Top | The Culinate Interview
(article, Tina Vasquez)
p(blue). As the first female chef ever to compete on '"Iron — and one of the very few chefs to defeat Iron Chef Mario Batali — chef Anita Lo has developed a foodie fan base. But long before her Iron Chef days (and an appearance on '"Top), Lo was considered a remarkable talent by her peers in the restaurant industry.
p(blue). Lo’s entire life has been spent in the kitchen. As a college student studying French at Columbia University, she spent a summer in Paris and decided to study cooking. Upon graduation, she immediately began working her way up in professional kitchens while also attending Paris’ Ritz-Escoffier school, where she earned a degree in cooking and graduated first in her class with honors.
p(blue). [%image anita float=right width=300 caption="Anita Lo and friend"] Lo would go on to work at two-star Michelin-rated restaurants; to be named one of the 10 “Best New Chefs in America” by Food & Wine magazine; and to open up her own critically acclaimed restaurant, Annisa, serving up contemporary American cuisine with an Asian twist.
p(blue). But in her heart was a desire to tell the story of her multicultural identity through food. For years, Lo kicked around the idea of writing a cookbook that would be representative of her unique upbringing: from her mother’s Malaysian background, her father’s Chinese upbringing, and her stepfather’s German roots to the food she was served as a child by her nannies, women whose dishes were representative of their upbringings in the American South, Mexico, and Eastern Europe.
p(blue). On her path to write what would eventually become Cooking Without Borders, Lo encountered numerous obstacles. Many didn’t understand why a chef who cooked contemporary American food wanted to write a cookbook that aimed to blur the lines between cultures and countries. After years of combating what she refers to as “food prejudice,” Lo finally found an agent and a publisher that were willing to take a chance on her, resulting in the publication of her first cookbook in October 2011.
p(blue). Cooking Without Borders is Lo’s love letter to multiculturalism, featuring recipes for everything from a very humble chicken paprikash to her much-loved Annisa recipe for seared foie gras with foie gras soup dumplings. The beauty of the book lies in Lo’s combination of low and high: simple comfort foods, like her mother’s BBQ spareribs (pork, ketchup, and hoisin sauce), alongside restaurant-quality fare presented in a straightforward manner that won’t intimidate even the most insecure of home cooks.
What was the process of writing Cooking Without Borders like, and who were you writing it for?
On some level, the book took decades to write. I wanted to write the whole thing myself, but I realized I couldn’t do it; I didn’t have the time to do it alone. After partnering up with Charlotte Druckman, the whole thing took about two and a half years.
I knew I wanted to talk about multiculturalism and food prejudice. People don’t know what American cuisine is; it’s very broad, and it celebrates many cultures, but people tend to see it through a Eurocentric lens. Cooking Without Borders was written in a fun and engaging way and it’s definitely for home cooks. Everyone is my audience.
The book features simple recipes, like your mother’s BBQ spareribs, and much more complicated recipes, like the soft-shell crab with sweet corn custard. What were some of the difficulties of adapting restaurant-quality food to the home kitchen?
I took very few shortcuts, if any at all. I know some of the recipes are a bit complicated, but we make it known that substitutions can be made when certain ingredients can’t be found. The idea is to teach people how to cook, not how to follow a recipe. Part of knowing how to cook is knowing when things are interchangeable — that cooking isn’t this rigid thing.
At Annisa, my kitchen is tiny, so I know all of the recipes in the book are doable no matter how large or small your kitchen is. You might not want to make foie gras soup dumplings, but at least you know it’s an option. If you’re clear and concise in your methods, there isn’t anything that you can’t make work in your home kitchen. I’m hoping that those who aren’t very adventurous in the kitchen will find a new recipe they enjoy, and those who are adventurous can pick up some new techniques and flavors.
You’ve always seemed like such a private person, but in your cookbook, you share personal stories about your upbringing, your parents, and your ex-girlfriend/business partner. What made you want to open up and share your life?
It’s funny that you say that, because I’ve never thought of myself as a very private person; I’m just more understated and shy. I’m not a big, larger-than-life personality.
I think the stories I share are very relevant to the focus of the book. Fusion is sort of laughed at now and seen as a negative thing in the food world, but that’s basically my identity; I grew up in a multicultural environment.
When writing the cookbook, someone said to me, "Make sure you include something from your 'culture.'" I don’t have one culture. I’m multicultural, not Chinese. I’m French-trained; I can speak French, not Mandarin. I felt like there were a lot of assumptions about me that the book could clarify.
The things I know about Chinese cooking I’ve learned doing research after getting so many media questions about Chinese cooking. It’s disheartening, but partly my fault, because I made the mistake of opening a Chinese restaurant in the 1990s. In many ways, I was just giving people what I felt like they wanted. I’m not shunning my Asian heritage; there are just many parts that make up my whole.
I read that when kicking around the idea of a cookbook, many wanted you to write an Asian cookbook. Was it frustrating to you that so many assumed you’d go that route?
Truthfully, getting this book published was a painful process. I was turned down by agencies and publishers, and it felt like no one would take me. No one really understood the concept and I actually had one agent say, “You can’t write this cookbook; you’re not Thomas Keller.” I’m not trying to be; I just want these recipes out there.
I had some people ask me to write a cookbook about Asian street food. I don’t know anything about Asian street food! There’s a lot of prejudice out there, so I was very lucky to find my agent and publisher. They believed in the book and it wasn’t an easy process, but we got it done.
Why do you think it was so difficult for people to understand the concept behind the book?
It seemed like no one understood that contemporary American cuisine is the haute cuisine of this country. It’s a personal cuisine, and its basis is the many immigrants who live in the U.S. The best contemporary food draws from different cultures and it’s being made in urban areas. Chef Tom Colicchio is probably one of the most recognized chefs doing contemporary American cuisine, but he takes a very Western approach. It’s a large genre, but this is a large country, and I’d like to see this category expand, rather than continue to be truncated.
What are your favorite recipes from Cooking Without Borders, and what about them appeals to you?
I feel the strongest towards the dishes that I cook most often because they’re comforting to me. I cook my mother’s steamed fish all the time. My nanny’s paprikash (Aunt Beth's Chicken Paprikash) is emotional for me. Some recipes I feel are more geared towards entertaining than everyday cooking at home.
Food means a lot to me, and not just because I’m a chef. I’ve always believed food is about stories and memory, especially when recreating something. To me, the most interesting thing is seeing what others bring to a dish. I may see Southeast Asia, while someone else sees Greece. Experiences shape our perceptions of food in the most interesting ways.
How do you think American home cooking has shifted over the years?
Food television changed a lot. To some kids out there, what we do in kitchens is interesting. And I think generally, people have gotten more sophisticated in their tastes. You can buy kimchi in everyday grocery stores now. There was a time when a lot of people didn’t even know what sushi was, and now you can find that in grocery stores. So many different cuisines are now accessible to the American public, and I think it’s a great thing.
You specialize in contemporary American cuisine, but you had a multicultural upbringing and classic French training. What do you think affected your cooking style the most?
I don’t think there is one big influence; everything affected my cooking style, and I get inspiration from everywhere, from dishwashers who share recipes to the food I encounter on my travels. It all plays a part.
p(bio). Tina Vasquez is a hardcore home cook in Los Angeles. After years as a closeted food nerd, she now writes about cooking and food regularly for websites, magazines, and local newspapers.