The Newly Crowned Three-Star Chef on Learning to Love the Camera, the Hazards of Labels, and Asking the Right Questions
Anita Lo, who’s been presiding over her own restaurant, Annisa, since 2000, studied French Literature before turning toward the professional kitchen and cooking at such landmark New York City restaurants as Bouley and Chanterelle. As readers probably know, she recently received three stars from The New York Times for the first time in her career. Over the past few years, Anita has also published a cookbook, Cooking Without Borders, and appeared on two of television’s most popular culinary competition shows: Iron Chef (on which she defeated Mario Batali) and Top Chef Masters. We recently caught up with Anita at her home in the West Village, where she was rehabbing from knee surgery, and discussed a variety of topics:
TOQUELAND: Can I ask about the knee? Is it work‑related?
LO: I think just being a chef is hard on the body. Everyone’s body is different but my knee didn’t take very well to it.
TOQUELAND: Had it been a longstanding thing?
LO: It had been degenerating for many years. I think just standing on your feet all that time and running up and down stairs carrying heavy things is not good.
TOQUELAND: Do you think that’s an aspect of the kitchen life that people who get into the business young don’t appreciate until they’re in it?
LO: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, that article in the Times with Mark Peel? Ouch. But anyone you talk to that’s my age and that’s been in the business as long as I have, has injuries.
TOQUELAND: Is this something nobody tells young cooks? It seems like something that doesn’t come up. I guess when you’re young you don’t think you’re ever going to have problems like that, no matter what you do.
LO: No, you don’t. Even if someone tells you. It’s hard because someone has to lift it, but if it’s something heavy, I’m like, “Get help. Two people should do that.”
The Intersection of Entertainment and Promotion
TOQUELAND: What was the experience of your book, Cooking Without Borders (written with Charlotte Druckman), like? Was it something you thought a lot about doing throughout your career?
LO: I had been wanting to do that book for decades.
TOQUELAND: That very book?
LO: Actually, the original concept was going to be a little more academic. I wanted it to be a book about American cuisine and multiculturalism. Of course, no one would buy that.
TOQUELAND: Did you try to sell that book?
LO: I tried to sell that to an agent and I couldn’t even get an agent. And then I had an agent and we were trying to sell it to a writer. At this point it had gotten a little more watered down, but the writer said, “Why don’t you write something on Asian street food?” I was, like, “Are you listening to me at all? You’ve got to be kidding me. There’s no way I’m going to write something like that. You just missed everything I was trying to say about multiculturalism and identity and what it means to me. You’re part of the problem.”
TOQUELAND: So eventually this mutated into ‑‑
LO: A cookbook. I think I got my message across, at least in the intro. At the end of the day writing a cookbook, for me, was about having a promotional tool for the restaurant. Everything’s about the restaurant.
TOQUELAND: This dovetails with something else. I’ve only met you a few times, and I hope this doesn’t seem like an odd question to ask, but do you consider yourself shy?
LO: I’m absolutely shy.
TOQUELAND: You strike me as a little bit shy, which I don’t think is a bad thing. You’re not a show-boater. You don’t have a shtick. And yet you’ve done television a few times.
LO: It’s part of the job.
TOQUELAND: Is it an unnatural thing for you?
LO: Absolutely. It’s something that I had to learn. But I understand that it’s part of being a successful restaurateur. We were on the brink of closing. We were bleeding on several occasions. Iron Chef brought us back from the brink.
TOQUELAND: You saw a direct correlation between when you appeared on the show and an uptick in business?
LO: On Top Chef Masters I thought I had lost the whole wave because it aired two weeks after we had the fire [Editor’s Note: The restaurant suffered a catastrophic fire in 2009.] and it took me nine months to re‑open. But even now people are coming in from that. “Oh, I saw you on Top Chef Masters.
TOQUELAND: What was the experience of doing television like for you? Did you like it better than you thought you would?
LO: It’s exciting. For me it’s always interesting to see another work culture ‑‑
TOQUELAND: You’re talking about production? How they do what they do?
