Culinary Canvas

‘I eat, sleep, and breathe pastry’

We talked passion and pastry with Tony Olsson, the award-winning baker and creative director of iconic Swedish patisserie chain Thelins.

Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.

Perhaps the only person who thinks veteran baker Tony Olsson isn’t that creative is Tony Olsson himself. The award-winning pastry chef, who is currently creative director of iconic Swedish patisserie chain Thelins, believes creativity is central to the pastry arts - but what’s more important is passion.

“It’s important to be creative but I don’t see myself as so creative. But then when I speak with colleagues they ask where I get all these ideas from! I think it’s because I eat, sleep, and breathe pastry.”

From a remarkably young age Tony knew he wanted to become a baker. There are photos of him aged four or five years old, donning a paper bag as though it was a chef’s hat, while he helps his mother bake gingerbread. As a teen, when he and his friends were searching for something fun to occupy their time, Tony would suggest baking something. Needless to say, he was not your typical teenager.

“I’ve never thought of doing anything else. It has been pasty, pastry, pastry, my entire life.”

Tony began training to be a baker while still in high school and hasn’t stopped working since. His first mentor was close with celebrated Swedish baker Jan Hedh and as a young apprentice Tony took advantage of every opportunity to learn from the master. He worked around the clock to hone his art and when he wasn’t baking, he was thinking about baking.

“I have four of five hundred chef’s books, and I was always buying more before Facebook and Instagram. So I would always look through these to get inspired. I grew up in Malmö in Southern Sweden and my friends and I would always go to Copenhagen for a beer. I’d always run off to the pastry shops to take a look. Or if I went abroad, like a trip to Paris, I’d spent it running round all the pastry shops! I’d see a lot of things I wanted to try myself.”

‘Taste is most important’

Tony has worn many hats throughout his career, from festival founder (he established the baking and chocolate festival in Stockholm) to the chairman of the Swedish baking championship and a consultant at KåKå, Sweden’s leading supplier of baking ingredients to the industry. He’s also been named Sweden's Pastry Chef of the Year, taken home Gold at the Culinary Olympics, and worked as a team leader for Sweden’s national pastry team. Not to mention the string of big-name bakeries he’s managed or the baking masterclasses he’s hosted around the world.

Having catered to (and this really is no exaggeration) the vast majority of Sweden, it’s fair to say Tony knows a thing or two about inventing sweet treats for the masses. The key, he says, is to be creative but within limits - focus on taste, consistency, and don’t skimp on the sugar.

“For me, taste is the most important. Here I might be a little boring - I like raspberry, chocolate, vanilla, passionfruit, mango. Very standard ingredients which I use most of the time. I think people like these ingredients. Today a lot of people take away the sugar but you need it for consistency. If you work in a restaurant, you can be very creative. But when you work in a pastry shop, you need to make something that many people are going to like.”

With all this experience under his belt, it’s no wonder that Tony is often asked to judge various baking competitions. While he sees social media as a great medium for inspiration, he is noticing more and more often the effect it has on budding bakers.

“There are so many times I go to a competition and you think you’ve got something really good in front of you but in fact it tastes of nothing or there are too many components. On Instagram and Facebook, it can be more important how the food looks but because it looks nice it doesn’t have the right consistency, for example.”

He insists that making these kinds of mistakes (and learning from them) is the most useful thing any young baker can do. But above all, he advises them to remember: you’re in the business of food, so don’t be stingy with your own slice.

“Taste a lot! Don’t take two spoonfuls and decide whether something is good or not. The customer will eat the whole cake. The first bite or two might be perfect, but what about the 22nd? Eat what your colleagues are making and eat while you’re travelling. Maybe you can’t use it today, but there’s always tomorrow.”

Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.