FEATURE

Thought for Food

How did a second-generation Chinese woman from the Midwest end up cooking Japanese curries and South American ceviches in a Greenwich Village restaurant?

by Adeena Sussman Published Summer 2012
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 Photo by Nicole Franzen“If you’re my regular, then you’ve probably become my friend, and I’m going to cook especially for you,” says Lo, adjusting the lime-green bandanna anchoring her short black bobbed hair.

At times like this, when Annisa’s printed menu becomes more of a reference point than binding document, it is clear how cerebral Lo’s cooking can be. Unlike many chefs just a generation ago, who prided themselves on producing perfect versions of specific recipes, Lo is a part of a recent culinary tradition of perpetual experimentation. Her dishes are like equations, each ingredient a variable that can be adjusted according to what’s in season, what would appeal to a favorite customer, what new combination might present itself. 

Out of the frying pan

Late one July night in 2009, Lo was sleeping at her weekend home in East Moriches, Long Island, when the phone rang. On the other end was her business partner and ex-girlfriend, Jennifer Scism, and the news was dire. Annisa, the restaurant that they had built from scratch, had been badly damaged in an electrical fire. It wasn’t clear yet how extensive the damage was, but Scism didn’t sound optimistic.

“My first thought was that things couldn’t get much worse than they already were,” says Lo. She had recently been forced to close her newer restaurant, Bar Q, as well as a branch of her takeout chain, Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, both victims of a sluggish restaurant economy after the 2008 stock-market crash. A few months earlier, her mother had died from a burst aneurysm. And now this?

The next day, she wound past the sun-washed summer homes of East Moriches, pulled onto the Long Island Expressway, and made the two-hour drive into the city, feeling as if she were going to the morgue to identify the remains of a loved one. Annisa, which she opened on a shoestring in 2000, was outfitted with equipment so old that the electrical couplings had simply melted. As soon as she walked in the door, it was clear: the place was beyond repair.

After nearly two decades of fifteen-hour days, Lo’s back ached, and her knees were shot. She longed for more time to read and write. Scism, for her part, wanted out; she was ready to leave the city and the restaurant business behind.

But Annisa was the place where Lo felt most at home, and she was hopeful about its future. She was working on a cookbook and had recently filmed a season of the television competition Top Chef Masters, placing fourth among twenty-four of the country’s most respected chefs. The show was set to air the next year, in 2010, and millions were expected to watch, which meant that the restaurant would certainly benefit. And then there were the twenty-two employees, many of whom felt like family. Lo often joked with them that she didn’t have an exit strategy. But this wasn’t the way she wanted it to end. Lo decided to take a chance.

Scism stayed on to help Lo oversee the design and reconstruction, though when Annisa reopened in April 2010, she said goodbye for good. “This was the first time Anita took sole responsibility for the restaurant,” says Scism from Maine, where she now lives with her husband. “I used to play bad cop to Anita’s good, and now she had to be both. She had to put all sides of her personality out there.” 

Mise en place

Lo, who grew up the daughter of two doctors in suburban Birmingham, Michigan, was always someone with multiple sides: “I was Asian on the outside and white on the inside,” she says. “I know I don’t look the part, but I’m actually kind of a WASP.”

This was the result of a relatively prosperous childhood and parents who were hell-bent on their children assimilating. Lo’s father, Luke, who was originally from Shanghai, died when Lo was three; her mother, Molly, who grew up in a Chinese enclave of Malaysia, quickly remarried an American of German descent. Things weren’t always easy in their blended family, but love and respect for food brought them together.

Photo by Nicole Franzen“If you’re Chinese, you’re going to be interested in food,” says Lo. Molly was a passionate cook, often coming home after a fourteen-hour day to put six dishes on the table. She taught Lo to explore culture through her palate, which meant, at home, a mixture of China, Malaysia, Germany, and Hungary, thanks to a nanny who introduced them to dishes like paprikash and goulash. “She also had Mexican friends working around the corner, which meant tortillas, rice, and beans,” Lo says. “Delicious stuff.”

Lo and her family took long, unusual trips abroad. They went to Europe, Iran, Morocco, and Turkey, each destination chosen with a specific dish in mind. Lo ate reindeer in Copenhagen, frites and mussels in Belgium, and an intense, cold sour-yogurt drink in Iran, where Lo and her family were shuttled around in a black limousine. In Malaysia, Lo sampled tart, lychee-like rambutans in her aunt’s garden. “I parked myself in front of that tree and didn’t get up all day,” she recalls. Other relatives hosted long, elaborate banquets in China, which the family visited before Nixon did. “For most people I grew up with,” says Lo, “an exotic vacation was going to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or maybe Florida. And here we were going to Tehran. We were freaks.” Returning to Michigan was always a letdown. For high school, Lo attended a small progressive school in Massachusetts with an international population. “My family was so ‘other,’” she says. “It was great to be in a place with so many ‘others’ like me.”

After she was accepted to Columbia, where she would major in French, Lo moved to New York, spending time with a high-school friend, Philip Anderson, whose mother, Susan Heller Anderson, was a writer for the New York Times food section. Philip had grown up partly in France, and he would feed Lo from a fridge filled with rillettes, cornichons, and other Gallic staples.

“At the time, Columbia’s was known as one of the four worst university cafeterias in the country,” says Lo. “I wasn’t giving in.” She moved off campus after her freshman year and learned to cook, starting with her childhood recipes — a mix of curry, laksa, chicken paprikash, and Chinese dishes — with the occasional splurge on lobster. She moved on to the original Joy of Cooking and early quick-cooking books by Jacques Pépin ’70GS and Pierre Franey. By senior year, she was an accomplished amateur.

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