Anita Lo ’84 speaks at Concord Academy about cooking for a state dinner at the White House.
Chef Anita Lo ’84 studied at the Ecole Ritz-Escoffier in Paris, but wearing a toque in the kitchen isn’t her style. So when the alumna returned to Concord Academy as the 2020 Centennial Hall Fellow on January 23, in tribute to her head covering of choice, chameleon bandanas were distributed to CA students, faculty, and staff as they entered the Performing Arts Center to listen to her life story.
Lo has earned a host of accolades, appearing on such shows as Top Chef Masters, Iron Chef, and Chopped. She was the first female guest chef to cook for a state dinner at the White House, during the Obama administration. Annisa, her New York City Michelin-starred restaurant of 17 years, earned a prestigious three stars from the New York Times. In her talk at CA, though, Lo didn’t focus on recognition. She spoke instead of a series of ups and downs, addressing childhood traumas, and creating communities where people can belong as they are.
Anita Lo ’84 speaks with students in Nick Hiebert’s literature class at CA.
Lo delivers the 2020 Centennial Hall Fellow Lecture in the P.A.C.
The 2020 Hall Fellow Lecture
Lo’s entry into Concord Academy as a sophomore was difficult. “I was a bundle of rebellion,” Lo said, telling her story in the P.A.C. At her stepfather’s insistence, she had been forced to leave her mother’s house. “That traumatic event turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me,” she said.
Lo grew up in Birmingham, Mich. She was taunted, one of only two Asian American students at her school. It’s where she first developed a sense of food as identity: Highly processed junk food and candy were a form of social capital, and the contents of her lunch box stood out. She described coming to CA, where diversity mattered and students were trusted, as “a breath of fresh air.” Her orientation included a clambake, which stirred memories of family trips to Cape Cod and made her feel she had come home. “Food is culture and identity,” Lo said. “Food is a text you can read.”
At CA, as a coping mechanism, she became a class clown. Though she was a good student, at one point she found herself in danger of failing a class. She also found support. “You could be who you were, and you were accepted and you were helped and nurtured,” Lo said. “That is incredible, and it was a lifelong lesson that I learned and applied later in life.”
At Columbia, she and her girlfriend were closeted, a situation Lo described as “crushing.” (Her time at CA preceded the establishment of the GSA, one of the very first high school Gay-Straight Alliances.) She credits therapy with helping after their difficult breakup.
A French major, Lo went to Reid Hall, Columbia’s campus in Paris, a city she loved and vowed to return to the following year. Her sister lived there at the time and had taken a cooking class at La Varenne. “I loved everything about cooking,” Lo said. “I loved shopping, I loved the prepping. It was tactile, that immediate satisfaction of being able to eat it, and French culture is just so food-focused.”
So Lo took four weeklong cooking classes herself and discovered she was good at it — good enough to land her a job after she graduated as garde-manger in a French restaurant, Bouley, in New York. She described that summer of 1988 in decidedly mixed terms. One of only three women in the entire restaurant, she faced harassment. During a record-setting heatwave, the temperature soared to 105 degrees on the line, and every night she’d arrive home sick from the heat. “But we had steamer clams!” Lo said, her tone brightening. “And we had these little tiny scallops that were so fresh that when you cut into them, they’d be moving around the sides.” The food itself held meaning for her.
Lo’s cauliflower chaat dish, which she prepared for the CA community.
Lo talks through her cauliflower chaat recipe.
“The restaurant business chooses you; you don’t really choose it,” Lo said. “It can be incredibly rewarding, but you have to be obsessed.” She had passion and tenacity. She also had financial support to keep her going in a business that earned her less than minimum wage.
Soon Lo returned to Paris, a degree in her sights. After being fired from her first internship, she attended the Escoffier and graduated first in her class with honors.
Lo traveled in Asia. Having grown up in a multicultural household, a first-generation Chinese American, she had spent much of her early life distancing herself from her Asian identity. Now she leaned into it, and when she returned to America, Asian fusion was on-trend.
