I’m feeling inspired.
Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a conference and hear the fabulous Anna Olson speak about her rise to the celebrity chef she is today. And I have to tell you, I am feeling inspired by Anna Olson. Anna was speaking to a room full of women entrepreneurs at the GWEN 2015 Conference (Growing Women Entrepreneurs) about building her brand. For Anna, that brand is based around respect: respect for the ingredients, respect for the technique and most importantly, respect for the people she is cooking for. Respect is at the core of every decision the seven-time cookbook author, cooking show host and pastry chef makes. While respect has always been at the core of what Anna has done, she never considered it to be her brand until she was asked to describe her brand in an interview.
The question came as a bit of a shock. When Anna Olson first started her culinary career, chefs didn’t really have brands. There was no Martha Stewart, no Food Network, no Internet full of food bloggers, no Pinterest. It was just chefs in a kitchen, a few cooking shows and cookbooks.
Inspired by Anna Olson
Anna developed her style when working at On The Twenty, the five-star restaurant partly responsible for the revival of Jordan Village. Prior to becoming a chef, Anna was a banker and while her coworkers were pouring over the latest copy of the Economist on their lunch break, Anna was sneaking glances at Gourmet and hitting up the local market in search of kohlrabi (which she discovered she didn’t really like — “you won’t find a lot of kohlrabi in my cookbooks,” she says, adding it’s in being authentic to yourself, and in her case, her tastebuds, that will win you a following). She wanted to be a happy banker, like her coworkers were, but money and numbers weren’t driving her passion. Where she found that passion was in the kitchen, baking blueberry muffins at 2 a.m. It was in her favourite room of the house at this early hour in the morning that Anna Olson had what she called a “muffin epiphany”. She quit her job, went to culinary school and began studying under as many chefs as she could. It was on a trip back home that Anna would discover On the Twenty. She was instantly intrigued by the fine-dining establishment’s use of seasonal produce. She put in a resume but never heard anything.
Months passed by and finally the phone rang with a job offer. The plan was to spend one full year at the restaurant to take advantage of the region’s year-round bounty and then move on. But life intervened. Anna met Michael and the two fell in love in the On the Twenty kitchen. They settled down in the Niagara region and the rest, as they say, is history. Anna went on to open a bakery in Port Dalhousie. She auditioned and was accepted to the Food Network where she launched the first of three cooking series, Sugar, which was followed up by Fresh with Anna Olson (shot in her Welland kitchen using local produce) and Bake with Anna Olson (which just went back into production). In that time, Anna Olson has published seven best-selling cookbooks and has become a common name to homebakers across Canada.
As far as Canadian food celebrities go, Anna Olson is a pretty big name. So I was pretty stoked to learn she was the keynote speaker at the conference. Even greater, after hearing her inspiring talk — as well as those from Laura Riciuto, Pam Isaak and social media panelists Dina Arsenault, Allie Hughes, Robin McPherson, and Alicia Whalen — I had my own “muffin epiphany” so to speak. I have been inspired by Anna Olson and I can’t wait to get in the kitchen and test the recipes I have been whipping up in my mind.
A new direction
I’ve had this blog for a year-and-a-half now and while I love what I have shared, I feel like I have been lacking an overall direction. It started as cooking blog but has quickly morphed into a space for information on growing, raising and cooking your own food. It lacks an identity.
What is Picky to Plenty?
While Anna spoke on building a brand, Pam Isaak challenged everyone in the room to define their brand. She asked each of us to write down five adjectives that describe our business. Here is what I wrote: organic, natural, back to roots, back to earth.
I couldn’t come up with a fifth.
Later that night, when I was in the kitchen preparing a quick dinner, I started to think about those brand descriptions. And then I started thinking about what I want to do on my wannabe farm and with my blog and how I am trying to build my voice on the topics of food and farming. And the answer I came up with was real.
I also started thinking about my brand and my blog name and I realized, I am not a reformed picky eater after all. I am still a picky eater, I am just a different kind of picky.
I’m no longer the “I’m not going anywhere near a carrot” kind of picky (though you still won’t catch me near peas, unless they are of the snow variety) eater. I am now the “where did that come from” kind of picky eater. I am not so much concerned with avoiding “icky” vegetables as I am with avoiding “icky” genetically modified foods (GMOs), pesticides and factory farmed foods. I am learning to become a locavore, establishing relationships with the people from whom I source what I can’t raise and grow myself. I am learning animal husbandry and organic gardening so that I can become more food self sufficient. I am evolving, and so will this blog.
Expect to see some changes in the near future on my little space on the Internet. Not only will I be sharing the story of my own journey towards food self-sufficiency, but I will be sharing the journey of like-minded individuals who inspire me to continue down the path I am on. I also plan to share more recipes as I have been hit with a major dose of inspiration. I was especially inspired by Anna Olson and all of the tasty food photography she showcased during her chat, so inspired I whipped up a batch of her decadent, triple chocolate brownies. Which I totally failed at making the first time and was reminded of Anna’s presentation in which she talked about failure being a valuable lesson in growth. I somehow over calculated the butter and my brownies came out greasy and crumbly. Disheartened, I contemplated returning to my tried and true brownie recipe, but I remembered what Anna said about failure: “You learn a lot from failures. Failing is part of the process. And I learned from failure repeatedly when I had to scrape cake off the bottom of the oven. Luckily in baking it’s an easy recovery. You buy more ingredients and start again.” So off to the store I went to buy some more chocolate and voila, a batch of brownies so good my husband couldn’t keep his hands off them. The brownies are amazing: dense, chewy, fudgey and rich.
I spent the weekend in my kitchen whipping up a pumpkin beer beef stew which I plan to share with you shortly, Anna Olson’s triple chocolate brownies and a healthy, chocolate bark which I will share as we get closer to the holiday season. I am loving being back in the kitchen and creating again. Thanks for the healthy dose of inspiration GWEN. And a special thanks to Renee Delaney at the Niagara Farm Project for inviting me along. I wouldn’t have had a “muffin epiphany”, or in this case a “brownie epiphany” — or known to call it that — without you.
And now for something sweet:
Anna Olson’s Triple Chocolate Brownies
(original recipe can be found here)
- 10 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
- 2/3 C unsalted butter
- 3/4 C sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 3 eggs
- 1/2 C flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 C white chocolate chips
- 1/2 C milk chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 325.
In a double boiler, melt butter and chopped chocolate. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and sugar.
Add eggs one a time, stirring. Stir in flour until combined.
Fold in chocolate chips
Pour into baking pan (I used a four-corner brownie pan to ensure each piece has crunchy sides and gooey centres) and bake 35-40 minutes.
Where do you find inspiration for the kitchen?