Shangri-La Hotel’s award-winning chef, Anna Polyviou, talks to Neos Kosmos about her sweet success.
A Greek Cypriot is shaking up Sydney’s dessert scene, changing what we think of pastry making. Anna Polyviou is Shangri-La Hotel’s executive pastry chef and has received many accolades for her talent of putting together complex yet refreshing and incredibly flavorsome desserts that look like mini artifacts. Anna has written several cookbooks, worked with famous international culinary magazines and is the founder of Sydney Pastry Club.
She kick-started her career as an apprentice at Hotel Sofitel Melbourne and soon became a chef, but was mostly interested in partying rather than cooking, and nearly lost her job. At one point she was asked to enter a pastry competition for the sake of her team. She started training in sweets and the more involved in pastry she became, the more she loved it. Not long after, Anna was awarded the title of best apprentice in the hotel, which led to winning the Les Toque competition for best apprentice within Victoria. The prize was a scholarship at London’s University of Culinary Arts in pastry along with a position at Claridges Hotel. Polyviou won gold medals in different culinary competitions, and won a trophy for Best Dessert in the UK. This award gave her the opportunity to move to Paris and work with legendary chocolatier Pierre Herme.
“I then returned to Australia and did another competition for best plated chocolate dessert, won that and got a trip to Chicago to do training,” says Polyviou, who spent five years as the pastry chef at Sydney’s famous Bathers Pavilion.
The multi-awarded chef couldn’t stay away from home, as her dream is to showcase pastry lovers it is possible to create edible art and develop Shangri-La Hotel’s ‘dessert degustation events’ which currently have a 200-strong waiting list nearing $200 per person. With her recipes, she tries to influence people’s emotions by infusing doses of concentrated happiness in her dishes.
“I feel extremely proud not only to be with a well-recognised brand but also getting people excited about what my team and I create whilst enjoying the music by my personal DJ,” she says.
“It is amazing to have other hotels talk about what we do here, our life-size gingerbread houses, the street festival, the dessert evenings.”
Being a renegade hasn’t always been a walk in the park for Anna, as her innovative ideas – not to mention her rad look – weren’t accepted without a fight. Even Shangri-La Hotel asked her to remove her piercings, cover her bleached blonde mohawk and say goodbye to her colourful G-Shock watches and high-top sneakers in the kitchen. However, the pastry chef worked even harder to prove that her unique and sometimes controversial attitude was necessary to take things not one, but several steps further. Polyviou became a social media sensation in her own right and her ‘degustation events’ took Sydney’s Shangri-La fame to a whole new level.
“The physical aspect of me walking into Shangri-La – not just my kitchen, [but] the way I look – that was hard at first, as they didn’t share the same vision of where I wanted to take the hotel,” she admits.
“I wanted to bring a point of difference, build a motivated and influential team and have everyone talking about us. Sweet Street, the dessert degustations, the walk in ginger bread house … they didn’t get it.
“A year later it’s all changed … after receiving such amazing feedback from media and individuals, hundreds of new guests are arriving to become part of this unique experience.”
Polyviou’s creativity – along with her team of ten talented pastry chefs – has introduced Sydney’s foodies to mouth-watering macarons, handmade chocolate bonbons and high-end desserts available at Café Mix, the hotel’s all-day dining restaurant. Shangri-La also offers High Tea and Chocolate High Tea evenings at the Lobby Lounge where Anna exhibits her “sexy pieces of sweet art”.
“I love creating delicious but visually attractive … sexy desserts bursting with fun and flavour,” she muses.
“To me, cooking is an ongoing process, like everything. For example, I first made my now world-famous carrot cake five years ago, but I did not do chocolate work and graffiti until recently to give it that extra form of excitement and cool cutting edge.”
Anna’s carrot cake won best dessert in Australia and was featured on this season’s hardest MasterChef elimination challenge, which has brought her career to a whole new level. Polyviou, however, has a soft spot for ‘Anna’s Mess’, Shangri-La’s signature dessert.
“It’s this beautiful round sphere mould, with holes cut out, which once crashed, makes you sprinkle from test tube pop rocks mixing with the fresh fruity ingredients and chocolate.
“It portrays the only way to eat and actually enjoy it; that is, to create a mess.”
The passion for food has always been there for Anna, even though she initially wanted to be a cartoonist. She then switched to break-dancing until she decided to become a chef and combine all forms of entertainment in her work.
“As a Greek Cypriot I have always been around food and of course thinking of food,” says Polyviou, whose favourite dish is stuffed zucchini flowers with yoghurt on the side.
“Mum would wake up and her first question would be what we want to have for dinner. My Sunday afternoons were a small family gathering of 50 people.”
The famous chef is proud of her heritage and loves all things Hellenic. She tries to stay strongly connected to her identity and preserve her family’s traditions.
“I never take my cross off and still go to church, even if I receive those stares.
“I just brush it off,” she says.
Meanwhile, she has decided to follow George Calombaris’ advice on creating her own versions of traditional desserts like the popular ‘Loukou-Annas’, a loukoumades-like sweet delight with candy popcorn and Nutella sauce in a pipette.
“I’m now looking at doing a Greek festival, and at the same time, bringing more Greek desserts into the hotel to share the great memories I have from my childhood with the rest of the world.
“I believe if you have been brought up well in that amazing cultural environment it will, and it should definitely, be passed on.”
*For more recipes, along with video clip tutorials, head over to http://www.annapolyviou.com