Anita Lo is an award-winning American chef and restaurateur. She graduated from Columbia College in 1988 and majored in French literature. Despite facing obstacles like sexism in the workplace and a fire that burned down her restaurant in 2009, Lo has risen to become one of America's top chefs: In 2001 Food & Wine Magazine named her one of the "Best New Chefs in America" and in 2005 she won the 'Iron Chef America' competition. Halima Gikandi and Ying Chang sat down with her to talk about food inspiration, studying abroad, and managing her restaurant Annisa in Greenwich Village. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I'd love to start at your time at Columbia, where you were studying French. What was your experience like there?
You know, I think at that point of my life I wasn't going to be happy no matter where I was. I came from a small high school where I think we had a maximum class size of 15 students. It was just a difficult segue for me. That being said, I think I got a great education and having [Columbia] on my résumé has helped me a lot, even in this industry. And also it kind of checked the way I think.
Being a French major, I'm constantly looking at cultural myth, questioning everything.
So when you went in, did you know what you wanted to do after graduation?
Did you know you wanted to study French?
Well… it was between that and math. I was doing really well at math. The math major was going to be way too much for me to go through. I was good at math and good at French, but the math was probably a bit harder.
Did you have any favorite classes?
I loved Calculus III, my Roland Barthes class was amazing. I had a creative writing class that I adored in French.
Do you still speak French?
A little bit. My dish washers are Francophones, and I speak "kitchen French." But my French is nowhere near as good as my French was back then.
You studied abroad your junior year [at Columbia].
The summer after my sophomore year, I went to Reid Hall, which I loved. I loved being in the area, I lived down the street from there. Then the summer after my junior year, I went to go back to cooking school. I really loved Paris. I just needed to go back, my sister had taken some classes and was living there. I was learning how to cook for myself because I had to, and I went back to take a couple of month-long classes, and really just fell in love with them. I did well in the classes.
Did you take the classes in French?
They were in French and then in English, which was great for me, because I got to hear it twice.
And when you officially enrolled in the French culinary school later on, were those classes also in English?
They were in French. The teachers were French, and there was an intern there that was translating. I was at one point one of the interns that was translating.
So was studying abroad the first time you had to cook for yourself on a daily basis?
Oh yeah. Well, we ate in school, but usually at night we would cook or go out for dinner.
Was that your first experience cooking so intensively or did you do that at Columbia as well?
I cooked at Columbia. I lived in John Jay [Hall], but I just could not eat there. My mom took me off the meal plan after the first semester. It was just a waste of money, I couldn't eat for the life of me. Back then, The Village Voice voted that cafeteria the fourth worst place to eat in New York City.
Did you cook growing up with your mom?
Not really. I was definitely interested in it. I used to help her. We used to form dumplings sometimes in the mornings. A lot of Chinese people did that.
Did you eat mainly Asian food at home?
No, we had everything. My father died when I was three—he was from Shanghai—and he apparently cooked a lot of Shanghai cuisine. He made lion's head, and all that stuff.
My mother cooked all sorts of things. She had grown up in Malaysia, so it was across all sorts of Asia - four different Asian cuisines in that country. She also went to school in Tennessee, so she would make fried chicken.
My stepfather was white and from Denver, but his family was German. Both of them worked so I was raised generally by nannies. The one that stayed with us the longest was Hungarian, so I grew up with a lot of that kind of cuisine. Her best friend was Mexican so we had that as well. We also had all these African-American nannies. We just had a lot of different cultures growing up, and then we travelled.
Do you think that background has influenced your cooking style?
Absolutely. My cuisine is contemporary American. I identify as multicultural, I don't identify as really any one thing, and my food reflects that.
What was it like when you decided to go pursue the culinary arts professionally? Were you supported by your family and friends? Was it a hard decision?
It wasn't hard at all. It really dovetailed with everything at that point. I went into French kitchens to keep up my French language skills, I liked working with my hands, I've never been a morning person, I've never really fit into corporate America, I don't like dressing up. I don't fit into "conventional female." It was a no-brainer.
So you decided to pursue French cuisine. Is that the top of the hierarchy of cuisine in terms of traditionality?
Back then it was.
What were some of the challenges that you've met along the way, especially as a female chef?
Even now, you're often the only woman. It's definitely male-dominated. It's getting better, but it still has so far to go. I think the challenge was being taken seriously, as just a chef instead of a female chef. If you're being noticed, it's because there's got to be that female element in there. I think a lot of women just get overlooked. I think it's just the culture to focus on men, and I think we all do it. It's ingrained.
