Restaurant: Annisa (New York City)
Chef Anita Lo combines classic French training with a global perspective. While earning a French degree from Columbia University, Lo studied abroad in Paris, and later attended culinary school there at École Ritz-Escoffier. Back in New York she worked in some of the most lauded restaurants of the late ’80s and early ’90s—Bouley, Chanterelle and Maxim’s—before leaving to travel through Europe and Southeast Asia to research her own restaurant, Annisa, which opened in 2000.
Here, Lo, a Food & Wine Best New Chef 2001 and the author of Cooking Without Borders, discusses sea robins, stuffed pandas and weird sushi.
What dish are you most famous for?
Foie gras soup dumplings. The broth is based on something my mother used to make for us that we would eat over rice, with cinnamon, star anise and dried mushrooms. There’s also foie gras mousse inside the dumpling, and jicama for crunch. We serve that with a piece of seared foie gras and a reduction of Chinese black vinegar. People who have never had a soup dumplings are always interested in how we get the soup inside, and it resonates with foodies because the broth is so comforting and soulful, with a nice burst of flavor.
What’s a dish that tells your story as a chef?
A chilled pea soup that I featured in my cookbook, with wasabi, shiso, smoked sturgeon and caviar. It’s a dish that doesn’t really come from any one culture, so how the customer interprets it depends on his or her own background. If you’re from the South you might pick up on the smoked protein; if you’re British you might get a read on the peas and the horseradish; if you’re Japanese you’ll notice that the horseradish is wasabi. “Fusion” is an interesting word—it really shouldn’t be a bad word, but it is. Still, that’s kind of who I am as a chef.
Who are your food mentors?
David and Karen Waltuck. My restaurant echoes what they did at Chanterelle. It’s not the same by any stretch but it’s a small, personal, minimal, mom-and-pop place. I do try to treat my staff like they did: It has to be professional, but at the same time it’s a family.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
Ma po tofu. It was really inexpensive, easy and fast to make.
What is one cooking technique that everyone should know?
How to sear something. A lot of home cooks are afraid of high heat—they end up boiling things instead of working to get that caramelization. High heat takes a little bit more accuracy and it can be scary, but it goes a long way in helping the home cook develop flavor.
What are the most important qualities needed to be a great cook?
A good palate and an obsessive love of food. It can be cultivated, but that needs to happen at a young age. Then again, if you don’t have the endurance and tenacity you’re not going to make it. It’s a hard industry; you have to be ambitious.
What’s your secret-weapon ingredient?
Lemon zest. I find it makes things more elegant and adds that little bit of pungent bitterness.
Name one indispensable store-bought ingredient.
Sriracha. It has a round flavor, with a little bit of sugar, some acidity and some heat, along with the depth of onions and garlic. Chile pepper can really help bring out flavors, so I’ll use it any time I’m making Asian noodles, or I’ll even add a little bit to a crab cake.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip?
Southeast Asia. It’s fairly easy to get around Thailand and they have amazing street food and great fish. I also love the little carts that sell peeled local fruit. There are so many different kinds of fruit that we just aren’t used to seeing in the States.
What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip?
This little stuffed panda that I got when I went to China at the age of seven. I still have it and I think I’d feel bad if it was gone. I got it so long ago and I haven’t really been back to China much since then. Both of my parents are dead now, so it’s a nice memory that I have.
What is your go-to cocktail?
A pisco sour. I love the egg white in there, and that little bit of bitterness when you get the drops of Angostura on top.
What is your favorite snack?
When I’m not feeling particularly great I like Nacho Cheese Doritos.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
The old Joy of Cooking was my first cookbook. It has everything in it, from cooking an armadillo to how to make the most perfect pie crust. It’s great for when you need a basic recipe to build off of, because the proportions are so well tested.
What are your talents besides cooking?
I love to fish. I use my neighbor’s 18-foot Parker fishing boat out in Long Island. I try to catch striped bass, blue fish and fluke, but sea robins are the easiest to get. They are bottom-feeders and most fishermen throw them back. But I actually learned from the sushi chef at Blue Ribbon that sea robin is really good raw, so I’ll keep them and eat them.
Why Because her knack for weaving far-ranging influences into a coherent sensibility is almost uncanny.
Born 1965, Detroit.
Education Ecole Ritz-Escoffier, Paris.
Experience Michel Rostang and Guy Savoy, Paris; Chanterelle and Mirezi, New York City.
Earliest food memory Eating an orange on her aunt's porch in Malaysia, with juice dripping off her elbows, age two.
Most influential trip "My partner and I took a year off before we opened Annisa and traveled all over Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Bali, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong."
Least favorite food trend "I'm probably a little too old for foam."
Pastimes Fishing, playing piano.
Favorite local snack Teppanyaki (meats or vegetables sizzled on a tableside griddle) at East Village Japanese restaurants after work.
Pet peeve Timid eaters. "People need to stop being afraid of food."
About her recipe Lo's Roasted Cod with Steamer Clams and Pistachio Sauce highlights her skill with unorthodox combinations.
Won Best New Chef at: Annisa, New York City