Special Sauce: Chef Anita Lo on Cooking for Michelle Obama [1/2]

This week on Special Sauce with the terrific chef and fine writer Anita Lo. Anita had Annisa, a great restaurant in Greenwich Village, for 16 years before closing it in 2017. She was part of the first wave of women chef-restaurateurs in New York. Anita was also the first woman who cooked a State dinner for the Obamas at the White House. Finally, she is the author of the recently published elegant and pithy cookbook, Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One This week’s episode focuses on Anita’s cooking experiences at other people’s restaurants, sexism in the restaurant biz, and cooking at the White House.

With politics being front and center these days I had to ask Anita about cooking a state dinner for the Obamas and President Xi of China. I asked if she got to hang with the President and First Lady. “Yeah it was awesome. We got a picture with them. I shook their hands. It was sort of like a wedding line. The Obamas and the Xis were there, and then we all walked through and shook their hands and took a pictures and went out the other door.”

Anita really cut her teeth in the restaurant biz in New York in the nineties in the kitchen of the first incarnation of Bouley, chef David Bouley’s influential Tribeca restaurant. I asked Anita if she felt that she was a victim of the rampant sexism there that pervaded so many fine dining establishments at that time. She calmly replied, “Certainly, on some level, but at the same time, my mother had been a doctor and there were very, very few female doctors at the time when she became a doctor. I think she was the only female doctor in her hospital, or at least in her hospital wing. That was my role model, so I knew you just had to endure…”I did get some sort of nasty banter that was meant to make you not feel welcome…Yeah, we still have a long way to go, certainly (in that regard).”

I asked Anita if being a women chef-restaurateur makes it harder to find investors. She nodded her head and said, “I just think we’re wired culturally to support men and to see men as leaders and see men as the money makers, and that leaves a lot of smart, talented women behind…Well, at least we’re talking about it, and just because we’ve had a me too moment doesn’t mean that bad things still aren’t happening. Look what’s happening in our government.”

Anita has a unique perspective on these kinds of issues born of both sweet and bitter experiences. And that is what makes her Special sauce episodes required listening.


Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.

Anita Lo: I sent my chef de cuisine down to cook for Michelle Obama with those 12 dishes, and then from there, she picked four dishes.

EL: And was the president of China there?

AL: Yes.

EL: So did you cook dumplings for him or did you-

AL: No.

EL: Did you actually get to hang with the Obamas when you actually did the dinner?

AL: It was sort of like a wedding line. The Obamas and the Xis were there, and then we all walked through and shook their hands and took a picture.

EL: This week, sitting across the table from me in CDM Studios is none other than Chef Anita Lo, the author of the delightful new book, Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One. Welcome to Special Sauce.

AL: Thank you.

EL: Talented and super smart Anita Lo. What a great book you’ve written and what a great story you have to tell. We’re gonna get to both of them. First of all, I can’t tell you how much I miss Annisa.

AL: Oh, thank you.

EL: The last I was there, I think I was there with Tom Douglas from Seattle and his wife.

AL: Oh, lovely.

EL: I don’t know if you miss the grind, but you probably miss the cooking.

AL: There’s things about it that I miss.

EL: Annisa, for those of you who don’t know, was Anita’s restaurant in the West Village, which lasted for-

AL: Seventeen

EL: Seventeen years.

AL: Yes.

EL: Seventeen years in restaurant years is dog years, so it’s really 119 years.

AL: I should be dead.

EL: Yeah, you should be dead.

AL: Yeah.

EL: Exactly. All right, so let’s start at the beginning, which in your case is particularly interesting to me at least. Tell us about life at the Lo family table.

AL: I grew up in a very multicultural household. My parents both worked. My mother was Chinese from Malaysia, which is sort of the crossroads of Asia because there was Malay influence, Indian influence, et cetera. My father, who was from Shanghai, died when I was three, so I grew up mostly with my step-father, who was-

EL: You say he’s a WASP in the book.

AL: WASP, yeah.

EL: So high WASP?

AL: Yeah, his family had one of those blue books, you know? Maybe they came over on the Mayflower, something like that yeah.

EL: This was in suburban Michigan?

AL: Yeah. Anywhere, USA.

EL: What was life like at the table?

AL: We had a lot of great food. My mom was a wonderful cook. She worked 12-14 hours a day and would come home and put like six dishes on the table because she loved it.

EL: Really?

