Good Taste: An interview with Anita Lo

Chef Anita Lo has made quite a name for herself since she decided to treat her French language BA from Columbia as a prerequisite for becoming a classically trained French chef. Since then, she’s used that foundation as a springboard to include a wide variety of the world’s cuisines in her “Contemporary American” (read: exactingly tasty fusion) oeuvre. Lo has been featured on Top Chef Masters, Iron Chef America, The Martha Stewart Show, and was also named one of The Best New Chefs in America by Food and Wine in 2001.

Anita’s Greenwich Village restaurant, Annisa, means “women” in Arabic. The restaurant website describes the menu as made up of “flavors inspired by her Asian roots, her travels, and seasonal influences with her classic French technique,” and the wine list primarily contains wines made by female vintners or from women-owned vineyards.

In her new, lushly photographed cookbook, Cooking without Borders, Lo spares no opportunity to tell stories — from her culinary coming-of-age in the introduction to her own personal introductions to each and every recipe, which are by turns offhand (“I’m a big soba fan”) and illuminating (“In Japan, unagi is considered a summertime delicacy”) and poignant (“Jennifer Scism, my ex-girlfriend and the former co-owner of Annisa, planted the garden at my beach house, which we once shared.”)

If you, like me, have a stack of cookbooks on your bedside table, and view reading them as a form of recreation and not just as a means to putting a meal on the table, you’ll be happy to add it to your collection.

Anita was kind enough to take some time to chat with me about her new book, her inspirations, good Thanksgiving memories, and how to sneak sophisticated side dishes into the bellies of timid eaters. A lot of readers have requested that I cover fusion cooking, so I’m glad that you have such a delicious handle on it. The term has become, in some cases, diluted or misused. What, in your opinion, is fusion food at its best, and when does the concept become misguided?

Anita Lo: I come from a multicultural background. Fusion is my identity, for lack of a better word. But so much negativity has attached itself to the term.

AE: Yes, I think a lot of chefs have done some misguided things, flavor-wise, in the name of fusion.

AL: But all food is fusion. Everything. I know French cuisine the most. Alsace has a German influence, Provence has an Italian influence. Vietnamese food has a French influence because the French occupied the country for a while.

AE: Right, it’s not just a “curry sushi” kind of thing. Who do you think is the intended audience for your book?

AL: It’s geared toward the home cook. Professional cooks can glean from it as well.

AE: The cookbook’s recipes are very well collected. How did you decide which recipes to include in the book?

AL: There were so many to choose from. Reasons included that it had a good story that I wanted to tell, or because they work for the home cook, or because they demonstrate different cultural influences. I also wanted there to be balance within the entire book — a certain amount of appetizers, lunches, dinners, and a balance of different ingredients.

AE: I really loved that each recipe had a story attached. I really appreciated your generosity there. It’s interesting to watch the evolving dynamic between the food memoir, and cookbooks that include lots of storytelling. Which recipes in Cooking Without Borders would you recommend that beginner cooks try?

AL: There are some really easy ones. My mother’s ribs come to mind. That recipe has literally five ingredients, two of which are salt and pepper. It cooks in 45 minutes. It’s very tasty, and every ingredient is easy to find. There’s a chicken paprikash, which is also very easy. The desserts are very easy. I do all my own desserts at Annisa. And a lot of the raw dishes are simple and straightforward.

AE: How would you characterize your “regulars” at Annisa?

AL: It’s funny, when we got reviewed by the New York Times 11 years ago, I was really proud that the review said that you couldn’t characterize the clientele of Annisa.

AE: Right, most of the time the review will describe the regulars as being “the Wall Street crowd” or “downtown scenesters” or “pallid posturing Williamsburg types” or whatever.

AL: A lot of the reviews are social commentary.

AE: I guess that’s why a lot of people read them. I saw that your Thanksgiving menu was featured in Bon Appetit this issue. Do you have any Thanksgiving memories that you’d like to share?

AL: We were pretty traditional. I remember my aunts on my stepfather’s side would come in from Rhode Island and make creamed spinach. It was delicious, and not as good as my mother’s version. She was a doctor, and she wanted it to be healthy, and it didn’t taste as good. We also had the cranberry sauce from a can, I liked that can back then. Mom would make a wild rice stuffing.

AE: Yes, that canned cranberry sauce was like having Jell-O at dinner. My wife’s family has a Thanksgiving tradition of making “green stuff” out of green jello, cool whip, cottage cheese, pineapple, and nuts.

AL: I’m sorry.

AE: [laughs] It’s surprisingly good. What would you advise someone in the following situation: “I was invited to a Thanksgiving meal and was asked to bring a side dish. My hosts are more on the unadventurous side when it comes to food, but I really want to do something a little different. What do you suggest?”

AL: Hmm. Well, a lot of the recipes I gave to Bon Appetit are rooted in traditional American fare. Thanksgiving fare, with a little bit of a twist. The kabocha squash with ginger is like sweet potato puree, but kabocha is denser, and fills that sweet, spicy niche that sweet potatoes do in a Thanksgiving menu.

Most people who are afraid of food aren’t really afraid of vegetables, so just tell them it’s pumpkin, because it is, and it’ll be OK.

AE: Since you began cooking, have you noticed trends that have resonated with your own core values?

