Special Sauce: Chef Anita Lo on Cooking for Yourself [2/2]

On this week’s Special Sauce, Chef Anita Lo talks about her new cookbook, Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One. To Anita, cooking for yourself is a journey of self-discovery. “I think cooking can be self re-affirming,” she says. “I mean if food is culture and you’re cooking what you like to eat, it’s about you. It’s about who you are…Food is identity.”

She also says cooking for yourself is therapeutic and thought-provoking. “I’ve had a lot of people say to me that this book made them think about how far they’d go to cook for themselves and why they wouldn’t do that,” she notes. “That’s interesting to me. I mean it, we need to take care of ourselves. If you don’t take care of yourself, there’s no way you can take care of other people.”

Anita also obliged me by outlining for me in detail what exactly would happen on Anita Lo Day all over the world, including a long list of activities that starts with with, “People are eating. People are eating with abandon.”

In other words, they’re eating seriously.

To find out what else they’re doing, you’re going to have to listen to the always thoughtful Anita Lo on this week’s Special Sauce.


Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eatss 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: In the book I’ve got tips for shopping. You know if you go to green markets instead of chain grocery stores, if you got butcher shops, you’re more likely to be able to purchase ingredients just for one. There’s also storage tips, you know you’re gonna have to use your freezer. Do not be afraid of the freezer. It is key to not wasting things.

EL: Back with us is the ultra-talented chef and restaurateur Anita Lo, who has written a truly original cookbook. And that’s not easy to do, by the way. It’s not easy to do, there are a lot of cookbooks out there. Your book is Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One.

EL: So let’s talk about Solo. How did the book come about? What made you want to write it? It doesn’t seem like it was really born of loneliness. Even though the title would make you think it is. I think it’s kind of a bait and switch, Anita.

AL: Maybe. I mean I’ve certainly been lonely, you know as a chef for a good part of my life.

EL: Sure.

AL: But yeah no it came about because a friend of mine, David Ransom, and I were on the phone talking about SHARE, which is a breast and ovarian cancer support group that we do a fundraiser for every year. And for some reason we got on to the subject titles with my last name in it, which is Lo. And so we came across, we had like 50 titles. It was just this long ideation session. It was really funny. We’re like Lo Cal, Lo and Slow: the Braising Book.

EL: It sounds like there was drinking.

AL: There wasn’t I swear. But it was really fun and two of the titles were Alone and Solo. And I was like, oh my God I have to write that book that could be funny.

EL: Well I love the first two lines of the book were, “I put the lo in solo and the alo in alone.” Did that come out of that evening with David Ransom?

AL: Yes exactly. Yeah.

EL: Well when you talk about alone, I feel like it’s a metaphor, being solo it stands for being comfortable in your own skin.

AL: Sure.

EL: And comfortable with being who you are.

AL: Sure absolutely yeah. Thank you. You’re the first person that’s said that.

EL: No that was sort of clear to me because you give the obligatory jokes of how many relationships you’ve had that have broken up and all this, but then when you read the book carefully it’s clear that yes cooking for yourself becomes more of a pleasure and easier thing to do, but you’re not advocating it as a lifestyle.

AL: No. Yeah I think cooking can be self re-affirming. I mean if food is culture and you’re cooking what you like to eat it’s about you. It’s about who you are. So it’s you know food is identity.

EL: Yeah. You wrote this book yourself right?

AL: Yes.

EL: You’re a really good writer.

AL: Oh thank you.

EL: You say, “This book is for urban dwellers who would like to cook a fabulous sophisticated meal for themselves regardless of their circumstance, although I have a soft spot for the depressed, jilted single. So it was also for those who are happiest on their own or those who are part of a fractured family in whatever form. Quite often these days even if we’re not single we are left alone due to our partner’s work/family’s social obligation. The book is also for those who have different taste from their family or partner. Why shouldn’t they eat what they crave.”