AL: But we also had different things like … we had nannies taking care of us and they were from different places.

EL: Comes in handy. You get to have nannies. I was reading your book and it said, “We had a live-in Hungarian caretaker, caregiver.”

AL: Oh yeah, she was lovely. She was the best thing. I grew up with chicken paprikash. That was one of my favorite things growing up.

EL: So your mom would cook even though she worked?

AL: Yes. Not every day because we had our nannies, but actually yeah, most of the time I think, if I remember correctly.

EL: And were you interested? Were you one of these people that stood up on a chair and watched your mom cook?

AL: I did. Not all the time. I don’t think we helped her that much, but sometimes we did. I do remember making eggplant fritters with her, and certainly we had that Chinese tradition of making dumplings on Sunday mornings sometimes, where the whole family would get together and fold dumplings.

EL: And did you always remember looking forward to meals? Was food actually a pretty big thing to you early on, or was it just fuel?

AL: No, it was a huge thing early on. My parents were obsessed with food. We traveled quite a bit, and everywhere we went we’d research and try to figure out what the best things to eat were from that area, and then we’d go find it. When we were eating breakfast, we’d talk about what we’re eating for dinner, et cetera.

EL: Now, your father who died when you were three, you mention in the book that he survived the cultural revolution in China, and another Special Sauce guest, Helen You of Galaxy Dumpling in Flushing, had a father who was imprisoned during the cultural revolution, and she and her mom were ostracized in their community and her at the school where she went, so she stopped going to school and she just would make dumplings with her mother all the time, and then go on this 18 hour journey to bring them to her father in prison.

AL: Oh my god.

EL: How was your father affected by the cultural revolution?

AL: He was sort the black sheep of the family, and I’m probably getting a lot of this wrong because he died when I was three, and I don’t know, my family didn’t talk about a lot of hard things, but from what I know, he walked out of the country just to escape it, and apparently, all of his brothers suffered for that because they had someone who left the country.

EL: Yeah, left the fold.

AL: Yeah, so they were sent off to the countryside to work. I just remember one of them came to visit within the last ten years and he was talking about how they would eat this rice gruel and that’s all they would get to eat, you know? It would be like water with a little bit of rice.

EL: My dad was raised by a single mother, and when his mother would take a lover, she would put my dad in a foster home or an orphanage, and they would feed him oatmeal all the time, and so my father had this abject hatred of oatmeal. I bet your uncle didn’t much care for rice gruel after that.

AL: Oh my god. That’s like Dickensian.

EL: In the book, you also talk about distancing yourself from your Asian heritage. How did that come about?

AL: I grew up in Michigan. I grew up in the suburbs of Michigan. I think I was one of two Asians in my entire school, which was a pretty big school.

EL: I’ve talked to Roy Choi about this, and they weren’t allowed to speak anything but English in his Korean-American household in Los Angeles because his parents believed so strongly that he should fully assimilated.

AL: Right. There was that Chinese Exclusion Act and the McCarthy era. The Asian communities just decided to make themselves as small as possible.

EL: Sure, especially post internment camps.

AL: Right, exactly. All of that, yeah.

EL: So did you always know you wanted to be a chef?

AL: No. When I was very young, I thought I would become a doctor like my mother was, and then in college I was majoring in French and I’m not quite sure what you do with a French degree, but-

EL: When I read that, I was like Anita just wanted an excuse to go to France and eat.

AL: Well that’s exactly how … it’s embarrassing, but yes. That’s exactly how it came about. Yeah, I thought I would go work in the UN and translate or something like that, and then I ended up wanting to go back to Paris again to eat, and I ended up in cooking school. I did very well. I was learning how to cook for myself anyway, and studying French was a big foodie culture, and fell in love with it. Once I graduated, I went to work at Bouley.

EL: And what was that like? Because you hear so many stories about David Bouley as an eccentric, to say the least.

AL: Certainly, he’s a brilliant eccentric. Yeah, but at the same time, we did know that what we were making was exceptional.

EL: Yeah.

AL: Yeah. We worked long hours at Bouley as well, but in France we worked ridiculous hours.

EL: Right.

AL: Yeah.

EL: Did you feel that as a woman you were at a disadvantage?

AL: Certainly, on some level, but at the same time, my mother had been a doctor and there were very, very few female doctors at the time when she became a doctor. I think she was the only female doctor in her hospital, or at least in her hospital wing. That was my role model, so I knew you just had to endure.