Did you feel like there was that difference in perception already when you were in culinary school?
When I was in culinary school, there was this chef. I did my final, and I had to do a demonstration. I did this really old-fashioned puff pastry thing with langoustine and asparagus with just a butter sauce. This French chef came in and was like, "Who did this? Who did this?" because obviously, it was perfection. He obviously he thought it was great, and then he saw it was me, and he turned his head and walked out the door. And I did an internship and he wouldn't help me, he wouldn't write me—not that I needed a recommendation—but I needed something that said I did an internship with him.
Despite those challenges, you've made this amazing restaurant. What do you think has helped you succeed?
I was cooking in India, and I was with all these opera singers, and we were cooking for a charity, we were all helping out with this charity that takes homeless girls off the streets and helps them get jobs in the industry, and one of the things that the opera singer said that I thought was just so important and often overlooked is that it really is a talent to make things happen. That ability to make things happen, to push for things to happen. I think that's one thing that I've had.
My mother was a doctor, one of the few female doctors at the time, and my father made a quarter of what she was making. She was the moneymaker, but they wouldn't let her buy a house because she was female. And that's the environment. My mother was a strong feminist, a strong role model. That helped us overcome any gender obstacles along the way.
Was there ever a moment when you thought "maybe I shouldn't be doing this," when you doubted this venture?
Of course. I never wanted to open my own restaurant, the reason why I wanted to was to have creative freedom. My former employer was like, "You don't want your own restaurant, don't open your own restaurant." It's a lot of headache. It's just… you're responsible for so many people, it's really different. We really had a hard time. There were contractor issues, I don't know if I ever really doubted whether I should or should not open it.
Is it as what you envisioned it to be?
And when the fire burned it down, did you know you wanted to restart or did you think about opening up another different restaurant?
I did think about throwing a towel in. And it was also so hard for us—the lease was up, and I wasn't going to put money into rebuilding it. Yeah, I definitely was thinking about walking away at that point. Also because my partner wanted out. It had been difficult because we had been together, and then we had broken up. She was the front of the house, I was the back of the house. It was just really difficult. We weren't married, but in many ways it was like a divorce, because we owned so much stuff together. We're good now, we're friends.
But I was really thinking about getting rid of it at that point. But then I was just like, What else am I going to do? Was I really going to go try to work for somebody else? And then, what are all these people going to do? Not that they couldn't find any other jobs, but the people that worked for were my family. And it was kind of amazing, when we reopened, every single one of my employees except one came back after nine months. And I was sort of like, that's the highlight of my career. It was my biggest accomplishment, I think.
What is the culture of the team here?
We're very much team-oriented, we're trying to be exacting and really relaxed at the same time, and supportive, hopefully it's a learning environment in the back.
How do you think the restaurant scene, what changes have you seen since you started out?
Well [French] was the pinnacle of fine dining back then. Now, it's become more multicultural. The Spaniards had their day, and the Scandinavians are having their day now.
What do you think it is about Annisa that makes people keep coming, given all the restaurants that are popping up everyday in New York?
I think a restaurant is everything. If you don't have service, but you offer great food, it's just not going to work; if you don't have atmosphere, that's not going work—every little thing counts. So it's just attention to all the details. A big part of it is a warmer setting and having employees on the floor who are really happy to see customers and take care of them in specific ways. I keep files on all my regulars, we want to recognize people, make them feel at home. I have a file of the regulars who get tasting menus and try not to ever repeat anything for them.
What was your favorite cooking moment? I've read that you cooked for the White House, how were you feeling? And was that one of the highlights of your career?
Totally a highlight of my career. It was difficult. Food-wise, I don't know that it was the highlight of what I've done, but catering is different. We did 200 people, four courses in 35 minutes. It was just ridiculous. There were some things that I felt like I could've done better, but it was thrilling and it was a huge honor, and everybody at the White House from the Obamas down to the dishwashers were just so warm and professional. And the cooking stuff was great there too.
Cooking moment… there's been a lot. I mean, I'm 50 years old. I've always wanted to go cook at the White House, because I remember my friend Marcus Vincent years before got to go do it, and I was saying, "Oh God! I want to do that! I should do that! I've got such a multicultural message, an American, inclusive, blah blah blah." And it never happened. So when I got a call, I was like, "Yeah! Duh!"
It was hard because my chef de cuisine had to go do the tasting, and she is so talented. I was going to be in India during that time, so I was just really worried that they weren't going to let me do it. Because I couldn't go up to their tasting, but it worked.
Is it difficult on a day-to-day basis to manage your time, being both the head chef and owner of the restaurant?