AL: I’ve always been nose to tail [using the whole animal], and that’s becoming more trendy now. I always thought that the whole animal should be used. That’s so much more sustainable. People are missing out on things that are really delicious. It’s cultural prejudice that keeps you from eating that, but it really is delicious. People are skeeved out because it’s not something that they grew up with.

AE: What are some trends that you haven’t enjoyed or appreciated?

AL: Mmm … I think that there’s room for everything as long as it’s done well. Result and flavor are still important. Some chefs who are doing molecular cuisine — for them it’s more about the technique than what it tastes like. But the chefs who do it best, and tastes awesome … I ate at elBulli, and a lot of the flavors are rooted in the classics. Ferran Adrià is a chef who loves food, and is not just trying to manipulate it.

AE: What about sous-vide?

AL: I have a halibut on the menu that I’m slow poaching. To do vacuum sealing, I’d have to go through this whole licensing process. I don’t love what it does to chicken. Sous-vide chicken gets the texture of canned chicken. I do love what it does to fish. It’s interesting to be able to cook things at all the same temperature, and does take out a lot of human error. There’s no margin of error there.

AE: You mentioned that your grounding is in French, although many people assume you’re an expert in Asian cuisine. Do you feel like having a comparatively diverse background gave you a culinary advantage over chefs who come from a more homogeneous background?

AL: Well, it gave me an advantage of doing this [fusion] kind of food. It is an advantage because I can understand where a lot of things come from, why it’s put together, which country, why they do it. It makes the creative process easier. But it depends on what you want to do. If you want to do rustic, classic Italian cuisine, having a multicultural background like mine doesn’t really matter.

AE: Where do you like to go out to eat in New York City when you’re not working?

AL: I always try to eat at the new places, see what other people are doing. It’s hard, because I go out to Long Island and spend Sunday there, and so I go out to eat in New York City on Monday nights. I like to go to sushi places, an Italian restaurant that’s around the corner from my house, L’Artusi, and [gastropub] The Spotted Pig, about a million times.

Here are two of the recipes we discussed above: the chicken paprikash and Anita’s mom’s spare ribs, along with the stories that go along with them. Enjoy!

My Auntie Beth’s Chicken Paprikash

My nanny, Sister Elizabeth Angel, was very much like a mother to me. Hungarian born, from Budapest, she was orphaned at the age of eleven and was sent to live in a convent. She stayed with us for a total of eight years — from the time I was three until I was twelve; there was a gap somewhere in the middle when she had to go back to the nunnery to maintain her standing with the church.

When, unlike my older siblings, I was too young to be allowed out on my own with friends, I would often have Sister Elizabeth all to myself. We would watch The Galloping Gourmet on her black-and-white TV while she sat on her massage chair and crocheted. From her, I learned how to forage for wild berries and dandelion leaves, how to chop wood and build a fire, and how to make chicken paprikash, a favorite childhood dish. Inexpensive, fast, and filling, this was one of the first meals I learned to cook. I’ve made it over and over again throughout the years. When I lived in France, I substituted creme fraiche for the sour cream.

Oddly, it is much like my mother’s chicken curry, where the paprika is replaced by curry powder, the parsley by a bay leaf simmered into the curry, and the sour cream and flour by a smaller quantity of coconut milk. My mother’s curry had potatoes in it and was served with coconut rice. Different, but equally comforting and nostalgic for me.

Serves 4
3 tablespoons sweet Hungarian paprika
2 teaspoons salt, plus more for seasoning
Black pepper to taste
8 chicken thighs with skin, trimmed of excess fat
3 tablespoons neutral-flavored vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 cup sour cream
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 pound dried egg noodles, cooked

Combine the paprika, 2 teaspoons of salt, and pepper, then toss with the
chicken to coat. Heat a pot over medium-high heat, add the oil, then add
the onions. Lower the heat to medium-low and cook until translucent. Add the chicken and turn to coat with the oil. Add just enough water to
cover; simmer for 20 minutes. In a small bowl, combine the sour cream and flour. Add to the pot and stir. Increase the temperature and bring to a rapid boil; boil, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes, breaking up any lumps. Season to taste with
salt and pepper and sprinkle with the parsley. Serve over hot egg noodles.

My Mother’s BBQ Spareribs

Before she retired, my mother put in long hours as a pathologist in charge of the blood bank at our local hospital in Troy, Michigan. One of the few female physicians of her time, she had to work extra hard, but she always managed to come home and cook well-balanced dinners that included a variety of dishes for my brother, sister, and me.

This was one of our favorites; it’s also one of the first (and easiest) things she taught me to make. I have no idea where she first discovered these BBQ ribs. They require equal amounts of Chinese hoisin sauce and ketchup, the old-fashioned American version. It almost sounds like something you’d find on the back of a bottle of Heinz 57. I’ve tried more complicated Korean recipes, but my mom’s produces results that are just as good. Her pork ribs were one of the most popular items on the menu at my restaurant bar Q. They were also a hit at a staff meal, served with sticky rice and sauteed Asian greens.

Serves 4
1 side pork spareribs
Salt and black pepper
1 cup ketchup
1 cup hoisin sauce

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Season the spareribs on both sides with salt
and pepper. In a small bowl, combine the ketchup and hoisin. Put the
ribs in a shallow baking dish and pour the ketchup-hoisin mixture over
the ribs, turning to coat both sides evenly. Cover the baking dish with
aluminum foil and bake for 25 minutes, then remove the foil and continue
to cook for another 20 minutes.

Cooking Without Borders is available in bookstores now.