Since 2000, Anita Lo has run Annisa, a fine-dining restaurant in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, where, except for a fire that closed it from June 2009 to April 2010, she and her team have turned out food widely praised for its elegance and creativity.
During the forced hiatus, Lo developed a television career, appearing on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters” and elsewhere. At a recent party launching the James Beard Foundation’s Taste America series, Lo discussed her restaurant, her cookbook, and the challenges of running a no-tipping restaurant.
You did away with tipping at Annisa at the beginning of the year. How is that going?
Eh. I mean, I’m not going to go back [to tipping], but I don’t think people get it yet. We haven’t had any people who have said they hate it or anything like that. That hasn’t been a problem, and we’ve been very fortunate in our online reviews, but even the media doesn’t get it. The menu looks expensive, but it’s not that much more expensive unless you weren’t going to give a 20-percent tip.
I ate at Annisa in March and looked at the prices and thought, “Whoa!” But then I saw at the bottom of the menu that you’d done away with tipping.
We did raise our prices a little bit, because the back of the house really needs [a raise]. I mean, everyone deserves to make a lot of money, and my front of the house is very important to me, and they all do a great job. But especially in a fine-dining restaurant like Annisa, [servers] are making three and a half to sometimes five times as much as the back of the house.
Right, but you don’t want them to abandon you, so you have to raise prices to compensate the cooks.
It’s ridiculous. But as much as people know that we’ve got no tipping, we’ve lost some cover counts because of it.
Have average checks come down at all?
No, we just have about 20 percent fewer people coming in. I would think it’s because of the pricing, but you never know.
But you’re going to power through it?
Or not. We’ll see [laughs].
You’re participating in the James Beard Foundation’s Taste America series. Tell me about that.
There’s a bunch of chefs that are going to different areas of the country to cook a meal with another chef from that area. So I’m going to San Francisco in November to cook with Charles Phan [of Slanted Door].
Do you two collaborate on the menu?
Well, a little bit. I don’t think we’re working on food together, but I’m doing two courses and he’s doing two courses at the Intercontinental Hotel. So it should be fun, and it benefits the James Beard Foundation. They’ll be giving scholarships for kids to put toward their culinary careers in each city.
I love doing [things like] that. It’s inspiring. It’s good for the restaurant, it’s good for creativity. And I love San Francisco. There are so many restaurants there. My mother was from San Francisco. I spend a good amount of time there, but there are still a lot of really key restaurants that I need to try. So I’ll be doing a little R&D.
Besides Annisa, are you working on anything else?
I am working on my second cookbook right now. It’s “Cooking for One.” It’s going to be published by Knopf. We’re not quite sure when it’s coming out, but I should be finishing the first draft in the next couple of weeks. It’s going to be mostly really easy recipes, mostly 30 minutes or less, calibrated for one person, so there’s not a lot of waste.
What’s new on the menu at Annisa?
My chef de cuisine, Mary Attea, is killing it there. Her stuff is amazing. She’s got a new tomato dish on today. It is various different kinds of tomatoes: Some are roasted, there’s a deep-fried one with the skin coming off, and then some raw ones. And there’s a little bit of Turkish eggplant which is not cooked; it’s just marinated and tastes a little bit like melon. It’s really, really bright orange — little and gorgeous. She made a burnt eggplant sauce, and there’s some micro amaranth greens and puffed amaranth seeds, and then there’s some dehydrated olives. She’s half Lebanese, so she brought some of that [influence] in.
I tasted some Korean flavors the last time I was there, like gochujang.
That was probably the mackerel.
I went to cooking school in Korea for a week.
That’s a good introduction to the cuisine.
And gochujang is super trendy these days, although you’ve probably been using it for a while.
Are there any other trendy ingredients on your radar?
We’re using caper leaves, which are pickled like capers. We have a couple of South American cooks, and we’ve been working with yuca lately. A fried piece of yuca’s delicious, and we’ve got a little plantain sauce on it with coconut milk and garlic.
But we don’t really cook according to trends.
It seems like food trends are often driven by purveyors.
Yeah. I think they end up presenting something to everybody, and then everyone’s like, “Oh, this is cool,” and we all end up using it.