EL: Yeah. Did you get the hazing, the sort of go lift that 200 pound stock pot by yourself even though they’d have never asked a man to do that kind of thing?

AL: No, I didn’t get that, but I did get some sort of nasty banter that was meant to make you not feel welcome.

EL: Right, which now, if the culture is changing, you’re probably less likely to encounter, but you’re certainly still going to encounter it right?

AL: Yeah, we still have a long way to go, certainly.

EL: Yeah. At what point did you decide that you wanted to own your own restaurant, and how did you go about doing that?

AL: After seeing what it was like to own a restaurant, I was like, oh god I never want to do that. I remember saying that to David Bouley, and he’s like, “Then why are you doing this?” But I was too young at the time, I just didn’t realize it. I guess after my job at Mirezi-

EL: And what was Mirezi?

AL: Mirezi was a pan-Asian restaurant on lower Fifth Avenue-

EL: Oh right, that’s right.

AL: Yeah. It was owned by the Samsung Corporation, or the Cheil Jedang Corporation, which is a subsidiary of Samsung. It was great. It was a great learning experience, but I realized that that category was too narrow for me, and I wanted to have a contemporary American restaurant, and I wanted full creative freedom, and I realized that the only way to get that was to open my own place.

EL: Yes, welcome the world of Ed Levine and Serious Eats. Why did Ed Levine start Serious Eats? For the same reason you started Annisa, because you didn’t want any gatekeepers. You didn’t want anybody you had to pitch.

AL: Exactly.

EL: Right?

AL: Yeah, exactly.

EL: So how did you go about doing it, because especially at that time, there was Ann Rosenzweig at Arcadia.

AL: Right.

EL: I think I may have to stop there.

AL: Yeah.

EL: In New York.

AL: Yes, this is true, but growing up in the household that I grew up in, I knew that it wasn’t about gender, so I could do this. There’s no reason I couldn’t do that. Whether or not it was going to be successful or not is always a question, but it took us awhile. We found a spot. It took two years to find a spot. We opened it on a relative dime. I mean, it was a lot of money-

EL: Right, at the time.

AL: Yeah, but at the same time, compared to what most people spend on opening restaurants, we did pretty well with our budget.

EL: And were you trotting around a business plan and doing the whole thing?

AL: Yeah, absolutely. We wrote a business plan. I went to Pace University. There’s a small business, like a free small business advisory. It was great.

EL: And who was your partner?

AL: Jennifer Scism. She was my partner in life at the time, and she had worked for Ann Rosenzweig. She had been her chef de cuisine at the Lobster Club.

EL: Oh yes, I remember the Lobster Club.

AL: Right. She had been my sous chef at one point at Can Restaurant, so we decided to open this together because otherwise we were never gonna see each other, probably a bad idea though, in retrospect. Restaurants sort of kill relationships, but we did do well for awhile. Yeah, she decided to go to the front of the house so I set her up with Karen Waltuck down at Chanterelle-

EL: David Waltuck’s wife, and the restaurateur side of Chanterelle.

AL: Yes.

EL: What did you do? Like how did you develop a clientele? How did people develop a clientele back then? Was it just you were waiting to be reviewed?

AL: Yeah, I think we were, although I had been reviewed at Mirezi, and we had gotten two stars from the New York Times there, so I had a little bit of a name, at least within in food community.

EL: There was a buzz.

AL: Yeah.

EL: A little bit of it.

AL: So people were coming. They knew. Then we got Food and Wine “Best New Chef”, so that helped a lot.

EL: Who was the greatest influence on you as a budding chef-restaurateur when you opened?

AL: The Waltucks.

EL: The Waltucks.

AL: For sure, yeah.

EL: And they were famous for being very generous people.

AL: Yeah, they were great. That was a great place to work. I learned a lot.

EL: Chanterelle was really the first important restaurant in Tribeca, when Tribeca wasn’t even a neighborhood that people wanted to live in.

AL: Right.

EL: If you decide to do it again, would you face the same set of issues? I know like Amanda Cohen always talks about now that women chef-restaurateurs are never offered the best locations, have a harder time finding money. Did you find that to be true then, and do you think it’s still true now?

AL: I definitely think it’s still true now. I don’t think it’s something for the most part that’s done in a mean way, I think it’s something that is embedded in people’s minds. It just sort of happens.

