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Nancy Olson

Chef Nancy Olson
© Ellen Silverman

F&W Star Chef

Restaurants: Gramercy Tavern (New York, NY)

Experience: Fargo Country Club (Fargo, ND), Aureole (New York, NY), Bouley (New York, NY) Django (New York, NY), Peacock Alley in the Waldorf Astoria (New York, NY)

Education: Culinary Institute of America (New York, NY)

What is the dish you are most famous for?
Peanut butter semifreddo, served with a chocolate macaron, hot fudge and salted caramel. It’s a little ambitious, but if you do want to make the semifreddo at home, it lends itself to advance planning. Make the semifreddo five days before a dinner party, the macarons and the hot fudge a few days before. If you did a peanut butter semifreddo with hot fudge at home, that would be delicious and you don’t have to worry about the macaron, which can be a bit daunting. The semifreddo itself is pretty foolproof, as long as you make sure you under-whip the cream, so it doesn’t feel too fatty on your palate.

Who is your cooking mentor?
It’s my 19th year of cooking, so I have been lucky to have several cooking mentors, but Eric Ronson was the first. I met him at the Fargo Country Club, when I was 21. He believed in me, a kid off the street who’d never been in a professional kitchen, and throughout my five years there, he continued to believe in me. He helped me learn all of the savory stations, and the pastry, and when I wanted to carve ice, he bought me a chain saw. He gave me structure but allowed me to go out on my own.

What is the first thing you ever made?
The first things I ever made were mac and cheese out of a blue box, and chocolate chip cookies from the recipe on the bag of Nestlé Toll House chocolate chips. I was about 12. I remember my mom saying I made better chocolate chip cookies than she did, and that was an amazing compliment. No doubt it led to me feeling confident in the kitchen.

What are the key traits you need to be a chef?
To be a great professional cook, you have to have determination, dedication, stamina and curiosity. You have to be organized and optimistic, and you have to work clean, but the biggest thing you need is passion. I love to make desserts for people because I love to make them happy.

What do you wish you were better at?
A goal for this year is to learn about butchering and charcuterie. I grew up on a cattle farm, but I don’t know anything about what happens between raising an animal and eating it. I’d like to possess a little bit of the butcher’s skill sets. It feels like very exacting work, and I like that.

What are your favorite bang-for-the-buck ingredients?
The cool thing about pastry is that almost everything is bang for the buck. You can turn butter, sugar, flour, eggs, milk, yeast, cream and salt into almost anything, from croissants and caramels to brioches and ice cream. Taking all of those inexpensive things and turning them into something elegant makes pastry feel a bit like alchemy.

What is your favorite travel souvenir?
My most cherished souvenir is a chef’s knife I got in Matsue, Japan. I went to Matsue because it’s known for Japanese pastries called wagashi. We visited small, 50-person factories where people were creating the wagashi, and it was a phenomenal experience. I bought the knife in a small kitchen shop.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Sugar. It’s hard to look at that and think it influences my entire profession, but I wonder with obesity where the discussion will go. You can’t bake with sugar substitutes, but it would be nice if great things would come out of the discussion and if people decided to bake at home and take highly processed ingredients out of the sugar.

What’s your favorite spot to visit when you do get home to North Dakota?
Nichole’s Fine Pastry in Fargo. I lived in Fargo for nine years, and I still have family who live there. My friend Nichole owns a little patisserie downtown. If you could drop it in the middle of Manhattan, it would fit right in. She makes such elevated, beautiful French pastries, and a nice croissant, and I love the look of the place: exposed brick, and local art on the walls, which would be perfect in New York. She even did the cute little handmade tablecloths. I’m so happy Fargo has it.

Napoleon only has about 800 people, so there are only a couple of cafés that are either family-run or ones the community runs together. One’s called The Downtowner, but the others, I don’t even know the names, I haven’t eaten in those places for years. But I do think it’s pretty cool that the community realizes we still need to have a café and gathering place. Everyone takes turns cooking, and waiting tables, and by everybody I mean the schoolteacher, or another local business owner. Many small towns in North Dakota have them.

What’s your most requested recipe?
We do a peanut butter semifreddo with chocolate macarons, hot fudge and candied peanuts that gets a lot of requests. A lot of people like chocolate and peanuts, but I think we bridge a nice gap between salty and sweet, homey and classy, for a nice end to the meal. I wouldn’t want to make it at home; it’s a real restaurant dessert with multiple components. I’d rather make our chocolate bread pudding, something with many fewer things going into it. But both recipes are in our new book.

What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
I love all of Maida Heatter’s books. They’ve been my favorites from the beginning. Before I went to CIA (the Culinary Institute of America) I’d start baking out of cookbooks on slow nights at the Fargo Country Club. Hers are so incredible because it feels like she’s holding your hand in the kitchen. Any question you might have had, she answers it. That makes the recipes kind of lengthy, particularly now that I know what I’m doing. But at the time, she didn’t skip over anything. She was right there. And I loved that.

What’s one technique everyone should know?
The right method for creaming butter and sugar. It’s different for cakes and cookies. For cookies, you want to cream soft, room-temperature butter with sugar just until it’s homogenous. A lot of people ask us how we get our cookies to look exactly the same, and creaming them correctly is pretty much it.

For cakes, you really want to let the mixer go, to beat in as much air into the butter as possible. You don’t need to start with absolutely room-temperature butter (although it’s a good idea), since the sugar crystals will cut into the butter and soften it that way.

The air helps with the mechanical leavening in your cake. Even if you have chemical leavening like baking soda, if you aerate it as much as possible when you cream, you’ll have a nice light cake. With cookies, if you aerate the butter too much your cookies will spread too much on the baking sheet. Unless you like that kind of cookie. I like cookies that are crunchy on the outside and still gooey-chewy on the inside.

Can you share one great entertaining tip?
Prep ahead so you can enjoy hanging out with your friends. There are lots of desserts you can make ahead: You can assemble bread pudding, cake batter and cookie dough the day before you bake them. You can bake an entire cake the day before you serve it. Desserts are often best when they’re freshly baked, but you can prep a lot of them up to the point when it goes to the oven, then bake them a day later. The baking powder will start to lose oomph if a batter or dough is left in the refrigerator for two or three days, but after only one day it will be fine.

See More
5 recipes by Chef Nancy Olson
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Congratulations to Nicholas Elmi, winner of Top Chef: New Orleans, the 11th season of Bravo's Emmy-Award winning, hit reality series.

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