"I don't really believe in "authentic" and I think everything is "fusion." I mean, who am I? That's my identity."
If you're the sort who likes to boat, farm, fish, clam and make good food, it's kind of hard not to be taken over by a green-eyed monster when chatting with Anita Lo. The executive chef and owner of Annisa in the West Village pulls out contemporary American cuisine from her wide base of knowledge, has a cookbook, was the first woman to win an Iron Chef showdown (against Mario Batali, with mushrooms as the secret ingredient) and had a later stint on Top Chef Masters.
But what really makes her eyes light up? And how did a feeling of "otherness" and a degree in French literature lead to the kitchen?
Before you went to study Escoffier French cooking, you got your BA in French literature. How did that start? I've always been a fan of language in general. On some levels I think that literature is the highest art—it excites the imagination, which had no borders to it. So that's exciting for me. I wanted to learn about other cultures. We traveled a lot when I was a kid, so it was interesting for me to look at culture through language.
Before you studied cooking there, was there something about Paris that made it feel like you were home? I grew up in the midwest with a feeling that I was unlike anyone else: a feeling of "otherness." So I don't know that anything was really home, ever. But at least in France you could be with a bunch of people that were more traveled. It was different. Breathless.
How did that feeling of otherness as a kid lead to changing your path and studying food there? When I was a kid we traveled a lot, and my family was really a foodie family. Everywhere we went we would try to get the culture through the cuisine. France is just so steeped in food culture—it's hard to avoid—and so it just brought everything together: what I was studying and what I was passionate about.
Where did that come from with your parents? They had a traveling bug.Wwhile other families were going to Disney World on their vacation, we were going to places like Iran.
There's a lot of international influence on your food. How would you categorize it? With the debate of "authentic" cuisine versus "fusion"... See, I hate both of those words. I don't really believe in "authentic," and I think everything is "fusion." I mean, who am I? That's my identity. My stepfather was white. I had African American nannies and one Hungarian nanny, so I grew up with a lot of Hungarian cuisine. Food was so important: we'd talk about dinner while we were eating lunch. And sometimes, on Sundays, we'd sit around making dumplings together. But we didn't celebrate the Chinese New Year; we had Christmas. I was sort of a WASP.
Do you think it's necessary that people in the media or chefs themselves try to put banners on their food? Well, you have to have words to describe things. But on some level words mean different things to different people. I describe my cuisine as "Contemporary American," and what's great about that is it's an enormous category that befits a country that's a melting pot of people.
Do you think New York is a good setting for "Contemporary American" food? Is there something unique about the city that works for you? People are very sophisticated here, and I need them to not be afraid of some of the things that I put on the plate. And it is a better experience if you have even a small understanding of where I'm coming from.
More on labels: I don't want to talk generally about "women in the kitchen," and I normally don't even bring it up because it can be a bit condescending... ...you put people in a category but, the thing is, you have to talk about it.
Exactly. Because it does exist, and we're women, and we're human beings, and these are our jobs. I believe that gender is a social construction and I do my very best to eschew any myths about my gender and those roles. I do think it's nice to have solidarity because we are in a minority category and it is harder for us. I think it's important to talk about it so that people will ask themselves that same question: "why am I approaching this person differently because of their gender?"
Has there been a moment though where being a female chef particularly got you down or even empowered you? I don't know, I'm old. I do see people come in this kitchen with a very macho edge and a chip on their shoulder. And I think that makes it very hard for anybody that that doesn't come naturally to. It can be threatening because there is a power imbalance between genders. But was there a point where I felt, wow, this is great? I get a lot of attention because I'm one of few female chefs and they want to write stories about that. And I have an event in the fall for SHARE—a breast and ovarian cancer support group—of all female chefs. So that's great, it's fun.
You've got a restaurant, book, television... but what's making your tail wag about life right now? I feel really lucky, especially when I'm out at my house. I have the most amazing people around me. I've got Patty and her girlfriend who own Early Girl Farm, and she's just so passionate and her farm is gorgeous. And her mom is just the most lovely human being. And then I have my neighbor, Jerry, who keeps his boat for me.
I never really had a dad—I grew up with my stepfather—so it's just so nice to having someone taking care of me. And then I've got my neighbors across the street: Dorothy and Roger. Dorothy was the founding editor of Saveur Magazine. One day she called me and asked, "Do you want to come over for lunch? David Tanis is cooking." Yeah! Not bad, right? April Bloomfield came out, and we went fishing and I caught a really great fluke and she made fish and chips for us. Not that bad! You go out on your boat - and it's not even your boat, but it's there for you to use. It's gorgeous. I feel very, very fortunate.