LO: Exactly, yeah. That’s always interesting to me. It was interesting to try to develop those skills on some level. It can be heart wrenching for me sometimes because you say things and you know that they can use it any way they want to. You don’t want to say anything that you didn’t mean. Or have it taken out of context. Or sometimes you say some things that are just stupid. Do you really want that shown in front of millions of people? And that’s totally your own fault.
TOQUELAND: I assume none of that happened for you?
LO: I’ve been lucky so far; knock on wood.
TOQUELAND: And the book. Having done one, do you think about doing more?
LO: Absolutely. I will definitely do another one. It’s a question of when. It is a lot of work.
TOQUELAND: You said that it’s all about the restaurant, the promotional things one has to do. Can you speak to the current culture? You’ve had the review, you’ve done some television. Do you still feel a constant pressure to find ways or to be in the news or to be covered? Is that a constant concern for someone in your position?
TOQUELAND: I don’t want to say “to stay relevant” because you are relevant–
LO: (laughs) Well, for now.
TOQUELAND: But to stay in the public eye? When you’re not opening a new place?
LO: It’s hard to fill those seats. In 2001 we won Food & Wine Best New Chef and that carried us for a while, and then I think by 2004, something like that, we just were sinking.
TOQUELAND: Because of what we’re talking about?
LO: Yeah, people just move on. And then we had Iron Chef and that brought us back. In 2008 we were sinking. I mean, everyone was sinking. Top Chef Masters brought us back from that.
On Labeling Chefs
TOQUELAND: As a chef, do you have a feeling toward what I guess I would call labels? It seems like there’s a real need, certainly by the media, and I’ll count myself as one of those people, to be able to take each chef and put them in a cubby hole and say, “This is you.”
TOQUELAND: Maybe this is you and just you, or maybe there’s a group of you in this cubby hole.
TOQUELAND: Do you dislike that need that people seem to have to categorize? In much of the writing out there about you, there’s almost a grasping to figure out who you are.
LO: I think everyone does that. It goes against everything I learned in college.
TOQUELAND: How so?
LO: You study French literature. You study French theory. Meaning is endless and it changes all the time. It changes from person to person. And that resonated a lot with me because of who I am. I think I don’t really fit into any category. Yes, I’m Chinese, full-blood Chinese, but my step‑father was white. I was raised by various nannies. I went to very WASP‑y schools. I grew up eating everything. I think when you try to think in boxes, you lose a little bit of truth.
TOQUELAND: Because you have to whittle away whatever doesn’t fit in the wheelhouse?
LO: Yeah, you’re truncating. People need to expand to the reality.
TOQUELAND: I wonder if it weren’t for your own personal background if that issue would even exist.
LO: Oh, yeah.
TOQUELAND: If you didn’t have a Chinese heritage ‑‑
LO: — no one would be trying to put me into that hole.
On Women Chefs
TOQUELAND: It’s almost a cliche to bring this up right now, but the topic of women chefs. Is it a drag if I bring it up?
LO: No. I’m so used to talking about it. I think it needs to be talked about.
TOQUELAND: You’re not old but you’ve been around for a while.
LO: (laughs) I’m getting old.
TOQUELAND: It’s such a hot topic right now. Time magazine really lit a fuse or accelerated a fuse. But from when you started to now ‑‑ how is it different, do you think, for women cooking professionally?
LO: I don’t know. I really think we lost so many female chefs from the city, and high‑end ones. I think we still have a good amount of women here cooking but there aren’t as many women cooking high‑end ‑‑ I don’t know how to say it ‑‑ fancy.
LO: I don’t know if it’s ambitious. Everything’s ambitious when it comes to a restaurant, but more ‑‑
TOQUELAND: Does fine dining put too fine a point on it?
LO: Yeah, fine dining. We had Susan Weaver. We had Katie Sparks. We had Pat Williams. Debra Ponzek. Diane Forley. They’re all gone.
