Nancy Olson has traveled a long way from her hometown in Napoleon,
North Dakota to her current mainstay as executive pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern.
With its unwavering devotion to bucolic compositions, this Danny Meyer
haunt surely reeps the benefits of Olson’s rural upbringing. Nancy’s
father raised cattle, while her mother made jams and jellies from
seasonal produce grown on their farm. Her upbringing planted shaped a
pastry career focused on the freshest, farm-grown ingredients.
At Gramercy Tavern, Nancy’s signature
desserts include the Grand Marnier mascarpone with a blood orange salad
and a coconut tapioca with passion fruit caramel and cilantro syrup.
Single – but
attached to the most wonderful, supportive man!
What did you want to be when you grew up?
For a long time I
really wanted to be a teacher. As a chef,
I am constantly teaching my team in the kitchen, so I’m lucky that the two professions
tie in together really well.
What was your first job in food?
My very first job
doing anything with food was working at a supermarket deli during college. One of my responsibilities was cleaning and
changing the oil for the chicken fryer – I went home after every shift smelling
like fried chicken!
Growing up in North Dakota, you learned cooking from your
mother and grandmother. What
favorite recipes do you attribute to your childhood?
Some of the desserts
I created for Gramercy Tavern are inspired by my childhood, but rather than any
specific recipe, I attribute more my attitude towards baking to my mother and
grandmother. While my grandmother passed
away before she could teach me how to bake, I remember we would always leave
her home carrying loads of treats. She made
huge batches of traditional German-Russian American pastries: kuchen, honey cookies, schlitz kuechla, fleischkuechla,
ice knipfels, pumpkin blachinda, caramel rolls, rosettes, spritz and pfeffernusse
cookies, raisin bread, potato buns, and kolacky. My mom followed suit and is a tremendous
baker, so I definitely associate baking and pastries with family and love. I feel strongly that baking is an extension
of my emotions – a way to say, “Here’s my heart on a plate.”
You began experimenting with pastry at The Fargo Country Club in
ND. What were some of your best
In five years at the
Country Club, I learned everything from making omelettes in the dining room to grilling
steaks outdoors for golf night, to carving an ice sculpture for a buffet and then
ultimately finding my niche in pastry. My
mentors there gave me the freedom to spend lots of time experimenting. One memorable creation – though not my best –
was a carrot and orange lentil soup I tried to cook from the Union Square Cafe Cookbook,
one of the first cookbooks I had ever bought. I was supposed to be making a beef chili that day, but I was young and a
little headstrong, and so I thought the soup would be a great substitute. Instead, my dish was a disappointment to the
diners at the Club! It took me a while
to learn how important it is to cook for your audience.
Raised on a farm, seasonal and
fresh ingredients have always been a part of your diet. How do you incorporate such items into your
It’s so easy to get excited about fruit and vegetables
coming into season and creating desserts around them. What’s more difficult for me right now is the
lack of any local seasonal fruits: spring is on the way, but it’s not quite
here yet! I’m working on new desserts to keep me excited while we wait for
spring to arrive, like a citrus caramel tart I’m putting on the menu this week. The brightness of the citrus should spread a
little sunshine on the menu until we can start making strawberry sundaes, nectarine
crisps, blueberry corn sundaes and, well, you get the idea…
Any desire to eventually return
to the rural life?
morning on the 6 train, with my face pressed into some stranger’s armpit, I
definitely felt that North Dakota would be a much better place to be.
ingredients do you look forward to using in your spring menu?
I get genuinely giddy thinking about rhubarb. Is it because it’s the harbinger of all the
great produce to come? Is it because it’s
reminiscent of the rhubarb plants in my mom’s garden and the goodies she made
from them? I don’t really know. But last year, my sous chef had to reel me in
from putting rhubarb in every dish on the menu!
What’s your favorite
dessert on Gramercy Tavern’s menu, and why?
My favorite dessert is always the newest one – the one I’ve
most recently put all of my energy and heart into. Right now it’s a white chocolate macadamia
brittle mousse with rhubarb sorbet. The
dish is so beautiful! It’s uncharacteristically
feminine looking for me – lots of pink accents on the plate.
What’s your least
favorite dessert (and yes, you must pick one)?
In October I was SO excited to put apples on the menu. I LOVE apples! But today they represent the winter doldrums
to me. This time of year really tests my
patience: I’m longing for tiny sweet
strawberries, and bright juicy cherries. So for now, my least favorite dessert is the apple tarte tatin.
What is your junk
food of choice?
I am a Diet Coke fiend. And I do like making nachos.
Other than your own,
what’s your favorite restaurant in NYC?
I almost never go to the same place twice, but I do live
upstairs from a diner in Manhattan (I won’t say which) that feels like home.
What culinary trend
do you most embrace?
I love that so many people are taking an interest in finding
out where their food is coming from by going to farmer’s markets and meeting
the farmers. We really celebrate local growers
at Gramercy Tavern, and it is great to see so many people doing the same.
What trend do you
wish would die already?
Nothing really. While
there may be some trends that aren’t particularly interesting to me, they may
be new and exciting to others. I
wouldn’t want to discredit anything that could introduce someone to a new dish
or flavor or even inspire them to a career in the restaurant industry.
What’s next on the
horizon for you? Any new ventures or
restaurants in the works? Spill the
While I do daydream about what the future may hold, I have
no desire to leave Gramercy Tavern anytime soon. I feel so honored to be given the chance to
follow Claudia Fleming’s lead in creating wonderful desserts for a beloved
restaurant. And I feel very at home here:
I get to make desserts that I love, that celebrate what’s local, seasonal, and
just plain delicious. It’s hard to beat!
Address: 40 E. 20th St. Btwn. Broadway & Park Ave S.
Until we eat again,
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