enjoying their tour in South East Asia. Hands down, this couple were the most laid back and approachable “celebrities” I have ever met (and I have met a few!). They were professional and open, relaxed and funny. It was a pleasure to be in their company.
Unfortunately, I was not impressed by the savoury part of the meal we were served. I had been thrilled to see that the menu was quite vegetarian-centric. Given that there were four courses before a flurry of (superb) desserts, two out of the four were vegetarian, while the other two courses had vegetarian options. Unfortunately, all four courses, eaten vegetarian, were overwhelmingly rich and creamy.
The starter – a beet and goat’s cheese terrine, which features in her new cookbook, was delicious. It was very intense, the goats cheese and herbs mingling with the tart sweetness of the beets. I ate it with bread, which helped cut the richness, and if I had known what was coming, I would have finished it all up. The cream of mushroom soup, with a puff pastry dome, tasted of nothing but white pepper. It was unfortunately, inedible. The seafood in parchment parcels (which was the alternative) was lapped up by the other members of our table though. The main course, spinach, corn and herb stuffed pepper seemed to have sat out for ages – it had become crusted and rather ungainly. It was not helped by the addition of yet more cream to bind the spinach and corn. Though my nieces, who had the beef, said that while it was not hot, it was at least, very tasty. And finally, the brie and fig tart was a great idea – except for the fact that the fresh figs had wilted in our heat, and the brie was yet again too rich.
I often think that restaurants and hotels pay a lot of attention to how to balance meals for those who eat meat and fish, but little to no attention or care is paid to those of us who eat vegetables. Its as if we need to be thankful that they remembered to cater to us in the first place, and therefore we should accept whatever they give us with gratitude. Its a shame, because Chef Olson’s new book is chock full of wonderful, colourful, fresh and delicious looking vegetarian dishes – all of which seem balanced and thoughtful and not as cloyingly rich as what we were served.
I appreciated the effort to place some fresh vegetables in the mix, and I did enjoy the salads, but overall, I was surprised and disappointed with the lack of care and quality on the plates that were served to me – particularly at that price! I did quite enjoy the sparkling apple juice though, and I noted quite a few people joyously partaking of the Mumm!
And finally, we were invited to the meet and greet outside, where Chef Olson presented some of her other desserts – best amongst which were the gorgeous and lush lemon olive oil cake with citrus and cream, the cashew cookies and the delicate and airy madeleines. I watched as the entire audience filed out to the foyer to have their books signed, and pose for a precious photograph with Chef Olson – and also partake of more of her treats.
Unfortunately, a member of the AFC staff ruined the moment for everyone by going down the line of people patiently waiting and telling them, in a brusque and authoritative manner that they were running out of time, and thus they needed to make sure they didnt spend too much time with the Chef. When she got to us, I told her that I thought her attitude was offensive to people who had paid so much to meet Chef Olson, and I thought that the way she was delivering the message was rude.
The AFC staff acted as if we did not matter – and they did not truly represent AFC as it should be represented. From the start they were officious, rude, overwhelmed and unable to deal with issues that came up. I was sorry for their inability to work in such an environment, but that was not my problem. They represent an amazing television channel – they are the frontline for the consumers of that channel and its events, and they should work a little harder at being diplomatic, gracious and kind.
In the end, Chef Olson overcame all. She made time for each and every person, even though she looked tired. She smiled, she posed for photos, she signed books, she paid attention, she laughed and chatted. She was lovely, and for her, I was glad we went. I do want to note that from experience, I really enjoy Le Meridien – they have a stunningly good buffet with loads of options for vegetarians, and their service is always smiling and sweet. And AFC is a great television channel which has brought food into the homes of so many of us who look to be inspired and uplifted. I am just a little sad that a day that could have been perfect was marred, just a bit, by thoughtlessness.