By Michael D. Minichiello
This month’s West Village Original is chef and cookbook author Anita Lo, born in Detroit in 1965. From 2000–17, Lo owned the Michelin-starred restaurant Annisa on Barrow Street. She has appeared on Top Chef Masters, Iron Chef America, and Chopped; in 2015, she became the first female guest chef to cook at the White House. She is the author of the cookbook “Solo,” and is also leading culinary tours through an outfit called Tour de Forks. Lo lives on Barrow Street.
When chef Anita Lo moved to New York City to attend Columbia University, it was to major in French literature. “But what are you going to do with a degree in that?” she asks, laughing. “When I continued my French studies at Columbia’s campus in Paris I fell in love with the country. French culture is very food-focused as well, so I ended up taking some cooking classes at a place called La Varenne. And this time I also fell in love with cooking. I did finish my degree but when I returned to New York I went to work in several restaurants, including Chanterelle and Bouley.”
“Cooking provides a sort of semi-immediate satisfaction and I’ve always liked to work with my hands,” she continues. “I think the life style suited me as well because I’ve never been a morning person. Lastly, I was not a very gender-conforming youth so going into corporate America wouldn’t have been a good fit for me. No way.” As for a particular cuisine, she claims to like it all. “My restaurant Annisa was contemporary American,” Lo says. “And as befits this vast country we live in it was a multi-cultural cuisine. But my technique is French and upon that I can build flavors from all over the world.”
In 2000, Lo and her business partner opened Annisa on Barrow Street. What did she like best about owning a restaurant? “Following my dream and working with food,” Lo says. “Making people happy was one of the good parts. It was a privilege to come up with a dish that I was proud of and have people appreciate it. And being able to have a team that worked so well together. After we had the fire in 2009, the restaurant was closed for nine months. People always ask me what my crowning career moment was, thinking I might say cooking for 250 people at the Obama White House. But for me it was when we reopened the restaurant. My entire staff came back with me. It was kind of amazing.”
Would Lo ever open another restaurant? “No, not at all,” she replies. “I’ve done it. Real estate has gotten ridiculous in the West Village and taxes went way up for me. In addition, no cook can actually afford to live here, so its become difficult to hire staff. There’s nothing more stressful than that. Our concept for Annisa was less expensive fine dining and we couldn’t make that affordable anymore. We were getting squeezed from all sides and I was burnt out.”
Since closing the restaurant Lo has been busy, not least with the publication of her cookbook “Solo”, a play on both her last name and cooking for one. “I was talking with a friend about cookbook titles and ‘solo’ came up. I thought, ‘I have to write that!’ It could be easy and funny, and we could poke fun at how people see eating alone. The reaction to the book has been great.” In addition, Lo has been running culinary tours both nationally and internationally. “I work with an outfit called Tour de Forks. The groups are small, and I usually teach a cooking class at the end of it. The class is about my take on the cuisine of the country we happen to be in.”
Lo bought her walk-up apartment on Barrow Street at the bottom of the market in the 90s. After a recent knee replacement made it difficult to climb stairs, she looked into getting another place around here. “Well, prices have exploded, and it didn’t take me long to realize, ‘Nope, my apartment is going to be just fine for the rest of my life!’” she says, laughing. “Luckily, I do feel like it’s the best neighborhood to be in. It is a village. I know everyone who lives here. And it’s also a great restaurant neighborhood, so for me it’s about discovery; to see what other people are doing in their kitchens. As a cook, I’m definitely inspired by others as well. I love eating at home, but there’s nothing better than eating out. I don’t think I could ever have owned a restaurant if I didn’t like eating out.”