So and I thought that was really well put because you know I’m happily married for a long time, but I do eat a lot of meals by myself cause my wife is super active, successful, literary agent and you know has, it’s like I married up and I hang on for dear life. It’s like that’s my motto.

AL: I like that.

EL: But eating solo is not a matter of being unattached. We all are eating more and more meals by ourselves.

AL: It’s interesting that’s there this cultural taboo and I’m not quite sure why.

EL: I think it’s because the culture is so used to thinking that if you’re eating alone you must be unhappy and maladjusted somehow. Don’t you think? I’m not kidding.

AL: Yeah I guess so. But why? I mean the thing is I just can’t imagine that everybody hasn’t had to eat by themselves like a million times.

EL: It’s true, but it’s funny..

AL: Did you not go to college?

EL: But I, I mean I’ve read a lot of food books and cookbooks and this was the first book that made me think about how often I eat alone. And the culture is moving further and further in that direction and of course everyone talks about the importance of the family table and that’s all well and good and true.

AL: True yeah.

EL: But the reality is, even if you have kids, if you have a significant other, you are still gonna be eating more meals alone than not.

AL: Right. Yeah.

EL: What’s the best example you can give our listeners of something in the book that best exemplifies the pleasure and satisfaction you can get from cooking for yourself?

AL: You know I think every person is different in what is pleasurable to them. So I’ve hopefully had a wide range of foods and types of cuisines, etc. in there. There is a duck ragout in there that I actually like only because it uses, it makes a bunch of meals out of something that you normally would just throw away. So it’s just basically you take the duck carcass and then whatever parts that are inside of the cavity, and you make this ragout and you can, and it takes a really long time, but at the end you can freeze you know five little cups of this sauce and then you’ve got something really quick on a weeknight to cook for yourself.

And my partner’s mother makes this really delicious pepper dip. My partner’s father is Lebanese and her mom is not, but she does all the cooking. She makes this puree of, it’s basically just banana peppers, which are a little bit spicy, mixed with feta. It’s just a puree, it’s very, very simple. Just saute the peppers, put the feta together and puree it.

EL: So when you were developing the recipes, is it a different process to develop recipes for one? Just a matter of having volumes? Or does it require a different way of thinking?

AL: It requires a different way of thinking in that you need to, you know when you’re cooking for four, like everything at the grocery store is packaged for you and your family. When you’re cooking for just one person, you have to figure out how to not waste all of that stuff.

EL: Right and you are, by your own admission, and I am inventing this phrase, you’re a waste-aphobe.

AL: Yes.

EL: And you can use it by the way from now on.

AL: Thank you.

EL: You don’t have to give me any attribution. But you’re a waste-aphobe. Talk about that.

AL: If I have you buying a chicken, for example, or a head of cauliflower, there are enough recipes in that book to get rid of that entire chicken or that yeah so it’s… for each if you’re using part of that chicken, on that recipe page there’ll be a little list of where you can find the rest of the recipes.

EL: Got it. Is it safe to say that leftovers are a sort of key to cooking for one?

AL: Yes exactly. I mean I think that’s in general the way people should be cooking. For many different reasons I think it’s better for the planet, it’s better for your wallet, et cetera. But it’s more difficult for the single cook only because of the way grocery stores are set up. There’s ways that, in the book I’ve got tips for shopping. You know if you go to green markets instead of your chain grocery store, if you go to butcher shops instead of your chain grocery store, you’re more likely to be able to purchase ingredients just for one.

EL: Yeah.

AL: But then yeah, there’s also storage tips that will help keep things longer. You know you’re gonna have to use your freezer. Do not be afraid of the freezer. It is key to not wasting things.

EL: Is there one thing that all the recipes have in common? Because they’re all over the map culturally and ethnically, right?

AL: Yes.

EL: Because that’s the way you’ve always cooked.

