ACF Chef Profile: Anita Lo

ACF Chef Profile: Anita Lo

By John Bartimole

With her family’s emphasis on food, culture and diversity, Chef Anita Lo embarked on her culinary journey at a young age. Today, that journey shows no signs of stopping.

The ingredients to foster a passion for cooking appeared early and often in Chef Lo’s life: a family’s love of food; its inherent multicultural diversity; a yen for traveling and exploring; and the introduction of people of various ethnic backgrounds to the family.

Chef Lo says she grew up “in a food- obsessed family.” And that obsession led her down a path in which food remained not only an important fixture in her life — it became her profession and helped her to become a successful chef, restaurateur and entrepreneur.

“I grew up in a very multicultural family,” she says. “My mom was from Malaysia, but she was Chinese. My dad was from Shanghai; my stepfather had

strong New England roots. I had nannies who were Hungarian and African American, so it was a very diverse upbringing. “We did a lot of traveling as a family,” she says. “Food was one of the important ways we used to experience culture.”

While those early experiences imbued in Chef Lo a love of various cuisines, it wasn’t until she went to college at New York City’s Columbia University that she really began plying her cooking skills. “Really, my cooking career began when I started in college,” she says. “And cooking was a natural extension of my background and my love of crafts. I always enjoyed working with my hands, and cooking certainly requires you to do that.”

Chef Lo majored in French literature in college but realized she needed a different option for her career path. “I mean, what was I going to do with that major? Work at the UN?” she says with a laugh. That choice of majors was still serendipitous, leading her to studying at Reid Hall, Columbia’s French language institute

in Paris. And that’s where she fell in love with the food and culture of the French people. “While there, I enrolled in Ecole Ritz Escoffier, a storied French culinary institution, and also went to work in a French restaurant, and my love for French food continued to grow,” she says.

Back in the States, following stints in New York City at David Waltuck’s Chanterelle and at Mirezi, where she earned a two-star review from the New York Times, Chef Lo opened her own concept, Annisa (which means women in Arabic). The intimate restaurant earned Chef Lo another two-star review from the New York Times, and Food and Wine magazine named her one of the “Best New Chefs in America” in 2001. IMG_0008

Chef Lo is aware of the importance of her presence in what has traditionally been a male-dominated career. “I do think representation is important,” she says. “I believe seeing women owning their own restaurants is actually very important to the next generation. We’ve had a lot of women come through my kitchen, and it’s gratifying.

“Unfortunately sometimes women are still being harassed in our industry,” she says. “Once I made a little bit of a name for myself, people — especially women — started coming to me. It’s crucial for people to know that women can succeed in this business.”

Chef Lo is also keenly aware of her role as a mentor to those who work with her. “As a chef, I always wanted to nurture as a leader, rather than to yell,” she says. “Though,” she adds, “I’ve had my moments!”

She’s learned, however, that a better way of leading is to teach people why things need to be done a certain way. “By doing that, people want to work and stay with you because they are being educated, respected and mentored,” she says.

Chef Lo remains proud of the longtime tenures of many of her restaurant staff (she closed Annisa in 2017 following a difficult knee replacement, which curtailed her ability to stand for long stretches of time). “For example, I had one chef stay with me for eight years, others four to five years. Those and others were and still are part of my restaurant family.”

Chef Lo now works with Tour de Forks, an organization that sponsors destination-based culinary trips that allow participants to visit and observe with local providers and top-level chefs to experience and enjoy the food and culture of the region.

She also appears on various cooking shows and publishes cookbooks. Her second book, “Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One,” grew out of her personal need to often cook for just herself — and to show readers how to combat waste that often results when preparing for just one person.

The elimination of waste will be one of her key points during her presentation at the 2022 ACF National Convention. “Back in the day, when I was being taught, we threw away a lot of food, and it was really shocking,” she says. “Now, we try to use everything. If we use just the florets of the cauliflower, we save the stems and core and puree
it to use later. If we have good scraps of fish, we save those and eventually, you have enough to make a nice bouillabaisse. It’s about honoring and respecting the food, the people who grew it and those who transported it.”

This article was originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of National Culinary Review. Download the full issue.