A lot of chefs purport to love ingredients, but probably only a few have memories of a single ingredient as early or as vivid as Anita Lo. She was a two year old, sitting on the back porch of her aunt’s house in Malaysia, eating an orange. “It was a great orange – an amazing orange. It had a ton of juice, and it was dripping down my chin and in my shirt and then out down my arm and off my elbow. Finally my mom came over and cleaned me up. But that experience was just a single ingredient. That love of a single ingredient, at the peak of its season.”
Lo is a well-known chef in America thanks to stints on the wildly popular television shows Top Chef Masters and Iron Chef, but she grew up in Michigan before heading for Paris and then New York, where she runs the sophisticated but low-key fine-dining restaurant Annisa, which means “women” in Arabic and supports the softer sex by featuring wine made only by female winemakers. Her technique is rooted in France with influences coming from across Asia – Lo is an avid traveller and eater – making her the perfect candidate to cater a state dinner when the Obamas received Xi Jinping and his wife at the White House last year. She landed in Hong Kong recently to replicate that dinner at a ticketed event hosted by the Asia Society Hong Kong Center — as well as to take up a guest stint at Ammo, go on a local market and street-food tour with Society members, teach a dumpling class (her signature dish is, after all, foie gras with dumplings) and, naturally, eat up a storm of inspiration for her next round of superlative dishes.
What was it like growing up in Michigan? What was the food scene like?
It was a desert … it was a culinary wasteland. Yeah, it’s funny. There’s a lot of professional chefs from the [American] Midwest, which is interesting. What makes sense is that there’s that Midwestern work ethic, which goes very well with the culinary industry, but at the same time there really wasn’t – especially when I was growing up – that much great food there. But we found it, you know? You just have to look for it.
So did you learn mainly about food from being at home? Was yours a foodie family?
Totally a foodie family. We travelled a lot. My mother was a great cook. We also had nannies that cooked for us, because my parents worked, so I learned about different people’s cultures. My nanny was Hungarian. We had a couple of African-American nannies.
But your serious food journey began in Paris, is that right? I read that you were in school in Paris when you decided to go to culinary school. What was it about Paris that really kicked it off?
I loved being away. I loved how beautiful that city is. I love the markets – you know, there’s something very sterile about American markets. I loved how it’s a very food-focused culture.
When it comes to your cuisine, people just lump you into the Asian-influenced category. How would you describe what you do?
It’s contemporary American, and a lot of people don’t know what that is, but the United States is a huge country, made up of immigrants –and I think that category reflects that. So, it’s a wide category. It allows me to do what I want to do, be who I am, which is that I have a very multicultural, complex identity.
And part of that is being Asian, female and gay — you’re sort of a triple minority in the industry. Do you feel that you have a responsibility in any way to represent your various minority cultures?
Oh absolutely, absolutely. Well, the Asian thing is apparent. As far as being gay, I’m always trying to be out, you know? I think that you need to be a role model. But I only have one restaurant. I think women haven’t in the past had empires, you know? I don’t really want them any more. But at one point I felt bad that I wasn’t doing it, because I think I felt that pressure to represent.
But being on TV is another way of representing. Why did you decide to take part in restaurant-chef shows such as Iron Chef and Top Chef Masters?
I’ve always been adventurous as far as travel is concerned, and I think going into a television studio was interesting for me just from that point of view. Just to see somebody else’s environment, or how all of that works. I think in New York City and increasingly just around the world it’s part of your job as a chef to promote the business. And gosh, those shows really help a lot. I mean yeah, I enjoyed it for the most part. By the end of it I was like, “OK, I’m ready to go, you can send me home now, I’m ready to pack my bags.” But it also was really fun to be cooking alongside people like Rick Bayless. I mean, I was cooking with people that were of a different generation of chefs than I am. So that was kind of aweinspiring. To hear them talk about food was kind of amazing. It was a great opportunity for me.
You’ve had Annisa now for over a decade. And you’ve had other restaurants in the past with different concepts, but I guess Annisa right now is what you focus on. I know you’re not interested in an empire, but how do you see it changing?
I’m happy with what it is right now. I think at the end of this lease – if we make it that long and decide to keep going forward – I would consider changing the concept. I’m 50 years old now, it might be time to hand over the reins — I have a very, very talented chef right now, who’s contributed a lot to the menu, and is developing her own style, I think. I would love to give her a go at it. So maybe that will be something that happens. I don’t really know.