Anita Lo spent years cooking ahead of the curve, often heartbreakingly so. Her first experience opening a restaurant was a Korean behemoth in the mid-’90s, that tidy time when ring-molded food skyscrapers were the rage and fermentation was a health inspector’s nightmare, not the hipster holy grail. It lasted two years. She ventured into Asian-tinged BBQ two years before Zak Pelaccio hit with Fatty ‘Cue—her Bar Q closed after ten months, pushed over the brink by the 2009 recession. And as the child of a Malaysian-Chinese-Southern-New England household in suburban Michigan, she lived fusion before the word existed outside the world of nuclear physics. “We traveled a lot, ever since I was tiny,” she says. “Even then I saw the parallels between Indonesian and Malaysian [food], Chinese and Malaysian, even some of the ingredients in Southern cuisine and Asian cuisines.”
Today, her motto is more “No New Friends” than Manifest Destiny. She’s slashed her commitments down to one: Annisa, the restaurant she has owned for 13 years, that she pulled from the ashes of a devastating electrical fire, that she held on to through a breakup with her business partner and nursed through the period when fine dining was the first line slashed from everyone’s budget. There she has built herself the space to relax, to write (her first cookbook, Cooking Without Borders, was published in 2011), to spend time at a summer house on Long Island and work on potential new dishes. “I’m not that prolific. I sit and think, I sit and work things out and then try it,” she says.
Set that claim against her successes on pretty much all of the quick-fire cooking shows (she was the first challenger to win on Iron Chef America and came in fourth on the first season of Top Chef Masters) and something doesn’t add up. Turns out that what she lacks in off-the-cuff inventiveness, she makes up for with a steel-trap memory and a mastery of dissecting dishes to their component parts, as well as repurposing ideas over and over in endless combinations. One single plate can contain a dozen different narratives, from a vestige of her classic French training to a friend’s go-to party recipe from 30 years ago.
That’s why Annisa’s menu reads like a schizophrenic flight itinerary, somehow making sense of dishes like squid with Thai basil and peanuts, and eggplant with Turkish chilies. And it’s why Lo has settled for the term “Contemporary American” to describe her cuisine, which can mean nothing and anything all at once. Then again, most new restaurants are trying to find their own way to define the intersection of cuisines these days—the curve may have finally caught up with her.
Here, Lo reveals some of the dishes that have stuck with her over the years and reflects on how they fuel her today, from her mother’s home cooking to a tribute to her “restaurant parents” at New York City icon Chanterelle.