Chef Anita Lo has made quite a name for herself since she decided to treat her French language BA from Columbia as a prerequisite for becoming a classically trained French chef. Since then, she’s used that foundation as a springboard to include a wide variety of the world’s cuisines in her “Contemporary American” (read: exactingly tasty fusion) oeuvre. Lo has been featured on Top Chef Masters, Iron Chef America, The Martha Stewart Show, and was also named one of The Best New Chefs in America by Food and Wine in 2001.
Anita’s Greenwich Village restaurant, Annisa, means “women” in Arabic. The restaurant website describes the menu as made up of “flavors inspired by her Asian roots, her travels, and seasonal influences with her classic French technique,” and the wine list primarily contains wines made by female vintners or from women-owned vineyards.
In her new, lushly photographed cookbook, Cooking without Borders, Lo spares no opportunity to tell stories — from her culinary coming-of-age in the introduction to her own personal introductions to each and every recipe, which are by turns offhand (“I’m a big soba fan”) and illuminating (“In Japan, unagi is considered a summertime delicacy”) and poignant (“Jennifer Scism, my ex-girlfriend and the former co-owner of Annisa, planted the garden at my beach house, which we once shared.”)
If you, like me, have a stack of cookbooks on your bedside table, and view reading them as a form of recreation and not just as a means to putting a meal on the table, you’ll be happy to add it to your collection.
Anita was kind enough to take some time to chat with me about her new book, her inspirations, good Thanksgiving memories, and how to sneak sophisticated side dishes into the bellies of timid eaters.
AfterEllen.com: A lot of AfterEllen.com readers have requested that I cover fusion cooking, so I’m glad that you have such a delicious handle on it. The term has become, in some cases, diluted or misused. What, in your opinion, is fusion food at its best, and when does the concept become misguided?
AE: Yes, I think a lot of chefs have done some misguided things, flavor-wise, in the name of fusion.
AE: Right, it’s not just a “curry sushi” kind of thing. Who do you think is the intended audience for your book?
AE: The cookbook’s recipes are very well collected. How did you decide which recipes to include in the book?
AE: I really loved that each recipe had a story attached. I really appreciated your generosity there. It’s interesting to watch the evolving dynamic between the food memoir, and cookbooks that include lots of storytelling. Which recipes in Cooking Without Borders would you recommend that beginner cooks try?
AE: How would you characterize your “regulars” at Annisa?
AE: Right, most of the time the review will describe the regulars as being “the Wall Street crowd” or “downtown scenesters” or “pallid posturing Williamsburg types” or whatever.
AE: I guess that’s why a lot of people read them. I saw that your Thanksgiving menu was featured in Bon Appetit this issue. Do you have any Thanksgiving memories that you’d like to share?
AE: Yes, that canned cranberry sauce was like having Jell-O at dinner. My wife’s family has a Thanksgiving tradition of making “green stuff” out of green jello, cool whip, cottage cheese, pineapple, and nuts.
AE: [laughs] It’s surprisingly good. What would you advise someone in the following situation: “I was invited to a Thanksgiving meal and was asked to bring a side dish. My hosts are more on the unadventurous side when it comes to food, but I really want to do something a little different. What do you suggest?”
Most people who are afraid of food aren’t really afraid of vegetables, so just tell them it’s pumpkin, because it is, and it’ll be OK.
AE: Since you began cooking, have you noticed trends that have resonated with your own core values?
AE: What are some trends that you haven’t enjoyed or appreciated?
AE: What about sous-vide?
AE: You mentioned that your grounding is in French, although many people assume you’re an expert in Asian cuisine. Do you feel like having a comparatively diverse background gave you a culinary advantage over chefs who come from a more homogeneous background?
AE: Where do you like to go out to eat in New York City when you’re not working?
Here are two of the recipes we discussed above: the chicken paprikash and Anita’s mom’s spare ribs, along with the stories that go along with them. Enjoy!
My Auntie Beth’s Chicken Paprikash
My nanny, Sister Elizabeth Angel, was very much like a mother to me. Hungarian born, from Budapest, she was orphaned at the age of eleven and was sent to live in a convent. She stayed with us for a total of eight years — from the time I was three until I was twelve; there was a gap somewhere in the middle when she had to go back to the nunnery to maintain her standing with the church.
When, unlike my older siblings, I was too young to be allowed out on my own with friends, I would often have Sister Elizabeth all to myself. We would watch The Galloping Gourmet on her black-and-white TV while she sat on her massage chair and crocheted. From her, I learned how to forage for wild berries and dandelion leaves, how to chop wood and build a fire, and how to make chicken paprikash, a favorite childhood dish. Inexpensive, fast, and filling, this was one of the first meals I learned to cook. I’ve made it over and over again throughout the years. When I lived in France, I substituted creme fraiche for the sour cream.
Oddly, it is much like my mother’s chicken curry, where the paprika is replaced by curry powder, the parsley by a bay leaf simmered into the curry, and the sour cream and flour by a smaller quantity of coconut milk. My mother’s curry had potatoes in it and was served with coconut rice. Different, but equally comforting and nostalgic for me.
Combine the paprika, 2 teaspoons of salt, and pepper, then toss with the
My Mother’s BBQ Spareribs
Before she retired, my mother put in long hours as a pathologist in charge of the blood bank at our local hospital in Troy, Michigan. One of the few female physicians of her time, she had to work extra hard, but she always managed to come home and cook well-balanced dinners that included a variety of dishes for my brother, sister, and me.
This was one of our favorites; it’s also one of the first (and easiest) things she taught me to make. I have no idea where she first discovered these BBQ ribs. They require equal amounts of Chinese hoisin sauce and ketchup, the old-fashioned American version. It almost sounds like something you’d find on the back of a bottle of Heinz 57. I’ve tried more complicated Korean recipes, but my mom’s produces results that are just as good. Her pork ribs were one of the most popular items on the menu at my restaurant bar Q. They were also a hit at a staff meal, served with sticky rice and sauteed Asian greens.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Season the spareribs on both sides with salt
Cooking Without Borders is available in bookstores now.