Americans are more single than ever, and if every romantic comedy made in the past twenty years is to be believed, that means there have never been so many lonely people microwaving soggy leftovers.
Somehow we’ve got it in our heads that eating alone is inherently pathetic, that meals for one aren’t meant to be savored, but scarfed down with a little bit of shame. It doesn’t even matter if you cancook – why would you put all that effort in just for yourself?
It’s a question even veteran chefs have encountered. “I always said it was bizarre that chefs said they couldn’t cook for just themselves,” says Anita Lo, Michelin-starred chef and author of the new cookbook Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One. “It didn’t make sense to me.”
Lo is no longer what you might call a “practicing chef.” She opened Annisa in the West Village in 2000 and closed it last year after the rising cost of rent and general burnout convinced her that it was time to say goodbye. In a brainstorming session for book titles that incorporated her last name, a friend suggested “Solo,” and she went for it immediately. “I’ve been dumped almost as many times as I’ve been in relationships – and I can count those on less than two hands,” Lo writes in the introduction to the book. “Spread over my fifty-year life-span, that’s a lot of solo meals.”
Her book would be funny, Lo thought, but also important – everyone should have to cook for themselves at some point in their lives. In it, she takes readers through snapshots of her memory, bringing each to life through a recipe, with minimalist illustrations by Julia Rothman. Take, for example, a Valentine’s Day dish Lo served at Annisa, inspired by an Icelandic artist ex-girlfriend: “I fell so hard for this woman,” Lo says. “We dated for about two weeks. It was like, ‘I will have your babies, calling the U-Haul now.’” When the woman told Lo she’d rather just be friends, Lo created a dish for Annisa’s Valentine’s Day menu: Roasted Arctic Char with Lentils, Hot Dates, and a Cold Shower of Skyr. “Valentine’s Day, I always have something for the lonely person,” Lo says.
Despite spending the longest stretches of her life single, Lo finds herself promoting this book while in a happy relationship of more than six years. “Although I have a soft spot for the depressed, jilted single, Solo is also for those who are happiest on their own, or those who are part of a fractured family, in whatever form,” she writes in the book. “Quite often these days, even if we’re not single, we are left alone due to our partner’s work/family’s social obligation.”
Lo met her partner, Mary Attea, when Attea was hired as chef de cuisine at Annisa. Attea recently went back to work full-time at the Noho mediterranean spot Vic’s, leaving Lo in that second category of people who cook solo meals when they’re home alone. “It’s something I learned to appreciate with age,” she says. “Everyone needs a little time for themselves. Having too much of it is a problem, having not enough is also a problem.”
Lo believes that solo dining doesn’t have to be easy and microwavable to be worth doing. The dishes in herbook, while sophisticated and indulgent, still only take an hour of prep time on average. Her recipes are designed so that a single person can complete them in one night in a small, urban apartment. They aren’t difficult, but they do require more attention than most of us usually give to our own meals. But this is the point – to care about ourselves enough to put a little more effort into our meals, even when we’re eating them alone.
Lo grew up with her mother, father, brother and sister in Birmingham, Michigan. Her mother and father, who survived the Cultural Revolution in China, instilled in her a distaste for waste – something she addresses thoroughly in her book, which features a chart explaining how to use every part of a chicken.
The first dish Lo ever prepared did not suggest any sort of prodigious talent that set her life on course to becoming a chef. It was an attempt to recreate something she saw her older sister make – a baked chicken leg with crispy skin and a sort of Italian dressing. “I tried to mimic that, and it just wasn’t cooking,” Lo says. “For some reason, I got the idea that I should add milk.” The ability to improvise in the kitchen came after a little more by-the-book practice. “I learned to actually cook from recipes instead of just winging it without knowing what you’re doing,” she says.
Lo’s mother was a pathologist, as was her father, who died when Lo was 13. Lo and her siblings then grew up with her mother and their stepfather, who worked as a fundraiser for the American Friends Service Committee. Growing up in the 1970s in the midwest, female doctors were somewhat rare, and Lo’s mother was an example for the kind of barrier breaker Lo would eventually become in the male-dominated world of fine cuisine.