TOQUELAND: If you had to characterize it, what do you think is the big challenge right now? I mean, there’s work, which used to not be a given. But there are some real horror stories from back in the day about people ‑‑ Mary Sue Milliken tells this story about a French chef early in her career saying, “I can’t give you a job. You’ll be too much of a distraction in the kitchen.”
LO: [groans, rolls eyes]
TOQUELAND: We’re kind of past that, I think.
TOQUELAND: The Time magazine uproar seemed to be more about recognition, respect, attention, than it was about opportunity. Do you think that’s a fair statement or do you think there’s still an opportunity barrier?
LO: Absolutely, there is. Katie Sparks couldn’t get enough money to open a small restaurant, where there’s a ton of men who are less talented than she was who have multiple restaurants in Vegas. Carmen Gonzales couldn’t find money. I mean, Pat Williams couldn’t find money to open her own restaurant. These are really established, big names in the business. What’s that about?
TOQUELAND: I don’t know what it’s about. What do you think it’s about?
LO: I don’t really know what it’s about either. I think the question is more important than the answer. But when you look at a lot of studies, even old studies, even women teachers are more likely to call on male students. Little things like that that I’m sure are still pervasive. And I don’t think it’s something that people are doing to be assholes. They’re not doing it purposely. But I think a lot of people aren’t questioning themselves.
TOQUELAND: People think they’re more evolved than they actually are?
LO: Yeah, and I think investors are probably more likely to give money to a man than to a woman. Probably. I don’t know that for certain, but I think it’s important to put the question out there. The only way that we’re going to change anything is for everyone to ask themselves that question, ask themselves how are they adding to the problem. It’s not about pointing fingers; it’s about asking questions.
And, no, we don’t get as much recognition. And if we do, it’s because we’re part of a weird minority: “The female chef.”
TOQUELAND: Is this something that comes up a lot when you’re not asked about it by someone interviewing you, when you’re talking with other women chefs?
LO: Yeah. Even just being introduced. “Oh, this is one of the best female chefs in the country.”
TOQUELAND: You still get introduced that way?
LO: Yeah, yeah. I’m like, “Come on.” I mean, I get it. “Thank you” … on some level.
TOQUELAND: It seems weird at this point.
LO: Yeah. I mean, we’re in New York City and … I don’t know.
TOQUELAND: I’m spending roughly one out of every six weeks or so on the West Coast right now for book research, and, it seems to be so much less of an issue in California.
LO: Absolutely. It’s easier.
TOQUELAND: But even going all the way back. You go back to the 1970s, to the 1980s. I mean, the Bay Area, you could say was female dominated. Do you have any insight into what’s different about here versus there?
LO: Alice Waters said that we’re just closer to France here.
TOQUELAND: That male tradition?
LO: I think there are a million things you could point to and all of them would have a little bit of truth to it. I do think we have lost so many women to ‑‑ I mean, we’re not anymore, thankfully — but I think we’ve lost a lot of women to babies. Because they have to be the caretaker. In California you can have a restaurant where it’s only open five days a week. You can’t do that in New York City. That’s one thing out of millions, you know? The culture out there is different than here.
TOQUELAND: You all just had this great review. I didn’t realize until I was brushing up and read the Eater interview with you that you guys didn’t make Pete Wells?
TOQUELAND: That must have been heart stopping.
LO: Yeah. I was really actually kind of upset. But on some level, now I know it’s going well.
TOQUELAND: The restaurant’s been around for a while. That’s kind of a milestone event, a three-star review, I would think.
TOQUELAND: When you think about what’s next for you is it just further honing Annisa?
LO: That is what I’m pretty much all about right now. I don’t know what’s next for me. At one point I wanted to open a lot of restaurants. I don’t think I want that anymore. I’m not quite sure. I would do it if the right opportunity presents itself but I’m not going after it anymore.
TOQUELAND: Why do you think that is?
LO: I think I came to that mid‑life crisis area where I want quality of life, simplicity. Annisa is the ideal place to do my food. I should just be happy for that.