EL: Yeah.

AL: I just think we’re wired culturally to support men and to see men as leaders and see men as the money makers, and that leaves a lot of smart, talented women behind.

EL: Yeah. Maybe they’ve got a little better and maybe they haven’t.

AL: Well, at least we’re talking about it, and just because we’ve had a me too moment doesn’t mean that bad things still aren’t happening. Look what’s happening in our government.

EL: Right.

AL: Yeah.

EL: Right, yes. For sure. Annisa lasted a long time, and you also survived a fire.

AL: Oh god. Well, on some level thank god Jen was there. I think it was 2009. Jen and I had been split up by that time. I went out to Long Island because I have a small apartment here, and then I have a small house out there. I went out there for the weekend, went to bed, and I got a phone call in the middle of the night that said that the restaurant was burning.

EL: Wow.

AL: Yeah. It was just a bad year for me. I actually had a fire at Bar Q. I had to close Bar Q.

EL: Right. Bar Q was a second restaurant on Bleecker if I remember?

AL: Yeah, it was on Bleecker, just like a half a block-

EL: And it was like your version of a Korean barbecue place?

AL: Asian-ish yeah.

EL: Asian barbecue place.

AL: Yeah.

EL: I forgot about that restaurant. I knew you had a second restaurant.

AL: Yeah. I made a lot of mistakes, but it was also 2009 and a whole bunch of things.

EL: Hey, you know that I’ve never made a mistake in my life?

AL: Oh really? Oh.

EL: Isn’t that great? So if you ever wanted to know what someone would look like who hasn’t made a mistake.

AL: There we go.

EL: You closed Bar Q that year too?

AL: Closed Bar Q that year. My mom died. It was just a bad, bad year. I think I was just sort of shut down on some level. Yeah. Oh god, it was awful. There wasn’t much you can do, really. You have to wait and wait for insurance, and that takes forever, and then we found out that we weren’t really insured well enough because we had insured it pretty much a decade before for what we thought was enough, and then we hadn’t increased our coverage over the years. Yeah. There was at least three occasions where I was like, okay, we’re done.

EL: Wow.

AL: Yeah, but somehow we pulled through.

EL: Yeah, so how long was it before you reopened?

AL: It took nine months.

EL: Nine months.

AL: Yeah.

EL: And then after that the restaurant lasted another few years right?

AL: Yeah, then it lasted another eight?

EL: Yeah.

AL: Yeah.

EL: And what happened? What did you sense was going on when the restaurant had to close?

AL: There were many, many reasons why I closed it then.

EL: You had a rough few years.

AL: Yeah, I had a bad knee replacement that I had to be off the line at that point. The lack of cooks was just like, soul crushing to me.

EL: Right, which has only gotten worse.

AL: Yeah, and I was like, you know what? I can’t do this anymore. I was getting angry at my cooks because I was hiring people that didn’t have any experience and it wasn’t their fault. I didn’t like who I was becoming. On top of all of the squeezes with the monetary issues with our real estate taxes like going up, they suddenly jumped. I don’t know why.

EL: Was it a relief in some ways?

AL: Oh, it was a great relief. It was the right decision. I mean, yeah. I was burnt out. It was time. It would have been nicer to go through your entire lease and have it be a … I mean, it was a celebratory closing on some level-

EL: So you first were literally burnt out, and then you were figuratively burnt out?

AL: Yeah.

EL: You were burnt out squared.

AL: Exactly, yeah.

EL: And then you also were involved with Rickshaw Dumpling. So we should explain that Rickshaw Dumpling was a fast casual dumpling concept which got a lot of attention, and I feel that chefs are always drawn to fast casual concepts because they always think that it must be easier than opening a real restaurant and they’ll scale more easily and they can make money while they sleep. There’s like this list of things that they tick off in their head. Was that what went on with you?

AL: It wasn’t my concept. I was approached by Kenny Lao.

EL: Oh right, I remember Kenny Lao. He used to work for Drew, I think.

AL: Yeah. It was his concept. I ended up signing on. I actually left before they closed. I think I left a couple of years before they closed. I left and then they closed a year or two later.

EL: So, Annisa closes, and did you at that point decide, you know what? I really don’t wanna cook anymore for a living. I don’t wanna be behind the stoves.

AL: No, not at all. I love cooking.

EL: Really?

AL: Yeah. That’s not the thing. The cooking part is the great part.

