At The Table With — Anna Higham, The Last Bite
Going from Gramercy Tavern in New York to Lyle’s, Flor and The River Café in London, Anna has spent her career working in some of the world’s best restaurants. She is undoubtedly one of the most exciting pastry chefs in today’s British food scene and has just released her beautiful first cookbook, The Last Bite. The book acts almost as a manual for baking throughout the year, thoughtfully organised by season and led by ingredient. We sat down with Anna to chat about the idea for the book, her love of produce & seasonality, and how baking can become as intuitive as cooking. Look out for a few of Anna’s recipes coming soon in our Summer Edit.
Anna, tell us a little bit about yourself — where did your pastry journey begin?
Cooking was never a career I imagined for myself when I was younger. My family always cooked a lot and I enjoyed baking but I just assumed I would go to university not a culinary school. I ended up going to art school to study Architecture. Whilst I was there I took part time jobs in a cheesemonger and then a bakery/deli.
“If baking makes you nervous then start with some of the things that feel a bit more like the cooking you regularly do. Poach some fruit on the stove, taste it as it cooks, add a little vinegar, add a little sugar, add a little salt. Keep tasting and engaging with it each time you adjust something.”
Over a couple of years it became very obvious that the thing I loved and was really good at was cooking and baking, not architecture, so I dropped out and worked full time in the bakery for a year. It was a very gentle introduction into the food world but a really formative time too. I think those jobs taught me so so much about hospitality and generosity. I spent a year studying pastry at the local college to give myself some confidence and then got a job (after a lot of rejection!) at a new Gordon Ramsey opening in London.
You’ve worked in some incredible kitchens — from Gramercy Tavern in New York to Lyle’s, Flor and most recently The River Café in London. Has there been a particular restaurant or job that’s made its mark on you most?
I’ve tried to take big lessons from them all, both the positive and negative. I got the job at Lyle’s at the most fortuitous moment for me. I was figuring out my dessert language whilst the restaurant was developing in its early years. I am so incredibly grateful to the team there and James Lowe for giving me that amazing education and space to learn. It’s definitely been the most formative in terms of my cooking. Gramercy Tavern gave me incredible friendships and the permission to see a different kind of pastry and desserts. The River Cafe has taught me how to build a positive, dynamic team myself and how to relax a bit and take real, simple joy in each ingredient as the seasons come.
Your book The Last Bite is based around baking through and with the seasons, led ingredient by ingredient. Where did the idea for the book come from? Why did you choose that ingredient-led format?
One of my favourite ever pastry books is The Last Course by Claudia Fleming, that and Chez Panisse Desserts by Lindsey Shere — they are the two I dip into the most for inspiration. They are organised by season and ingredient and I’ve always found it incredibly useful. Every new season, or as a new fruit is about to arrive, I sit with those books (and Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book too) and read through the appropriate chapter. I rarely make a recipe directly from them but hearing the way they think, treat and pair that particular ingredients always sparks something for me. I always wanted a British version and after many cycles through the seasons in pastry kitchens I finally felt that I could be the one to write that book.
Do you have a favourite season in the kitchen? Is there one ingredient that you just cannot wait for each year?
So hard! Summer is glorious in the pastry kitchen, the soft fruits come so quickly one after the other almost bowling you over with their plenty. But then I love autumn with the figs and grapes and apples! I’ll say summer. I think strawberries are the thing I feel the real longing for as there is such a long period of waiting between the forced rhubarb and citrus of winter and the first expression of summer. I get so excited the first sunny day that I can head to the fruit farm to pick them.
With everything available year round these days it can be hard to know how to know what’s in season. How can we integrate seasonal cooking (and baking) into our lives a little more?
