Anna Polyviou claims that her trademark Mohawk was an accident she’s now stuck with. After talking with her, though, you begin to doubt that the “Punk Princess of Pastry” leaves anything to chance. Polyviou comes across as an organised, driven and creative individual.
Melbourne-born Polyviou started winning culinary competitions as an apprentice and her awards cabinet includes the Nadell Trophy for the UK’s dessert of the year. Winning the Culinary Award of Excellence for Pastry in 2004 gave her the opportunity to work with Pierre Herme, the French patissier who is most famous for his macarons, and who was recently crowned World’s Best Pastry Chef.
In 2013 Polyviou joined five-star Sydney hotel Shangri-La as executive pastry chef and became the first pastry chef to win Hotel Chef of the Year. In 2014 she created Sweet Street, Australia’s first dessert festival, and her first cookbook is being released next September. Polyviou’s biggest claim to fame, though, is her signature dessert, Anna’s Mess, as seen on MasterChef. It’s a take on the Eton Mess, but it looks like the Death Star from Star Wars that eaters drop – or smash – onto their plate to reveal and combine its elements (among them: berry coulis, mascarpone cream and fruit). Its 74-step recipe stretches across eight pages.
In the lead-up to her November appearance at Entwined in the Valley – a food and wine festival in the Swan Valley where she will cook at the festival’s closing dinner and host an Anna’s Mess masterclass at Caversham House – Polyviou talks to Broadsheet about sugar, the Swan Valley and that dessert.
BS: You’re headlining two events at Entwined, both featuring Anna’s Mess.
AP: We only do it for special events now, so it’s more exclusive and people feel special about it. No one’s really experienced it from WA. When the MasterChef episode went live we had 1.1 million viewers and physically couldn’t keep up with the demand.
BS: Each of the 200 guests at the festival’s degustation dinner is getting their own Anna’s Mess. That sounds like a lot of work.
AP: I’ve got two of my staff coming on Thursday to get it all set up. I really want the guests to smash it even if they’re dressed up for the dinner.
BS: What can we expect from the Anna’s Mess masterclass?
AP: It’s not your average masterclass, I’m giving you the heads-up on that one. If you’re expecting to sit there and take notes, there’s not going to be any time for that. I’m organising a DJ. We’re going to have prizes and there’ll be plenty of hands-on stuff, including smashing the Anna’s Mess. If you want to have some fun and forget about your problems, then you’re coming to see the right person.
BS: Give us a potted history of Anna Polyviou before she became a high-profile pastry chef.
AP: I’m from Cyprus, so Mum had me in the kitchen from a young age. Growing up I was always a troublemaker and was sent to culinary school because I was too busy partying instead of taking my job seriously. And then I got put into a competition that changed my life. I think in a way I’m blessed, who knows what I would have been up to back in those days. I’ve never really looked at what everyone else is doing. As much as I would like to say I don’t really care what people say, that’s a lie. Everyone does care what people say. But I wanted to push the boundaries and just do my thing and that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m trying to have fun doing it as well. It’s hard but I just continue going on and being creative. It’s more of a hobby than a job, and I think that’s where the success comes into it.
BS: What’s a day in the life of Anna Polyviou like?
AP: I start any time between midnight and 6am and work through until about 6.30, 7pm. It’s a lot of organisation, getting the production side done, events: loads of fun stuff, actually. I spend about two hours setting up the team before the day even starts. It’s a bit full-on. You drop your guard and people just do whatever. Not necessarily play up, but it’s like if your parents aren’t looking over you, you get up to mischief. It’s exactly the same thing in a kitchen.
BS: What do you do when things go wrong?
AP: It’s easy to blame other people but you’ve really got to reassess yourself and ask, ‘What have I done? Have they not understood it?’ And so on. I stopped blaming other people and started blaming myself. Too often people point the finger at others rather than taking responsibility.
BS: How did you find the MasterChef experience?
AP: It’s changed my life. I was a huge fan even before being on there and now I love everything about it. A lot of other TV programs look for personalities, but MasterChef isn’t about that, it’s about bringing good cooks forward and encouraging the general public to cook. There’s a home economics team behind it all, they’re super professional. They’re very by-the-book. When we do our recipes they have to tick everything off.
BS: Congratulations on the coming cookbook. Are the recipes aimed at professionals or are they going to be within reach of home cooks?
AP: 50/50. I really wanted to focus on all calibres, from professionals to amateurs to people who don’t really like to cook. It’s so much work, but it will be worth it at the end and it’s one of those things I need to have. Every day we’re spending at least five hours on it.
BS: So what’s next?
AP: I love Shangri-La. I don’t know any hotel in Australia that allows its chefs to do what I do. As long as everything runs smoothly they are super encouraging, so I would never want to leave a place like that. I’ve got 11 chefs, I’ve got the equipment that I want. You’ve got me that’s at a hotel, you’ve got Zumbo building an empire of pastry shops all around Australia, you’ve got Darren Purchese with his boutique shop. If I opened up a shop I’d be like everyone else.
BS: Dessert trends: love them or hate them?
AP: I think trends are a good thing – they get people talking and that’s really important. I don’t follow them all the time, but sometimes I do. They get the hype going, social media going, raise awareness and showcase different chefs. Trends will go and come back. I’m about experiences. Experiences never die, they continue and that’s what I do. I evolve stuff, I redevelop stuff, I give people experiences from dessert degustations, to demonstrations that are different, to Sweet Street, to Anna’s Messes on TV. Desserts are great, bring on the sugar, I say.
Entwined in the Valley runs from November 4–6. The Anna’s Mess Masterclass will be held at Caversham House on Saturday November 5 from 10.30am–2.30pm. Tickets are $120 per person and include high tea and Swan Valley sparkling wine. Polyviou is also cooking at the festival’s seven-course degustation dinner at Mandoon Estate on Sunday November 6 alongside Hadleigh Troy (Restaurant Amuse), Kiren Mainwaring (Co-op Dining) and Michael Hartnell (Mandoon Estate). Tickets are $250 per person and include matching Swan Valley wines.