Anita Lo: Multicultural "mutt" and multi-tasking chef
With four successful restaurants and a midtown food truck in the works, Anita took a moment from her hectic day to sit down with me over lunch at her West Village restaurant, Bar Q .
LM: As the first woman to win Iron Chef, can you talk about being a female chef / owner of a restaurant?
AL: It has its good points and its bad points. Being one of the few female chefs out there, there's a certain amount of extra attention you get, at least from the media, so it's easier in that respect. But, I get the feeling that it's harder for us to get backers.
LM: Coming from Kentucky, I love barbeque. What was the thought behind this restaurant?
AL: I've been thinking about this concept for the greater part of a decade. Back in the late 90s, maybe the early 2000s, all those barbeque places started to come up. I had been a chef at Mirezi, over on Fifth Avenue, which was a Korean concept. What we know of Korean cuisine here is Korean barbeque, so when this barbeque craze started happening I thought, 'Someone should do something different. I could do an Asian barbeque.' All the items I had on my menu at Mirezi and some of "barbeque" inspired dishes at Annisa were some of my most popular dishes, so it just made sense to come together and do this concept.
LM: Today organic and local are the new craze. Do you have any thoughts of adding those elements to your restaurant?
AL: No, not at all. That's not my focus. I would never try to market myself as local or sustainable, but I absolutely adore all of those aspects. I can say that I try to, but there are so many different issues here. I'm an angler. I'm a fisherman. I don't buy Chilean sea bass. I don't buy farmed Atlantic salmon. My menus are very seasonal. I do go to the farmer's market -- in the summertime, probably twice a week; in the wintertime, maybe once a week.
That being said, the focus of my business is more about multicultural cuisine than local sustainable. If I'm doing the multicultural, I am bringing in ingredients from Japan, and I love all that. I have a house on Long Island and when I'm out there I only eat locally. I'm big on the environment. I ride my bike. I recycle. I hope that local sustainable will continue to grow, but I hope we don't lose other cuisines because of it.
LM: You're Chinese-American and studied in France, but what different cultures do you look to for culinary inspiration?
AL: There's a billion different ways of coming at a recipe. I am Chinese-American, but culturally I'm very much a mutt. My nanny was Hungarian. I grew up with a lot of that food. We had other nannies that were African-American, so I grew up with a lot soul food. My family traveled everywhere. I am adaptable, but I don't really know that much about Chinese food. It's a huge continent with a lot of different cuisines in there.
If there's one cuisine I thought I knew the most about it's be French. However, the French have a culture of being very nationalistic. Even when I was in cooking school, people didn't know what sushi was. I was working at an internship in 1989, 1990 at a two star restaurant and the chef de cuisine brought over a plate of sushi and said, 'What is this?' I, as the Asian-American, had to explain. I think there's an ignorance of others culture that's pervasive. They call everything Chinese and it's mostly Japanese.
LM: Do you have time for travel, or how does your cuisine evolve?
AL: I do a lot of work related vacations. When I graduated from college, I thought I was going to work for the UN and have more of an international life. I thought I'd take vacations outside the United States. It's happening now sort of where I'm being invited abroad. This past year, I went to Paris and London for a long weekend and I did this thing in Chicago. I think this was the first year I've done that.
If I had more time I would take trips just to go fishing. I usually take a week to ten days off in the end of August to just go up to my house. I have a house in East Moriches, which is on the south side of Long Island where Fire Island ends and the Hamptons begin. I fish mostly in Moriches Bay, and hopefully once or twice in the fall I'll get to go up to Montauk.
LM: Do you eat what you catch?
AL: Oh, absolutely. As long as it's legal.
LM: Do you cook at home for yourself?
AL: I do, but not in the city. I think the last time I cooked in the city I set off the fire alarm. I have a 450-square-foot walk up on Charles Street and then there's that whole issue of smelling up the apartment building. When I was younger I used to cook at home, but my style of cooking is very influenced by the restaurant cooking, so if I'm cooking meat it's at either 300 degrees or 500 -- those are the only two temperatures I know. What happens is I would open the window, but the smell doesn't go out the window, it goes into the hallway. Your apartment smells like whatever you've been cooking for the next five days.
Also, there are so many inexpensive good places to get food, it's like why? But in Long Island, there's not much, maybe one good restaurant in town. That's where I can relax and cook my slow food and there's fishing, there's crabbing, there's clamming. There's a lot of natural, local food there that's so good.
LM: What's your normal schedule? What's an average day?
AL: It depends on the day. Mondays, I spend most of my time at Rickshaw . So I'll get up between 11 and 12, and I'll walk the dogs. I have two little Shih Tzus -- Mochi and Adzuki, "rice" and "beans." I walk the dogs and then I get on my bike. Sometimes I'll go to the Greenmarket. Then I'll check on both Rickshaws. Usually I'll come here and check on everybody. Look at the line. Go back and forth during the service.
Thursday, Friday, Saturday, I need to be on the line at Annisa. Saturday is Greenmarket day again, and then I have events at night sometimes. We're about to open a Rickshaw food truck uptown, so I've put in a lot of work into that. I've been trying out how we're going to cook the dumplings on the truck. That's been interesting.
LM: New York has made fast food restaurants post their caloric content, but a recent article in the New York Post pointed out discrepancies between restaurants' recorded nutritional information and their actual menu items?
AL: From my understanding (and I could be wrong), it wasn't just the calorie content of each item, but the entire nutritional content, which would be difficult to post, as it would make menus way too long. I'm not against posting calorie content in fast food restaurants, but you'd have to have a margin of error. Typically, fast food restaurants have standardized recipes which are supposed to all be meticulously weighed, measured and executed to a T, but there's always an X factor.
I have Rickshaw, which doesn't fall into that category yet, though we will. It's not a bad thing, however I don't think anyone wants to dine out that way in fine dining. I think there are better ways to go about it. I think there should be more control over media, over advertising. I'm sure the government is probably adding to this problem by supporting all these companies. That's got to stop too.
LM: To which of your restaurants would you take the presidential nominees?
AL: McCain would have to go to Annisa. At the end of the day, I'd try to make them happy. I'm sure they wouldn't have time for a tasting menu. I'd probably try to show them what's multicultural about my cuisine. My cuisine is 'contemporary American" which is a multicultural cuisine. I bring in influences from all over the world, sometimes into one dish (or in one dish, one could argue many different cultural influences). This country was built by immigrants and this is reflected in what I think is our 'haute cuisine'.