Food News

Sweet talk with Anna Polyviou

Anna Polyviou, pastry chef at Sydney’s Shangri-La Hotel, talks custard, her first encounter with Pierre Hermé, the creation of her new 76-step sweet masterpiece and how the humble hash brown helped kick-start her career.

Anna Polyviou
Where did you learn to bake?
I first learnt to cook alongside my mum at the age of three. She's always been my culinary inspiration.
What are your favourite desserts or sweets that evoke a sense of nostalgia?
Custard. Galatoboureko is my favourite Cypriot dessert. It's made up of layers of filo pastry which are filled with a semolina custard. I still love custard and use it a lot in my pastry kitchen.
Tell us about the first time you set foot in a professional kitchen.
I see mum's kitchen as my first "professional" kitchen. She was strict and taught me to be clean, tidy and organised. The Sofitel Melbourne's kitchen was where I first worked under a professional chef. On my first day I was put on the breakfast shift and my first task was to grate potatoes for hash browns. A far cry from the type of cooking I do now!
How did your stints in London and Paris influence your food philosophy?
For me, London was all about the great British tradition of afternoon tea. I learnt that a range of flavours is incredibly important, but that the flavours also have to work together as a whole. 
In Paris, the cakes were an art. Everyday goods that you find in a bakery, like sandwiches and baguettes, were like nothing I had ever seen or tasted before. For me, Paris was all about attention to detail and mastering new flavours. You can see the influence of both stints in my High Tea, desserts and pastries at the hotel.
First impressions of Pierre Hermé's Paris Patisserie?
Truthfully, when I first won my scholarship to work under Pierre Hermé, I didn't even know who he was. I remember when I arrived, he asked if I had one of his cookbooks, which I didn't and said so; he turned and walked away from me! But, I worked hard and built a relationship with him that has lasted. I remember his store in Paris literally gleamed like a jewellery store. The desserts and cakes were laid out on gold trays and the waiters wore white gloves. The first thing that I ever ordered from there was a beautiful box containing six macarons. I remember one of them was avocado-flavoured.
Your Anna's Mess creation caused quite a stir (and featured a cool 74 steps). What's next in terms of show-stoppers?
Up next is the Firecracker which will be featured on MasterChef Australia on Wednesday, 3 May and then sold at a Pop-Up Dessert Bar at Shangri-La Hotel, Sydney. It actually consists of 76 steps which, although crazy, is also so much fun! "Anna's Mess" was all about the smash and the wow factor, whereas the Firecracker emulates all the fun aspects of my childhood. It contains various sweets which everyone will recognise. As a kid, I used to run around with my cousin Steve and play with firecrackers - which is obviously something that I don't get to do anymore - this dessert allows me to revisit my childhood in that respect. 
If you had one chance to impress your culinary heroes, what would you cook?
I am fortunate enough to have cooked for my culinary hero, Christophe Michalak. He is one of most lovely men and happens to be one of the best pastry chefs in Paris. Christophe was staying at my hotel and came into my kitchen and said the only thing that he wanted was a pavlova, so I made him my version and had it waiting in his room. He came back down to my kitchen and told me that it was the best pavlova he had ever tasted and asked if he could have the recipe. Of course I gave it to him, and he featured it in one of his cookbooks a year later. It's one of the highlights of my career, for sure.
Tell us about Kenwood and your role as an ambassador.
My love of Kenwood stems from my childhood. My mum has had the same Kenwood machine for years; even when I bought her a new one she wouldn't relinquish the old one as she is still so attached to it. I guess for her it brings back memories of when everyone lived at home. The machines really do last and last. Most of the time the only reason people replace their machines is because there is a new-and-improved model, rather than because their old one has broken down. Kenwood is all about bringing people together to bake, a philosophy that really resonates with me.
Decision time. What's your favourite dessert of all time?
The hazelnut delice at Claridge's. It's made up of all these beautiful flavours - mainly various milk chocolates, some of which I had never experienced before.
Which dessert do you wish everyone could experience at least once?
A dessert of mine called Loukou my Anna's. The name's derived from a traditional Cypriot dessert called loukoumades. They're essentially Greek-style doughnuts made with a little honey for sweetness. It's one of those desserts you have to eat hot, but the dipping syrup has to be cold to give a beautiful contrast. Traditionally you toss them in nuts, but I toss them in candied popcorn and add a dollop of Nutella.
What are your top five pantry staples?
The first is mum's halloumi cheese. There is always some in my fridge at home. The second is vanilla. Third is chocolate, but not just any chocolate, it's important to make sure that the chocolate you are using is from a reputable producer. Personally, I use Callebaut and Cacao Barry. Fourth, it would have to be fresh seasonal fruit. Ensure the fruit you're using is perfectly ripe and is from a sustainable source. And lastly, candied popcorn. I love it! I use it to toss through desserts and sponges as a crumb or on top as a decoration.
This article is presented by Kenwood