If you’re shopping in a supermarket, which we all have to do, then read the labels on the produce and see where it’s being grown. If it’s something that’s in season it’ll generally be grown in the UK. Strawberries are a good one to look at, they’ll be from Spanish greenhouses most of the year but when they are finally here they’ll definitely be British. It’s a lot about learning I think. If you read recipe books that are organised seasonally it all starts to click into place. If you can get a veg box (I really like Farm Direct for mine) then that also really helps you understand what grows when. Or visit a local greengrocer, find a pick your own farm. I know those things cost time which not everyone has so I think just that first act of being aware of where the produce you’re buying has come from will help massively.
You place a lot of emphasis on sourcing well — tell us why you’re so passionate about produce. Is it more than just taste?
Something that has been grown and handled with care and attention will always taste better, yes absolutely. I’ve had the immense privilege to visit a lot of farmers, growers and producers over time and I think understanding the work they do before the product reaches my hands makes me so much more respectful of the way I treat it. It’s humbling in a very positive way to think that the real alchemy shouldn’t happen in your kitchen but in the field.
Environmentally it can feel like a losing battle against monocultures and giant food businesses that aren’t growing for the planet but for profit. The way to turn that around is to try as much as possible to have direct relationships with the people actually producing the food. That relationship takes the power out of ‘big food’ and puts it back on a personal level. When there’s too much of something we can take more and figure how to make something delicious, when there’s not quite enough we know we’ll still be there to support the farmer or producer no matter what. It’s about being part of a resilient food system rather than an extractive one.
So many people are often intimidated by baking and dessert recipes, but you argue that it’s actually not so different to savoury cooking. You even talk about seasoning your desserts. Talk to us a little bit about that — what advice might you give to those who don’t feel as confident on the sweet side?
I think people get very tense when a set of scales comes out or they hear the word dessert. The sweet side of cooking has this reputation as scientific and mysterious. I kind of think all cooking is a bit of magic, it’s all transformational in its way, and dessert is no different. I am not a scientific cook in either sweet or savoury and I really don’t believe you need to be to cook good pudding. It’s just about paying attention to whats happening in front of you and getting comfortable with mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes feel a bit more dramatic with desserts, your cake doesn’t rise, your meringue is sticking your teeth together. I’d say when those things happen, make that recipe again as soon as you can and pay attention at each step to see what would make it better.
If baking makes you nervous then start with some of the things that feel a bit more like the cooking you regularly do. Poach some fruit on the stove, taste it as it cooks, add a little vinegar, add a little sugar, add a little salt. Keep tasting and engaging with it each time you adjust something. Then make the rice pudding, then maybe a custard. Get to know a recipe and feel comfortable, then move onto something a little bit more involved. And just make them for yourself the first time, take the pressure off. That way if something goes wrong it doesn’t really matter, you’ve learnt something anyway!
Finally, describe your ideal day off — where would you hang out, what would be your favourite spots to go eat at, or what would be on your list?
I would probably drive out to Maynards fruit farm with a picnic, pick loads of fruit and eat lunch under the cherry trees! Then back to London and dinner at 40 Maltby Street, it is consistently excellent and always has perfect desserts. If I was doing a bit of a dessert crawl around the city I would be stopping into Quo Vadis for something covered in custard (and maybe a martini to start it all off) , then onto Sessions Arts Club for a perfect panna cotta, over to Bright for whatever seasonal pudding is on that day and then finishing at Maltby Street for a glass of wine and hopefully something deep fried with custard.
(5 items that are always in your pantry, or that you can’t live without!)
1. Plenty of golden caster sugar
2. Seasonal honey, I love heather and chestnut when I can get it.
3. Pimhill oats (the most delicious oats ever!)
4. Good olive oil, I’ve been spoilt by the River Cafe
5. Spices – mahleb, fennel seeds, ground ginger, allspice, star anise, smoked paprika
A guide to baking throughout the year and with the seasons, Anna’s book is not only beautiful but thoughtful, educational and worth having on your kitchen shelf if you want to learn more about the art of making desserts. The Last Bite: A whole new approach to making desserts through the year by Anna Higham. Published by DK, 5 May. £22. Recipe photography: Kim Lightbody, additional photography: Miles Hardwick.