EL: It’s the other stuff.

AL: I don’t want to own another restaurant. I would love to consult, to have a long-term consulting gig that I could do physically, set up and sort of walk away and check in and make sure everything’s running smoothly, and then I’ll continue to write books. I’ve also been doing some hosting of culinary travel with the Tour de Forks.

EL: Tours. But if someone offered you a Danny Meyer restaurant and said, “Oh Anita, we’d love you to be the executive chef,” that’s probably not what you want to do anymore right? Like to be a chef for somebody else?

AL: No, not really. Well, I guess consulting would kind of be like that.

EL: Except you’re not on the line every night.

AL: I can’t be on the line every night. I just don’t have any knees left, really.

EL: Yeah. No knees makes it hard to be on the line.

AL: Exactly, yeah.

EL: People say they have no knees, I know because I’ve had cartilage shaved on both knees.

AL: I had that several times.

EL: All sports injuries.

AL: Now I have a fake one. I literally worked myself to the bone.

EL: Right, right. Our crack research team, I have 75 people that have been studying you for three months now, came up with the fact that you were the first woman chef to cook at the White House for President Obama, in terms of a guest chef.

AL: For a state dinner.

EL: Yeah.

AL: Yeah. People have been getting that wrong. They’ve been saying, “Oh, the first woman chef invited to the White House,” and that’s not true. First-

EL: First woman to cook a state dinner.

AL: Yeah.

EL: And was the president of China there?

AL: Yes.

EL: So did you cook dumplings for him?

AL: No.

EL: You didn’t want him to feel like you were culturally stereotyping him?

AL: Well, yeah, that doesn’t work that way.

EL: So what was the menu?

AL: Well they asked me to create a menu that is Chinese-influenced, but clearly American, and that was very difficult for me because it was, as much as I bring in Chinese influence into my food, I don’t have a ton of recipes that I’ve made over the years that are Chinese-influenced. I do have that dumpling, but there was no way I was gonna do that for 250 people. Yeah, so I had to come up with 12 … I found out about it, I was leaving in three days for India, so I had to come up with 12 recipes that you could do for banquets because it’s not the same as doing in it an a la carte kitchen, a restaurant kitchen. Yeah, I was pulling things from decades prior and I sent my chef de cuisine down to cook for Michelle Obama with those 12 dishes, and then from there she picked four dishes.

EL: That’s interesting, and so did you actually get to hang with the Obamas when you actually did the dinner, at least for 30 seconds?

AL: Thirty seconds, I met them, yeah.

EL: You got your 30 seconds?

AL: Yeah it was awesome. We got a picture with them. I shook their hands. It was sort of like a wedding line. The Obamas and the Xis were there, and then we all walked through and shook their hands and took a pictures and went out the other door.

EL: Was Sam Kass there?

AL: I don’t think so.

EL: Because he was on Special Sauce, of course he was involved with the Obama White House. The last thing I wanted to ask you before we have to stop this episode is, you’ve done a lot of TV, right? You’ve done Top Chef Masters and Iron Chef America. You’ve done Chopped. Is it fun? Is it good for business? Is it good for you personally?

AL: It’s definitely good for business. Definitely, definitely good for business. I would say that Top Chef Masters brought so much business to Annisa. All of it does. Yeah, is it fun? It can be fun. Was I ready to go home by the end of Top Chef Masters? I was like, yes. I’m very happy to pack my knives and go.

EL: And how many seasons did you do?

AL: Just one.

EL: Just one?

AL: Yeah. It was the first season.

EL: Typical elimination. So you aren’t disappointed that they didn’t invite you back, because people tell me it’s a real grind.

AL: Oh yeah, it’s terrible. I mean, no one wants to cook that way. Yeah. I did go back as a judge at one point.

EL: That’s much easier.

AL: Exactly, yeah.

EL: I’ve been a judge on Iron Chef. It’s really not hard.

AL: Right. Well, yeah, I love that job.

EL: It’s kind of boring.

AL: I’m really good at eating.

EL: Yeah, exactly. I’m really good at eating and telling people what’s right or wrong.

AL: Right, exactly. Fun.

EL: We’re gonna have to stop it right here, Anita, for this episode of Special Sauce, but thank you for telling us your life story on mic. We’ll get into Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One on the next episode.

AL: Okay. Great.

EL: So long Serious Eaters, we’ll see you next time.