Anna Polyviou is a chef with artistic flair, edgy look, and carefree attitude. With her trademark pink mohawk hair and zest for life, it’s little wonder that the ‘Punk Princess of Pastry’ captivates audiences on TV screens and on paper.
Anna’s the first to admit she likes pushing the limits, both in her food creations and daily routine. Recently, she decided to go on a month-long national tour to launch her new Sweet Street cook book, travelling from Perth to Melbourne, Sydney to Canberra, and Darwin to Brisbane, cooking with young kids and signing books for anyone who asked.
“I can’t wait for people to go buy the book from the shops but I also wanted to take the opportunity to personalise the experience for my supporters,” Anna says. “I wanted the chance to meet people, talk about the book, why it’s designed, and what it involves, because it’s not just an average book. It’s been four to five years in the making.”
Sweet Street is a celebration of Anna’s favourite treats and acclaimed desserts. Some are simple and others complex with TV creations with over 100 steps, such as her famous Carrot Cake, Anna’s Tower of Terror, and Anna’s Mess, but each has a wow factor that even the least confident cook can muster. There’s old classics with a modern twist, such as crepes, churros, and finger buns, afternoon tea delights, wicked ‘3somes’ recipes – one recipe presented three ways – and showstoppers, such as the classic tiramisu recreated with a simple cocktail shaker.
“This recipe is so easy, yet tasty and interactive. Put sponge fingers on the base of a martini class. In the shaker add liquor, an espresso shot, ice, and shake it in front of your guests. It’s a show-off recipe. I’m known for theatre and this recipe is an extension of that,” Anna says. “Put a shot of the liquid in your martini glass, and spoon in some whipped mascarpone cream, and you’ll have a dessert your friends will want to post on social media.”
At the core of every recipe Anna puts her name to is a sense of joy and reward.
“Cooking is meant to be fun, lively, and simple. Cooking isn’t designed to be for one particular person. It’s for everybody. What this book is about is bringing everyone together and giving young kids a go,” she says. “It’s a book I want to see get filthy dirty with sticky egg and ripped pages. Make a mess.”
One of Anna’s favourite chapters in the book is the one dedicated to her mum’s Greek recipes such as kourabiedes and baklava, but she’s not entirely impressed.
“Mum’s since told me the recipes are wrong,” Anna laughs. “I think it’s because I’ve put my own twist on them and not stuck to her classics.”
Being Greek Cypriot, Anna would crave steak and three veg growing up, not her mother’s haloumi and spanakopita. She recalls nostalgic childhood memories when her mum would tell her to cover the pita bread with a blanket because the dough needed to sleep, and to always keep syrup cold in the fridge before serving it on baklava.
“Those key messages have stuck in my head. They are things I used to laugh at but things I still do now,” she says. “I was lucky I was spoilt at a young age. I was always around food and spoilt with sweets and savoury foods. My uncles were hunters so we’d always get quail, or beautiful fish and octopus straight off the boat.”
That early interaction with fresh produce gave Anna a passion she wanted to pursue. At age 10 in home economics, Anna enjoyed making bottled jams, and she knew she’d found her niche.
After school, Anna trained hard to catch a break in hospitality. She describes her career like a good novel with interesting chapters. She gained a highly sought-after apprenticeship at Hotel Sofitel in Melbourne after applying twice, won Apprentice of the Year in Victoria, gained an overseas scholarship working at Claridge’s Hotel, won Best Dessert in the United Kingdom, worked in Paris with renowned pastry chef Pierre Hermé, and came back to Australia to win Hotel Chef of the Year, and Pastry Chef of the Year. The list goes on.
“There’s too many career highlights to note, but when I sign a cookbook that’s rewarding for me,” she says. “I’m also proud that the Shangri-La hotel where I now work could see I could make positive changes, and that I could take its food offering to another level. But for me, it’s never enough. I always want more.”
That ‘more’ includes Anna’s self-created Sweet Street Festival at the Shangri-La hotel. Since 2012, the festival has become a sell-out dessert degustation. This year, dessert kings Adriano Zumbo and Reynold Poernomo joined Anna to display their magical creations.
“We eat sweets to celebrate things. It’s indulging, it’s exciting, and it’s never a chore to eat dessert but it’s a chore to eat savoury food,” Anna says.
What’s not a chore is Anna’s daily coffee intake. She must have a coffee every morning otherwise her mood takes a hit. First comes a cappuccino, followed by a macchiato, and being Greek, she adds a frappé as well.
“Everyone makes frappe differently, some have sweet undertones and others don’t, but I just like to let the Greeks go for it and make it for me the way they like. I do add some milk with mine too, but I have to have my coffee otherwise I get really grumpy,” Anna says. “I remember getting off a donkey in Santorini and sitting at a café overlooking the water. I had a frappé and it was heaven.”
Anna is well versed in the coffee world. She’s a fan of Mr Black’s espresso martinis, has a DeLonghi espresso machine at home, and was Aldi’s coffee machine ambassador in 2017.
“That was a wow moment. Mum was so excited I was in the Aldi supermarket catalogue. Never mind that I’ve been on TV before, she cared more that I made it into the Aldi catalogue,” Anna says.
Growing up, Anna used to make Greek or Turkish coffee for her dad every day. She would only drink it when she wanted her coffee cup read, a Greek tradition.
“Everyone grows up with a coffee story. Aussies know good coffee and I love how the culture has grown to support local Australian roasted coffee rather than international brands,” she says. “I’m always fascinated with how Toby’s Estate started. I think they’re the ones that really started to blow up the culture of fresh local roasted coffee. Then you’ve got places like The Grounds of Alexandria that took the café experience to a whole new level in Sydney.”
Anna knows passion when she sees it. She’s seen it as a guest judge on TV show MasterChef and as a regular judge on Family Food Fight, but she also sees it regularly behind the coffee bar.
“I love the care factor baristas have. The way they flick the milk at the end, man, that’s the X factor right there,” Anna says. “I always watch for that and it tells me if they’re a good barista or not. The sign is a look of intensity when they finish the coffee with a pretty pattern and then pass it over with a smile because they’re so proud of what they’ve created.”
Anna too is proud of what she’s accomplished in her culinary career. She says she’s always thinking about her next adventure, which includes an upcoming trip to Europe, living in Melbourne for two months, and finding inspiration for her next “outrageous dessert”.
“I’m always very grateful for my opportunities, there’s no room for arrogance in this industry. I’m lucky to do what I love, some people don’t get that chance,” she says. “It’s important to surround yourself with like-minded people so you can grow and develop and encourage you and relax and stay humble. That’s the recipe for great living.”
Sweet Street is out now and available to purchase from all good bookstores.