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Anita Lo on Annisa's Third Star and Cherry Bombe Jubilee

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Photo: Eater NY

Earlier this month, New York Times critic Pete Wells bestowed a third star upon Anita Lo's 14-year-old restaurant Annisa. The upgrade was a delight of the Greenwich Village stalwart's many fans, and a bit of a surprise since it's just been a few years since Wells' predecessor Sam Sifton gave Annisa two stars. In the following interview, Lo discusses the importance of earning that third star, even after having given up on getting it after Sifton's review. She also talks about why she's participating in Cherry Bombe magazine's inaugural Jubilee conference on women in food. (Also don't miss Eater's "60 Second Tasting Menu" video from earlier this month.) Here now, the interview:

Congrats on getting three stars. Did you see the new review coming?
No. We had an inkling that they were going to re-review us, but we actually missed him. I don't know how we missed him, but we missed him.

Was it a complete surprise, then?
Oh, yeah, when they called to tell us that they were coming to take pictures, I was like, "Oh, damn. Are you kidding me? Oh, shit." And then we were were like, okay, since Sam Sifton reviewed us two and a half, three years prior, there's no way they're going to re-review us and give us the same rating. That wouldn't make any sense. So either they're bringing us up, or they're bringing us down.

Were you more on the optimistic side?
After speaking to them, I was on the optimistic side, but there's always that feeling like you just don't know. We really try never to have bad days, but we're human, and we have bad days sometimes.

Can you tell me what it was like for you the day that the review came out?

I was having trouble breathing when the review came out.

Yeah, I was having a little bit of trouble breathing. My publicists were refreshing the website every five minutes. We were just all reminiscing about the days when you'd go up to the Times building around 11:00 the night before and go get the paper. The whole ceremony of that was kind of fun, you know? And actually, what was really sweet was that my cookbook author, Charlotte Druckman, was the first to let me know. I was thinking it was going to be my publicist, and it was Charlotte.

What did she tell you?
She had tweeted it, actually, and that showed up on my phone. That was the first notice that I got.

Oh, that's perfect.
Yeah, that was nice.

Did you get any hint of why Pete Wells did the re-review now?
I think [New York Times writer] Jeff Gordinier had done that column with various chefs about going back to the foods of their youth. I had a piece with him where we went out to Flushing and had some Shanghainese food [because] my father was from Shanghai. [Gordinier] had come in for dinner the week prior to that, just to do his due diligence, and he said had an amazing meal. He said something like, "You guys deserve more." I don't think it was that direct, but it was something to that effect where he was like, "You guys should be re-reviewed."

I feel like a lot of people have been saying that over the years. Is that something you hoped for since the last one?
On the last one, I was working really hard to get a third star, and we missed it. So I was like, "Okay, that's fine. We're busy. I don't need a third star, that's fine." And I moved on.

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Annisa, New York City. [Photo: Julie Dentities]

Obviously, the critics changed at the New York Times, but do you think that there's anything that changed at the restaurant between the two- and the three-star review?
No, actually, not at all. It's hard for me to say because I'm in the back. As far as I can see — I have a really tiny kitchen, so I really do see everything — I think we've been consistent. The vision hasn't changed. The menu changes all the time, but we work on each dish to make sure that it's up to snuff before we actually put it on the menu. And then our front of the house has pretty much had the same people over the years. We've had a little bit of turnover, but not much. As far as our waiters are concerned, at least.

So this is just kind of more of a course-correction from the two-star review?
Oh, I'm not saying that I deserved three stars back then. I don't see that there was that much difference, but I wasn't in the dining room.

And obviously, you guys already so well established, but I'm curious as the extra star has already changed anything for you. Have you gotten busier or is it pretty stable?
What was interesting is that people bought a lot of wine pairings, which they never have before, at least on Valentine's Day. And certainly, we've seen a bump in business, which is great, especially with all this weather.

Switching gears, I saw today the word that you're going to be one of the participants in Cherry Bombe's Jubilee. Why did you decide to get involved with that?

It's really important that women try to do something about the inequities in this industry.

I think it's really important that women organize and try to do something about the inequities in this industry. I'm not quite sure what I'm doing for that event, but I'd like to be involved. As you know, I've always been vocal about supporting women in the industry. So, yeah, it makes a lot of sense. I think it's time for us, I'm not quite sure what we need to do, but something. It's great that there's a bit of focus on it right now.

Do you have specific topics that you're interested in addressing in that kind of forum?
Yeah, there's so many topics, it's such a complicated issue. I really do think that the only way to change it is for everyone to be looking at how they answer the problem. I think it's going to take women, it's going to take men, really, it's going to take everybody. How we view gender, how we raise our kids, how we see each other in the media, I don't know. There's so many different facets to this, and I think it all needs to be addressed. So that's hard for me to say.

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Annisa, New York City. [Photo: Facebook]

What do you think a little more generally about the circuit of food festivals and conferences? Are they useful to chefs? I know we've seen that, generally, women are not as proportionally featured in them.
Oh, yeah, as I said in the New York Times "Room for Debate" piece, I think it's about access. I think maybe we need to create our own [festival] at this point, but yeah, of course, I find it really helpful to travel and to meet other chefs, and to talk to other people about food and see what they're doing. That can be very inspiring on many levels, even just going to a new city and seeing how people eat there is inspiring.

You said that it seems like maybe women need to create their own at this point. You're so well-established, do you still have trouble getting invites to some of these global gastronomic festivals? Is this something where women should be forcing their way on to those stages?
I don't know. Are men forcing their way on to this? These are questions that really need to be asked, and no, I don't know why that's happening. Is it us? I'm sure it's everything. I think it's women not asking to be part of things, I think it might be men just not, the organizers not thinking that terms. As evidenced by Gods of Food. I don't know. I think it's unfortunate, but I think pointing the finger isn't always the answer. I think it's asking the question, really, more than pointing the finger. Talking about it.

That seems to be what Cherry Bombe Jubilee is going to be about, I guess, raising the questions, as much as it is about solutions.

If you don't talk about gender, you're not going to effect any change.

Yeah. I totally understand why a lot of women don't want to be part of these all-women conferences, because that sort of adds to the problem of the woman chef. It sets us apart. But at the same time, if you don't talk about it, you're not going to effect any sort of change. Because you don't ask the question. And you have to ask the question in front of everybody. And, more than that, everyone has to ask the question of themselves. Because it's perception. Every image you see of your gender, you have to ask that question. That was a big part of my education, and it's interesting that it hasn't been a part of everybody's education, you know? Things change slowly, but things will change.

· All Anita Lo Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· 60 Second Tasting Menu: Annisa, Winter 2014 [-ENY-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-]

Annisa

13 Barrow Street, New York

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