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 FranzenBetween her junior and senior years, Lo took her first trip to France, and spent it at La Varenne, a small but influential cooking school in Paris. She took four consecutive one-week courses, her first formal culinary training, and spent her free time shopping at local markets and treating herself to weekly dinners in city restaurants. “Clearly, I had a knack for cooking, and that experience brought it all together for me,” she says. Knowing then that food was going to be more than a hobby, she returned to La Varenne for a short stint after graduating. Back in the states, she found entry-level work at two important TriBeCa restaurants — Bouley, then Chanterelle — whose menus emphasized classical French cooking. In between, she returned to France for a six-month program at the École Ritz Escoffier. At these early jobs, she cemented her basic skills and her work ethic; Daniel Bouley remembers her chopping chives until she could do it without looking at the cutting board. She also gained a classical foundation on which to build her own distinctive style.

“There are no true borders in food. Each cuisine has been affected by another.” 

Wanting to expand her culinary outlook to include more Eastern flavors, Lo moved to a French-Vietnamese restaurant, Can, where she met Scism, who was working as a grill cook. But it was when Lo took the helm of a Korean restaurant called Mirezi that she caught the attention of the New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl, who praised her inventive dishes and “beautifully arranged food” in a glowing review. After Mirezi closed in 1998, Lo and Scism spent a year traveling the world.

“Anita will eat anything,” says Scism, recalling a day in Bangkok when a vendor challenged Lo to eat a cockroach. “At one point, I told her she had a wing stuck in her two front teeth,” says Scism with a laugh. “The thing about Anita is, she didn’t try the bug because she was challenged; she tried it because she really was curious about how it would taste.”

By the time Lo returned to the States, so-called fusion cooking — combining ingredients and techniques from diverse cultures — had become popular. “As far as I was concerned,” she writes in her new cookbook, Cooking Without Borders, “fusion meant that my identity finally had a name.”

As fusion cooking spread, though, it became diluted and took on negative connotations. But for Lo, the concept still had great meaning. “Now we need another word to describe what is, in essence, all cuisine,” she writes. “There are no true borders in food. Each cuisine has been affected by another ... and food, like language, is constantly evolving. It is a living entity that grows and changes at each individual stovetop, at the hands of cooks across the globe.”

With that philosophy, Lo, with Scism, opened her own restaurant, Annisa, which means “women” in Arabic. Business was bumpy in the first years, as is to be expected from a new restaurant, but critical success was immediate. The Times twice awarded Lo two stars, and a coveted Michelin star followed in 2009, which she has maintained every year since. 

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