The Newly Crowned Three-Star Chef on Learning to Love the Camera, the Hazards of Labels, and Asking the Right Questions
Anita Lo, who’s been presiding over her own restaurant, Annisa, since 2000, studied French Literature before turning toward the professional kitchen and cooking at such landmark New York City restaurants as Bouley and Chanterelle. As readers probably know, she recently received three stars from The New York Times for the first time in her career. Over the past few years, Anita has also published a cookbook, Cooking Without Borders, and appeared on two of television’s most popular culinary competition shows: Iron Chef (on which she defeated Mario Batali) and Top Chef Masters. We recently caught up with Anita at her home in the West Village, where she was rehabbing from knee surgery, and discussed a variety of topics:
TOQUELAND: Can I ask about the knee? Is it work‑related?
LO: I think just being a chef is hard on the body. Everyone’s body is different but my knee didn’t take very well to it.
TOQUELAND: Had it been a longstanding thing?
LO: It had been degenerating for many years. I think just standing on your feet all that time and running up and down stairs carrying heavy things is not good.
TOQUELAND: Do you think that’s an aspect of the kitchen life that people who get into the business young don’t appreciate until they’re in it?
LO: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, that article in the Times with Mark Peel? Ouch. But anyone you talk to that’s my age and that’s been in the business as long as I have, has injuries.
TOQUELAND: Is this something nobody tells young cooks? It seems like something that doesn’t come up. I guess when you’re young you don’t think you’re ever going to have problems like that, no matter what you do.
LO: No, you don’t. Even if someone tells you. It’s hard because someone has to lift it, but if it’s something heavy, I’m like, “Get help. Two people should do that.”
The Intersection of Entertainment and Promotion
LO: I had been wanting to do that book for decades.
TOQUELAND: That very book?
LO: Actually, the original concept was going to be a little more academic. I wanted it to be a book about American cuisine and multiculturalism. Of course, no one would buy that.
TOQUELAND: Did you try to sell that book?
LO: I tried to sell that to an agent and I couldn’t even get an agent. And then I had an agent and we were trying to sell it to a writer. At this point it had gotten a little more watered down, but the writer said, “Why don’t you write something on Asian street food?” I was, like, “Are you listening to me at all? You’ve got to be kidding me. There’s no way I’m going to write something like that. You just missed everything I was trying to say about multiculturalism and identity and what it means to me. You’re part of the problem.”
TOQUELAND: So eventually this mutated into ‑‑
LO: A cookbook. I think I got my message across, at least in the intro. At the end of the day writing a cookbook, for me, was about having a promotional tool for the restaurant. Everything’s about the restaurant.
TOQUELAND: This dovetails with something else. I’ve only met you a few times, and I hope this doesn’t seem like an odd question to ask, but do you consider yourself shy?
LO: I’m absolutely shy.
TOQUELAND: You strike me as a little bit shy, which I don’t think is a bad thing. You’re not a show-boater. You don’t have a shtick. And yet you’ve done television a few times.
LO: It’s part of the job.
TOQUELAND: Is it an unnatural thing for you? Expand