One on One with Chef Anita Lo

By Fabiana Santana

pic1When she had to choose between French and food, Anita Lo chose to have it all.  To satisfy both her hunger for fine food and her desire to learn French, the Michigan born, second generation Chinese American went to Paris to study the art of cooking during the summer of her junior year at Columbia University. Immediately upon her graduation, she put both skills to work and went to work in the garde-manger station of the year-old Bouley restaurant, and a year later returned to France and earned her degree at the Ritz-Escoffier school.

Anita graduated with honors and after years of working for such noted chefs as Michel Rostang and Guy Savoy and in the kitchens at high profile New York restaurants like Chantarelle, earning stars from New York Times‘ Ruth Reichl for her work at Mirezi and appearances on CNN, the TV Food Network, NBC, CBS, the Martha Stewart show, and a mention in Avenue Asia‘s debut issue as one of the 500 most influential Asian Americans, Anita is her own boss at her restaurants Annisa, an upscale Contemporary American restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village, and Bar Q – her newly opened Asian BBQ concept nearby.  She is a partner in two branches of Rickshaw Dumpling House and just launched the mobile dumpling truck  – a moving dumpling house. And, she is the first woman to ever win Iron Chef. The epitome of a self-made woman, Anita found time in between running four restaurants and a food truck to explain how it’s all done.

What are your first memories of food?

Wow, I have so many. But the most vivid was when I was 2 years old in Malaysia. I was on the back porch of a family member’s house and I was eating an orange. I remember the sun beating down on my orange and me and it was so ripe – all the sticky juice dripped down my chin and down into my shirt and right off my arms. It was delicious.

Did your mom cook for you a lot?

As a doctor, my mother worked 12-15 hour days. But she would still come home every night and cook and put like 10 different things on the table. She cooked for us every night. That was really special for me.

Those are the hours you work. So do you cook like that?

Oh, wow. No way. Those days of putting ten things on the table are gone, unfortunately. And I am not cooking for a family, like she did. I don’t cook for myself unless I am at my house in Long Island. Because in New York, space is an issue and when I am in the city working, I want to go out to eat and see who is doing what. It’s my job to know that and to cook and eat, so I go out. When I am at my house in Long Island though, I cook. A lot. I really have a chance to relax and cook slowly, go fishing, go clamming. It’s great.

And when you do cook for yourself?

When I am not working and I have a chance to cook for myself, it’s a lot of steamed fish. My mother gave me a great, easy recipe that I use a lot. And I like to have soup after I get off work and on weekends. It’s comforting. I have a neighbor whose wife passed away. She used to make soup all the time and leave some for me for when I got home. And so now, when I make soup, I like to share like she did and bring some to him.  I don’t mind eating alone, but I really like to share the experience with someone. Even if it dropping off a meal for someone else or cooking for them, like I do at work.

Is it hard maintaining a work/life balance?

It is. Especially in the restaurant business and most especially for women. Because your work becomes what your customers do on their time off, we work a lot of nights, and then prepping in the day. It becomes hard to separate.   But I am becoming more aware and caring about it more – about taking care of myself and feeding myself completely. So I try to take time for me. I really like to eat with my staff. At 4PM every day, we sit down together for a family meal that one of us has prepared.

You recently cooked at the Womens Chefs and Restaurateur event in New York City. How important is the role of women in the restaurant industry?

Well, clearly I think there could be more of us in top positions. And more of us could be focusing on fine dining in the industry. Women tend to do the homey, bistro food, and that is fine, but I know that we can do more. The women in the industry are all fabulous, strong women with strong personalities. But we have a long way to go.

You’ve been running Annisa – a contemporary American restaurant  –  since 2000, and you are a partner with Kenny Lao at Rickshaw Dumpling’s 2 locations. Recently, you opened Bar Q – an Asian BBQ concept. What’s that like? and do you have a favorite dish on any of your  menus?

The BBQ was something I have wanted to do for a while. BBQ is so popular now, and Asian BBQ is something so special and unique. We’re just hitting the 6-month mark. It’s been really fun, but a favorite? That’s too hard to answer. I really stand behind all my dishes at all my restaurants. I create an infinite number of dishes and only a few make it to the menu, so it’s hard to pick just one.

How do you decide what gets chosen?

At Annisa, there is a focus on seasonal items. So, the menu changes a lot. Anything that will really showcase a special ingredient or technique will make it on the menu.

What is your favorite season?

Honestly, the starts of the seasons are my favorite. When you get your hands on something you haven’t had in a while. I love them all, though. Spring is exciting and in Summer I get to use my garden in Long Island a lot and go fishing and cook fresh fish. I love to bring stuff from the garden to the restaurant to add to the dishes. I do a tasting menu at Annisa and no two are ever alike because they are tailored to your preferences, likes, moods, etc. So fresh garden items are great for that.

What would be you’re ideal at home meal?

A dinner party in the summer, at my house on Long Island. A BBQ near the water that starts with chilled shellfish and champagne followed by spit-roasted pork, lots more food and a lot of friends.

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