AL: Well that’s what I how I like to eat. I mean, well you know my cooking was perhaps more creative, this is…

EL: Stripped down.

AL: Well they’re stripped down, but a lot of them are more classic actually. I mean some things aren’t. But like I’ve got Singapore noodles in there. Like I didn’t make that up.

EL: What would you like the takeaway to be for anyone who picks up the book?

AL: Well I hope that people will get back into the kitchen. I think it’s unfortunate that so many people are not cooking anymore. It seems like it’s a dying art.

EL: And particularly if you’re eating alone the idea of cooking the meal instead of assembling or ordering out, seems like a bridge too far.

AL: Yeah and it shouldn’t be. I mean you know there’s all those mail order meal kits things. It’s like why is it so hard to cook, chop a little bit of onion for yourself? I mean it’s just, first of all when you’re cooking for just yourself, it’s there’s so much less prep work.

EL: Right.

AL: So it doesn’t take, I mean most of the recipes in my book are like 30 minutes or less. So yeah, I mean I hope it will get people back into the kitchen because it is healthier when you cook for yourself. You know I hope people will learn to love it.

EL: Did your partner get the wrong idea when you told her you were doing this book? Like are you trying to tell me something Anita?

AL: Oh no not at all. I don’t think so. She’s very understanding.

EL: And it seems to me there’s a spiritual quality to the book. You think that cooking for one is a guide to self love. But I don’t think you go as far as to say that cooking for yourself can be a substitute for psychotherapy.

AL: No. No. We could all use some psychotherapy.

EL: But there’s certainly an implication that it’s helpful to cook for yourself and to feeling good about yourself.

AL: Right. I think it’s, I’ve had a lot of people say to me, that this book made them think about how far they’d go to cook for themselves and why they wouldn’t do that. You know? And so that’s interesting to me. I mean it, we need to take care of ourselves. If you don’t take care of yourself, there’s no way you can take care of other people.

EL: That’s pretty spiritual. So what’s next? Cooking for two? Cooking for a crowd? Cooking for a dozen?

AL: Yeah maybe. Yeah, while I’m talking about it. I’d like to continue to write cookbooks for sure.

EL: So now it’s time for the All You Can Answer Special Sauce Buffet, so I hope you’re ready. I hope you’ve practiced and studied because you’ve very, very difficult questions. So who’s at your last supper? No family allowed.

AL: I would love the Obamas to be there. I would love my partner obviously. I would love the Waltucks to be there.

EL: Okay.

AL: Haruki Murakami that would be really cool.

EL: I like this. You’re the first person that’s ever mentioned Murakami.

AL: Really? My editor is his English language editor.

EL: Really?

AL: And I was like, “Oh my God.” Because I think I’ve read, I’ve read most of his books.

EL: Yeah. That’s good. One more.

AL: And Macy Gray.

EL: Macy Gray? Wow another first. I like this. So what are you eating?

AL: Oh gosh. We’re starting with fantastic sushi. Sashimi and sushi.

EL: Sashimi and sushi?

AL: Yes. It’s omakase and we’re going all night.

EL: So it’s just like sushi and sashimi for hours?

AL: Well no, no, no. We’ll do that and then we’re gonna morph into some cooked foods.

EL: All right, like?

AL: There’s got to be some sweetbreads.

EL: Okay.

AL: There has to be some pasta somewhere in there.

EL: Okay. Vegetables?

AL: Absolutely. Greens.

EL: You gotta have some greens or else we just busted you.

AL: There’s got to be some pea shoots.

EL: Okay. Like sauteed pea shoots with garlic or something?

AL: Yes exactly. Yeah.

EL: All right I like that. Do you have a sweet tooth? Would there be a dessert?

AL: Yeah there has to be dessert. I don’t, you know, I love dessert, but it’s not something that I have to have. But if it’s my last meal I’m getting dessert.

EL: Okay. And what’s it gonna be?

AL: It’s either something with lemon curd or..