Lo landed a job at a French-Vietnamese restaurant in Soho called Can. “Nobody in their right mind takes an executive chef job when they haven’t been a sous chef,” she said. But she jumped at the chance and dove into study. She ended up uniting the disparate halves of the menu, creating dishes that were both French and Vietnamese.
She later became the executive chef at New York’s Maxim’s, before trying for a sous chef role at a legendary institution, Lutèce. When the owner refused her after trying her tasting menu, she became deeply depressed. It was dinner with her mother at a kaiseki restaurant — a Japanese presentation of pristine ingredients at the peak of freshness or, as Lo called it, “contemplation in a meal” — that turned things around. “That dinner saved my life,” Lo said. It reignited her passion for cooking.
In her next position, the owners weren’t happy despite good reviews. Lo decided she needed her own restaurant for full creative control.
Following another year of travel in Europe and Asia, in 2000, Lo and her girlfriend Jennifer opened Annisa. (The name means “women” in Arabic.) In her own contemporary American restaurant, Lo could bring in any multicultural influence she wanted, and Annisa’s 100-bottle wine list celebrated women winemakers.
“We were there to celebrate diversity,” she said. “I was trying to present food that would reflect cultural relativity, that no one culture is better than another.” She wanted Americans to try dishes and ingredients that might seem foreign, and to like them.
Similarly, she wanted to make Annisa “a place where everyone was respected,” she said. “That was like Concord Academy — that’s what I based it on. I wanted people to feel like they were heard and respected and that they could come to me and tell me their grievances and we could work it out.”
Her crowning achievement, Lo said, wasn’t the New York Times review that remarked on the diversity of her clientele and told her that her diversity mission had succeeded. It came after a fire shuttered Annisa for nine months, casting its return in doubt several times, when every one of her employees returned to help the restaurant reopen. That was what meant the most to her, she said, that she had “created a place that people would believe in enough to come back like that.”
The restaurant business is about “creating a community,” Lo said. “You create an ethos, and that’s much bigger than you are.”
Anita Lo ’84 leads a cooking experience for fellow CA alumnae/i at The KITCHEN at the Boston Public Market.
Other Centennial Hall Fellow Events
The evening prior to her visit to campus, Lo joined fellow CA alumnae/i at The KITCHEN at the Boston Public Market for a cooking experience and book signing, as she will with more CA community members in New York in February and Chicago in April.
While at CA, she also visited two classes — Claire Nelson’s U.S. history course on immigration and nativism and Nick Niebert’s English literature course exploring how national, cultural, regional, and personal identities relate to how we feel at home. In CA’s kitchen, Lo met with Sodexo staff members as they prepared samples of her cauliflower chaat. Students and faculty then had an opportunity to chat with Lo over a delicious plant-based lunch. Following her talk, a line of students waiting for her to sign their new copies of her latest cookbook, Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One, filled the dining room.
At the luncheon, Lo described herself at a turning point in her life, after closing Annisa two years ago. She is helping to host culinary tours with an organization called Tour de Forks. Staying in a 17th-century hacienda in the Yucatán, cooking with the produce of an organic farm in Portugal, or fishing and foraging in Norway, she travels with small groups, bringing them to local markets and teaching classes focused on the culinary influences from the region.
Asked if any individuals had helped her surmount obstacles, Lo mentioned the Waltucks at Chanterelle. “They advised me never to open my own restaurant,” she said, “and I didn’t listen! But that’s what I tell all my cooks too, and if they don’t listen, it means they have that drive, that nothing else will do for them. And that’s a good thing.”
Anita Lo ’84 meets with the Sodexo staff at CA.
Lo tastes the sauce for one of her recipes in the CA kitchen.
Lo speaks with students and faculty in the William M. Bailey Commons.
Students line up to have Lo sign copies of her latest cookbook.
The Hall Fellow Endowed Lectureship
For more than 50 years, the Hall Fellow Endowed Lectureship has brought distinguished individuals to Concord Academy to share their work and wisdom with the CA community. It was named for Elizabeth B. Hall, CA’s headmistress from 1949 through 1963, and established by the Concord Academy Board of Trustees in 1963 to honor her tenure.