Before opening her acclaimed New York City restaurant Annisa in 2000, chef Anita Lo spent a year traveling through Southeast Asia and Mediterranean Europe in search of the “perfect meal.” One full year of traveling to eat and research and eat more. And all before Instagram. So, more time to eat! It’s a dream scenario for many, and Lo is the first to say how fortunate she’s been. But it was also serious business, with every moment spent combing the markets and local restaurants for inspiration. The move clearly paid off and now, nearly 15 years after opening, the restaurant has received its highest praise yet with three stars being recently awarded by the New York Times.
The bulk of the critic’s praise is rooted in the idea of “cooking without borders”— which is also the name of the cookbook Lo wrote in 2011. “It’s still not easy to say what Ms. Lo’s style is, but it is hers, and hers alone, and the city is a more exciting place for it,” writes Pete Wells in the closing lines. And, indeed, with a menu jumps from Hong Kong, Japan and Vietnam to the Middle East to parts of Oceana, it can be tricky to put Lo in a culinary box. This all comes from exhaustive, sometimes obsessive, food travel. And as our interview shows, Lo is really just getting started.
Where are you planning to traveling in 2014?
I’m going to Australia to visit some cattle and sheep farms as well as to see the restaurant scene in Sydney with Meat and Livestock Australia in the late summer. In the fall, I’m hoping to make a trip to Emilia Romagna to go truffle hunting, fishing and to see the production of the many famous ingredients that come from there.
If you could travel anywhere (else), and had infinite resources, where would you go in 2014?
I’d like to visit Japan more in depth. I’ve been to Tokyo several times, but I’d like to see Kyoto and the countryside — I’d like to visit the various islands, go fishing and research regional differences in cuisine.
How much does food/drink have to do, if at all, with your travel plans for 2014?
I’m fairly monomaniacal. Food and drink are always the focus of my travel plans. Even when I was a kid, my family would take us places sometimes just to eat at a little restaurant, or experience a different cuisine.
What was your most memorable trip from the past few years?
I’ve been lucky. There have been so many. But I’d say my trip to Cuba was the most memorable. I was sent there along with nine other American chef “ambassadors” to cook in a pop-up restaurant along with 10 Cuban chef counterparts for their biennial arts festival. The architect Craig Shillitto built the physical space out of shipping containers and we each took a night to cook. It was hard work, but the country was gorgeous, and my Cuban chef counterpart inspiring.
What airlines do you prefer to fly? Do you have any frequent flier programs?
I’m generally grateful to be flown around the planet so I’m not that picky. But I do like Jet Blue and Virgin America for domestic flights. And I am a frequent flyer, but I haven’t really been consistent in registering my miles or using them.
What about hotels? Any standout places that you've stayed or would like to stay?
I worked and stayed in the Park Hyatt in Tokyo and that was pretty amazing. My Hanes t-shirts have never been folded and packaged so spectacularly since. It really was a work of art!
What are you favorite cities for food, and if not mentioned above, where are you yearning to go to try the local cuisine?
I love New York of course, and Tokyo. And I could spend days in the spice markets in Istanbul. I would love to see Peru and more of South America.
Best travel advice you have been given lately…by who?
An old friend reminded me recently to remember that it’s vacation — not to worry too much about fitting it all in.
Best food-related souvenir that you have ever brought back?
Sara Jenkins picked out a print in Cuba for me that is a collage of a fishing scene. I have it in my kitchen in my apartment.
Any favorite cocktail/beer/wine spots from your travels?
In Senegal, we visited a monastery where they were making an alcoholic beverage from hibiscus. They put out this picnic for us under these enormous trees adjacent to their fruit groves.
Have you ever brought beer/wine/booze back from someplace, and if so, how’d you carry it?
I usually bring back a few bottles from wherever I go if there’s something worth lugging. I like to bring a bottle for my kitchen staff. I wrap it in plastic wrap and bury between layers of dirty laundry in my suitcase…
Any must-have travel items?
I always travel with my iPad. I wish I had had one when I was traveling for a year in 1999.