“She definitely raised us to be aware of feminist issues and stuff like that, all sorts of social issues,” she says. “But at the same time, she still did all the cooking. Do I remember my stepfather cleaning up? I don’t.”
Lo didn’t get along with her stepfather, and was sent to boarding school in Massachusetts for her sophomore year of high school. “I loved it. I looooved it,” Lo says of boarding school. Despite not being from the “kind of family” that sent kids to boarding school in New England, the three years spent at Concord Academy gave Lo freedom and independence. “It was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
It wasn’t until starting college at Columbia University that Lo began experimenting with cooking, not so much out of passion, but to avoid dining hall food. The summer after her junior year, when she studied abroad in Paris, Lo fell in love with French cuisine. After working at David Bouley’s restaurant as garde-manger – pantry chef – for a year after college, Lo returned to Paris to attend the Ecole Ritz-Escoffier, where she received a callous, martial French culinary education.
“I learned what not to do,” Lo says. While the French education developed her technical skills, the militaristic way that kitchens were run there turned her off. Like much of the culinary culture in America, it was a male-dominated, elitist world, where an iron will was valued over common sense.
“My cooking school teacher told this story about how he was on a line in France, and somebody cut themselves so badly that it just wouldn’t stop bleeding and the guy was sort of complaining, and they just needed to keep going, the show must go on,” Lo explains. “They have these flat-top, roaring hot things, so the chef took the guy’s hand and cauterized it.”
While some of that mindset originated in the French culture, it certainly had no trouble transferring over to the States, where chefs and cooks are overworked, often to the point of exhaustion. “You can get burned out, especially if you’re not taking care of yourself,” Lo says. “They don’t really teach you that. Especially back when I grew up in this. If you left after 12 hours, someone would ask, ‘Half day?’”
Lo vowed not to foster this sort of macho behavior in her own kitchen when she opened Annisa in 2000. Lo was known for mentoring young cooks, especially young women, despite the fact that when she was coming up in the business nearly twenty years ago, there weren’t many female chefs to do the same for her.
That’s not something Lo wastes time lamenting, but she does admit that it would’ve been nice to have another woman around to show her the ropes, especially when she was just starting out.
Today, the landscape looks a bit different, though Lo is quick to point out that it’s not different enough – too many chefs are still white men. But in 17 years at Annisa, Lo become a mentor to many young cooks – some of whom have moved up. Suzanne Cups, a former cook at Annisa, is now the executive chef at Untitled at the Whitney, which also happens to be one of Lo’s favorite restaurants. There’s Sohui Kim, another Lo mentee, who opened her own spots – The Good Fork in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and Insa, a Korean barbecue and karaoke joint. And then there’s Sawako Okochi, chef and owner at the Jewish and Japanese-inspired restaurant Shalom Japan.
It doesn’t escape Lo’s notice that many of her former mentees have gone on to lead restaurants that bring a new kind of cultural diversity – both in their cuisines and in their staffs.
“They bust their asses for you, and you owe it to them to help out,” Lo says. “I think you owe it to them to actually help them get to the place when they can start to make some money.”
At a recent Q&A at Books Are Magic in Cobble Hill, the moderator asked Lo if she’d consider re-opening Annisa. A couple standing in the back shouted, “We loved it!” despite Lo’s insistence that she’s buried Annisa for good.
That little act of vocal encouragement pales in comparison to what other fans have done: “There’s two babies named Annisa out there,” Lo says later. Two separatesets of parents – presumably Annisa regulars, though Lo can’t say for sure – loved the restaurant, its food, its people, so much, that they named their babies after it.
“It’s like you’ve had children,” Lo says, laughing. “I’ve got my legacy, I’m done!”
Some have taken Lo’s latest venture as more of a joke than an appropriate way to cap off Annisa’s 17-year run. “I told some chefs at an event the other day, and they laughed at me,” Lo said in a Q&A with Taste magazine. “I was like, ‘I’m writing a cookbook for one,’ and they all just broke out laughing. And I was like, ‘Okay, fine. It’s selling really well.’”