I have a chef de cuisine, who is in charge of the day-to-day, and I have a general manager. Plus a floor manager, so the front of the house is pretty much taken care of. My job at this point is I take care of all the food bills. I take on all the PR. I work in the kitchen.
What's one of your favorite dishes that you've had in all of your travels? I saw that when you were growing up you went to China and Iran.
Oh, there have been so many.
Or top three.
Damn. When I was seven, we had this duck in a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, that it was one of those whole ducks that they had cooked it whole, but had taken the bones out, and stuffed it with sticky rice and all sorts of stuff, steamed it. Probably roasted or deep fried it. It was just amazing.
There was a time in Singapore—we were travelling around the world—and we found this little sushi bar in Takashimaya, and everyone was lining up for it, and we went to just go have some sake. I had been pretty much a sushi snob by then, I had eaten at a lot of high-end sushi places. I felt like I had seen a lot of stuff, but there were so many things that we had that day that I had never seen before. That was really, really incredible. That was a great meal. There was one point where they just handed over this dish of tomato, but it was the most perfect tomato ever. That's the beauty of Japanese cuisine. It's this insane, obsessive concentration on ingredients that are at the height of their season. Just was amazing.
Is there anything in your life that you feel like you haven't done yet that you feel like you'd still like to do?
There's a million places that I still haven't been to. I love to going to other countries, eating the food there. I need to go back to Japan. I've been to Japan several times, but I really want to go to the countryside. I've only been to Tokyo. I'd like to go fishing there, that would be amazing. I've been to Africa, been to Senegal, Egypt, but that's a lot of Africa I haven't seen. Never been to Morocco—that's a problem—never been to Rome, that's a big problem.
So one thing we're trying to ask… no one wants to fail. Could you describe a moment where you just made a huge mistake, that might have been so embarrassing, and what made you show up the next day?
My first James Beard dinner. Actually no, the first I did OK, it was my second one I screwed up really badly. I don't know why, I think I was slammed. I don't know what happened, but first of all, I wasn't that happy with a lot of the food, but one of the courses—and I can't remember which one, because it was ages ago—but I didn't make enough. That was a fucking nightmare. I don't know how I got through that. I did get through it. But the last [dishes] that were going out, it was just such poor quality that I felt horrible.
Did you just run out of time?
Oh no, I did the math wrong, or I failed to do the math.
You were supposed to be a math major!
But I wasn't, that's why! I think I just failed to do the math. I thought I had enough, so I went in instead of actually doing the math. And that taught me you always have to do the math.
What else would you say have been the biggest lessons you've learned?
Managing people is still the biggest challenge of my life. I have an issue of always wanting to make everyone happy, which makes me really unhappy. Because you can't make everyone happy, you have to balance the needs of the whole against the needs of certain sectors of your business or people in your business, and many times those are at odds.
For the restaurants that you were working on that you eventually decided to leave, when did you know it was time for you to start something new?
I opened Bar Q in 2008 right before Lehman Brothers fell. I also made a lot of mistakes there—not blaming the economy completely. There were a lot of issues there. But we were packed from the beginning, and then a year later we were just dead. And I had to keep going back to my investors saying we needed more money. And then we were having issues with our contractor. I hired the wrong contractor, and they had told us to put up a structure in the back, which was illegal. So they put this illegal structure up in the back, and then we got into trouble for that, so it was just a lot of stuff, and I thought, in this economy, I could try to rebrand this but then we would have to get even more money, I think it's just time to call it a day. That was a huge mistake. God, I felt horrible about that, I lost a million something of someone else's money. It was unfortunate.
I've been trying to cook more, what one of your recipes would you recommend that's kind of easy to start off with?
My easiest recipe has five ingredients, and two of them are salt and pepper. This is my mother's recipe. My mother gave me a whole list of recipes. This is so easy—take spare ribs, or any sort of ribs. Sprinkle them with salt and pepper both sides, take one part hoisin, and one part ketchup, one-to-one, so if you had a whole rack, it would take like two thirds a cup of hoisin and ketchup, slather the whole thing, cover it in foil, put it in the oven, and bake it for 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about an hour, until the meat starts to pull away from the bones. That's easy.
What recommendations would you have for people trying to get started in the culinary arts?
I would go work in a restaurant, just volunteer, or get a job if you can, before you dive in. If you have tons of money, if your parents are willing to pay for culinary school. But if you have to take out a loan for that, then go work in a restaurant before, because most people that go to culinary school don't make it. Most people going to culinary school don't even cook professionally on any level.