Name: Anita Lo
Why she’s fierce: In the hyper-competitive, male-dominated world of New York City fine dining, Lo is among the few successful women owners. Her Greenwich Village restaurant, Annisa, has not only survived, but thrived for 12 years in this fickle scene. She is one of only 10 female chefs in the United States to earn a coveted Michelin Star. In 2001, she was named by Food & Wine magazine as one of 10 “Best New Chefs in America.”
The year 2009 was not a banner year for Lo. Not only did she have to close her Asian barbecue restaurant Bar Q, but a fire at her financially successful Annisa forced her to close down for nine months. The measure of an entrepreneur cannot be based on the size or frequency of failure—because then there probably wouldn’t be any successful entrepreneurs—but on how she bounces back. And Lo struck back, hard. The naturally shy and reserved chef pulled herself back up and signed on to compete as the first female chef on TV’s Top Chef Masters. And it paid off in spades.
In her own words:
Daria Meoli: Why did you want to make the transition from a chef to a chef/owner and open your own restaurant?
Anita Lo: It really was about having full creative freedom. I had been the chef of a French Vietnamese restaurant, which was natural for me because I was French trained. I didn’t know that much about Vietnamese cuisine aside from eating it. While it spoke to me, it was also was limiting. Then I was the chef of a Pan-Asian spot where the owners were supportive, but they had their own ideas about what the food should be. I just wanted to be able to do my own thing.
DM: You remain very hands-on in the kitchen, but still run the business. What growing pains did you experience when you added “owner” to your title?
AL: On the management side, it does become a little more painful when you’re the only owner. Two years ago, I bought out my partner. It’s hard because you’re constantly under scrutiny, which can be really difficult and painful. At the end of the day you’re just a human being trying your best.
DM: Did you face any specific challenges because you are a woman owner?
AL: [Most women] are not raised to stand our ground and ask for money. I think all of that is harder for women. I also have an inkling that money isn’t being thrown at female chefs at the same rate that it’s being thrown at male chefs of the same caliber. On the other side of that, I’ve gotten a lot of attention from being one of a few women chef/owners in fine dining.
DM: You achieved a level of celebrity through your appearances on Bravo network’s Top Chef Masters (2009) and Food Network’s Iron Chef (2005, on which she defeated fellow New York City chef Mario Batali). What was your motivation behind doing those shows?
AL: It was about marketing. Those appearances saved the business. We were dying. We were really busy when we opened (2000), but had been getting slower and slower. Then when I did Iron Chef it brought everything back. We were busy again. A few years later, I was on Top Chef Masters for a season and it aired two weeks after the fire happened at Annisa. I was like, “Shit, I did this show and we’re going to miss the boat.” But we didn’t. After we reopened, so many people came in from Top Chef. Still, every single night we get people coming to us who saw me on Top Chef. It first aired a couple years ago and I still get stopped on the street now.
I’m a shy human being and television does not come naturally to me. I’m not a bubbly personality and it takes a lot for me to get up that kind of energy that you need to come off well on television. On some level, it is a skill that is interesting for me to work at and it’s an important skill.
DM: Since you’ve bounced back, how have your goals changed?
AL: That’s an interesting question because my goals really changed this past year. In 2008, I tried to expand the business; I opened Bar Q and that was several months before Lehman Brothers fell. At that point, my goal was to have several restaurants and oversee them. We were doing really well and we got two stars from The New York Times. I made some serious mistakes and we just couldn’t sustain the blow [from the economic recession]. We had to close it. But this year I decided I really have to learn to let go. I have to get to some sort of quality of life. Before, it was more of an issue of me needing to have another income to be able to retire. Annisa is doing really well, so if the restaurant does well enough I might be able to retire on just this. I still may have to open something else but, do I want another one? I just want quality of life.
Daria Meoli is the Executive Editor at The New York Enterprise Report. She can be reached at email@example.com