Creative in the kitchen: Renowned pastry chef Nancy Olson feeds happiness with desserts

Anyone who’s tried Nancy Olson’s fresh-baked goods knows the taste of happiness.

From pastries to cookies, pies to macaroons — the renowned pastry chef does it all with a dash of creativity and enthusiasm to boot.

“The kind of food I make isn’t necessary (for survival). Let’s be fair,” Olson laughs. “I picked pastry and bakery because it’s there for happiness. It’s there to feed people’s’ emotions.”

Her experience making desserts for notable restaurants, like Gramercy Tavern in New York City and Nichole’s Fine Pastry in Fargo, adds to the sweetness.

Growing up in Napoleon, N.D., Olson always had an interest in the culinary arts. Her professional journey began in early adulthood after she withdrew from Concordia College to work as a line cook at the Fargo Country Club.

In the five years she worked there, Olson experimented with different dessert recipes and discovered her passion for baking. She decided to move to New York City to get an associate’s degree in pastry and baking from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).

Nancy Olson’s delicious lemon whoopie pies.

Olson worked her way up in restaurants around New York City until the leadership from Gramercy Tavern — one of the best restaurants in the country — recognized her talent.

After an extensive interview process, Gramercy Tavern offered Olson the pastry chef position, a job where she led 12 pastry chefs and created more than 400 desserts a day.

“At the time, it was a top tier position to get. There were very few restaurants that had that big of a dessert program,” Olson says. “To have the opportunity to make that many desserts at a time was phenomenal.”

Olson worked at Gramercy Tavern for seven years until she began to miss her family, the outdoors and the smell of a freshly mowed lawn. Before she moved back to North Dakota in 2013, Dessert Professional Magazine named her one of the top 10 pastry chefs in the nation.

When she returned to Fargo, Olson connected with long-time friend and owner of Nichole’s Fine Pastry, Nichole Hensen. Olson “did a little bit of everything” as a cook at the local bakery until last December, she says.

Now, Olson is a freelance pastry chef and resident pastry chef at APT, a creative incubator space at 225 Fourth Ave. N., owned by Kilbourne Group and operated by The Arts Partnership.

Nancy Olson cooks up savory pastries for an event at APT, a Creative Incubator.

Olson works closely with The Arts Partnership Executive Director Dayna Del Val and APT Project Manager Jeff Knight to coordinate fun, public events in the space, like the “Short and Sweet” bake sales one Saturday per month.

Olson also has an APT studio among dozens of local artists. She utilizes the space to store more than 250 cookbooks and cooking equipment that were previously strewn in every nook and cranny of her life.

“It’s really nice to feel a part of this community of people. Even though culinary art is so vastly different than the other artists, I do feel this sense of (community),” Olson says. “If my role can be getting people to show up and have food, it’s nice to have that space to inspire and be inspired.”

Olson’s long-term goal is to provide cooking classes so she can “teach people to have the same pride and enthusiasm” for her field, she says.

For now, she enjoys spreading happiness with her tasty creations. Even after years of making top-tier desserts, what’s Olson’s favorite dessert to make? Classic apple pie.

Nancy Olson’s favorite dessert: Classic apple pie.

“There’s something about the repetition of the peeling, the chopping, cutting the butter into the dough, the scent of the pie coming out the oven. It’s the best smell in the world,” she says. “The apple, the cinnamon, the butter… it just makes everything better.”

This article is part of a content partnership with the Fargo Forum and originally appeared in print on Monday, May 15, 2017.

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