EL: Like a tart?

AL: Yeah. Or it’s something with butterscotch.

EL: Ohh. I share your thing for butterscotch. Butterscotch, do you know like Nancy Silverton’s butterscotch budino?

AL: Oh I haven’t had that. I need to have that.

EL: Are you kidding? If I knew that I wouldn’t have let you in here. That budino is major man. It’s delicious. Or I like the places that give you those little pitchers with the hot butterscotch sauce.

AL: Yeah, ahh.

EL: Right like that’s the greatest. That should be at your last supper.

AL: There you go. That with some Maldon sea salt on.

EL: Yeah. So what do you cook when there’s nothing in the house to eat? Like if you got home and your partner wasn’t there and sort of apropos of your book, but like what will always, what can you always find in your cupboard and your fridge?

AL: Pasta.

EL: Pasta?

AL: Yeah. So it could be spaghetti mentaiko.

EL: Which is?

AL: Mentaiko is a salted cod or pollock roe that also has some chile in it.

EL: So and that makes a fine pasta sauce. Right?

AL: Yeah it’s delicious and it’s easy. You just, you know it’s basically just with some butter or some olive oil.

EL: Yeah I like this. And what’s usually in your fridge?

AL: There’s always lemons. There’s always garlic, anchovies. There’s always Parmesan. There’s usually some sort of salad green.

EL: Do you have a guilty pleasure?

AL: Oh yeah. I’ve got a lots of them.

EL: So just give me three if you have a lot. I’d love to hear three.

AL: I have a thing for processed cheese.

EL: Like the little Swiss Knight or American cheese food like in the plastic wrapper?

AL: I love American cheese yeah. I grew up in the Midwest. I love, and it doesn’t make me feel good, but I like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese with the deluxe version with the little squeeze thing. I like that. I like Doritos.

EL: Wow you really are on a roll here.

AL: I mean I like a Big Mac too.

EL: All right. So what’s on your nightstand now book wise?

AL: Ed Lee gave me his book, which is Butter…

EL: Buttermilk Graffiti and we loved having Ed on the Special Sauce.

AL: Oh my God I had no idea.

EL: Oh yeah.

AL: It’s an amazing read.

EL: It’s an amazing, he’s a wonderful writer and a really interesting guy. I really love Ed.

AL: Yeah. What else do I have there? I have a bunch of books that I’m probably never going to read that are..

EL: Those are important. I have a lot of those too.

AL: Yeah. They’re, I aspire to read but it’s just not gonna happen.

EL: You know you can, what leads that list is Middlemarch. Just put it on your nightstand, it’s 800 pages. You’re never gonna read it, but you’re gonna impress your friends.

AL: Right exactly.

EL: Which is really the point of the book.

AL: Well no one’s coming in to my bedroom or my apartment for that matter.

EL: So it’s just been declared Anita Lo Day all over the world. What’s happening on that day?

AL: People are eating. People are eating with abandon.

EL: They’re eating with abandon?

AL: And they’re trying all different kinds of foods that they’ve never had before and they’re liking it.

EL: And nobody has to work, they just have to cook and eat and hang out.

AL: There we go. And they’re traveling.

EL: They’re traveling?

AL: And they’re talking to people and they’re reading.

EL: Cool. So who would you love to have a one on one lunch with just to see how they think?

AL: I would love to have, you know when I was in college my favorite author, subject was Roland Barthes.

EL: Roland Barthes?

AL: Yeah that would be very interesting.

EL: Very erudite of you Anita. Very impressive.

AL: Well it’s been a long time. I probably actually couldn’t keep up now.

EL: I see. All right. Well thank you so much for sharing your Special Sauce with us Anita Lo. It’s great to have you here.

AL: Thank you.

EL: And do pick up a copy of Solo: A Modern Cookbook For a Party of One. It’s a great read and a great cookbook. So long Serious Eaters, we’ll see you next time.