Interview: Anna Hansen on family, fusions and a dramatic decade

The Modern Pantry has survived a turbulent period, and chef-patron Anna Hansen can concentrate on her joyful food once more, writes William Sitwell

The Modern Pantry in Clerkenwell is celebrating ten years in the business. At the top of chef-patron Anna Hansen’s menu is written these words: ‘To celebrate 10 years of the Modern Pantry our current menu features exclusive dishes & drinks by wonderful people we’ve worked with along the way.’

Thus, on the menu appears a dish of roasted cauliflower created by Chantelle Nicholson of Tredwells. There’s Keralan crab by Ravinder Bhogal of Jikoni, a grilled ribeye from Shaun Searley of the Quality Chop House, and more. These are friends of Hansen’s, trusted supporters – and right now she feels she needs people like that more than ever. Because the ten-year celebrations have not quite gone the way she might have intended.

One could say the problem seemed to begin after Hansen opened up a sister establishment, further east and a little deeper into the City, off Finsbury Square. She created a beautiful space out of a dusty void and got through the teething issues
of opening, but the ship, from the balance sheet point of view, never seemed to settle. And it was odd, because while it wasn’t exactly booming, the place was busy. The numbers weren’t stacking up.

‘Something was going on,’ says Hansen, ‘and it was my long-term chef Rob who finally worked it out. What we discovered was disappointing and heartbreaking.’ The penny dropped. Another long-serving member of staff was consistently helping himself to the cash. Day in, day out. ‘He was being very cunning.’ They discovered it wasn’t just pounds, a few hundred or a few thousand. He had stolen £130,000. The restaurant reported the incident to the police, who suggested they negotiate with him to try to claw some of the money back.

‘I tried to negotiate,’ says Hansen, ‘but I just found it galling. He just mucked us around and then I discovered he had been working in another restaurant and had started a similar process. They had only been swindled out of around £1,500. Then I heard he was planning to move to Dubai, so I made a decision.’

She called the police and he was arrested within 20 minutes of the call. At Blackfriars Crown Court, he pleaded guilty and was given a two-year sentence. ‘I decided not to go to the court. I couldn’t bear to watch,’ she says. ‘It was a betrayal and I hope they put him somewhere hellish.’

Soon after that, Finsbury Square closed. ‘The end of the last winter was just brutal,’ reflects Hansen. ‘I can’t allow it to weigh down on me, but the interesting thing is discovering how many people this kind of thing happens to. It’s remarkable the number of people who don’t press charges. There are all kinds of reasons – there’s the sense of a loss of face and appearing like a mug.’

One thing, she says, has saved her, and that’s her daughter, five-year-old Sonja: ‘Children absorb you. They are the perfect antidote.’ There was also the sun that shone for a long time over the summer of 2018, the rays giving some semblance of hope as the Modern Pantry settled into its tenth year.

The building the Modern Pantry occupies is an old workshop that had been unoccupied for more than a decade when Hansen came across it. She took on a lease that expires in 2021, which is ‘slightly concerning,’ she says, adding that the terms stipulate that she ‘return the building to its original state’. This is indeed strange, given that she spent a great deal of money transforming the old four-storey building from top to bottom into an exquisite restaurant.

But her landlord, she says, is supportive, and it’s in their interest to have her rather than an empty building. However, the rent is high and ‘there’s only so much that you can charge for a plate of food’. Meanwhile, produce costs are up, as are prices for wine, and it’s clear she gets frustrated if customers moan when they get the bill.

But for all the aggravation she has faced, Hansen is a sunny character. ‘I am blessed,’ she says. ‘I own my own business and I didn’t get into it to make money! It’s a privilege to be creative, to be able to cook beautiful food.’

Born to a Danish mother and Belgian-Swiss father in Canada, she was raised in New Zealand. Having studied business management, she came to London at the age of 22 and got a job at what was then Fergus and Margot Henderson’s French House Dining Room in Soho. After six months training her, the Hendersons went on holiday and left her in charge – and she realised she could do it, and do it well. Before long she had teamed up with fellow Kiwi Peter Gordon at the Providores in Marylebone. Her next step was her own place.

Ten years on, customers are still flocking to taste her adventurous fusions: duck legs with a Japanese-glazed aubergine, Kashmiri masala roasted chicken, lamb rump with a pea and yuzu purée. And her most famous dish: sugar-cured New Caledonian prawn omelette with smoked chilli sambal, green chilli, spring onions and coriander.

It’s not surprising that if you’re knee-deep in creating such flavours and are surrounded by fellow creatives, you might not notice a bad egg who’s helping himself to the takings. ‘People need to have more integrity,’ she says. ‘Where is your own moral compass if you let someone who has stolen from you go scot-free?’

Ten years from now this will be a mere blip. Anna Hansen has the makings of a cheffy legend.

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