What Anita Lo really thinks about Top Chef & Iron Chef, cooking for Obama, and more - Exclusive interview

There may not be many professional chefs who have quite the pedigree as Chef Anita Lo. In addition to having won the prestigious Michelin star, being selected as the first female chef to cook a state dinner at the White House for then-President Barack Obama, and receiving a prestigious three-star rating from The New York Times for her restaurant, Annisa, Chef Lo also has been a long-standing guest in early seasons of Top Chef Masters and Iron Chef, where she was victorious over fellow contestant Mario Batali. What's more, her cookbook, Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One, was rated Eater's "Cookbook of the Year. "

Next up, Chef Lo will be teaching a virtual cooking class through CocuSocial, on August 16 at 5 p.m. EST, where fans can sign up for just $39 to learn how to prepare dumplings. In an exclusive interview with Mashed, Chef Lo dished about her experiences on both of these top-rated cooking shows, what it felt like to cook for President Obama, as well as her tips for cooking, plating, and getting the most out of your restaurant dining experience.

What it was really like to be on Top Chef Masters and Iron Chef

What was it like competing on Iron Chef and Top Chef Masters?

It was really thrilling. I think it was really fun. I mean, Iron Chef was really fun because ... we filmed that one day. That was it. Top Chef Masters was filmed [over] three days and then I went back and I filmed for I believe eight days. It could have been 10 maximum, which is long, especially for Type A personalities that want to go, go, go. A lot of it ... with television [is] you're sitting in a green room waiting around, or you're doing several takes of walking through a room, that sort of thing. But yeah, it's fun. I think, by the end, I was ready to go home. I was like, please let me pack my knives and go! ... They were really, really long days. I remember one day we worked, we had a 17-hour day. After that you get maybe a couple [breaks] and you're wired because you're kind of under the gun.

Was the vibe really different on Top Chef Masters versus Iron Chef?

Yeah. A little bit. I mean, I wouldn't call it that much different. It was still competition TV. Those two are both nice, high-end ones. It was an honor. It was fun for the most part, except for that end ... Basically, you're cooking in front of a very large audience and getting sabotaged and that can get wearing after many, many hours, many days.

Since you've been on these shows, do you now watch any food competition TV, as a spectator?

Absolutely not. Absolutely not! I think all of us ... I just remember Rick Bayless and I talking about our post-traumatic Top Chef disorder after the show. I think it's not fun to watch them.

How is cooking for Top Chef and Iron Chef different from cooking for the guests that you've had at your restaurant?

I mean, we don't cook like that [when not on television] ... I mean, yes, we have to put out fires at restaurants. But, for the most part, it's you get to tweak recipes and make sure it's perfect for the public.

With CocuSocial, it will not be like Top Chef Masters! Hopefully, it'll be more like Iron Chef. [But] honestly, it's not that much different. You are trying to impart wisdom and you're ... also at the same time trying to entertain people. I mean, I think it's like that with this CocuSocial, these classes, that you can reach this many people. There's certain work-arounds that you do on TV ... a lot of times, you'll sub out something because it takes too long to cook, but this is a dish that we can actually just make in the time that we're doing this class.

What it was like to cook for President Obama

What was it like to collaborate on a state dinner at the White House for President Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping?

It was one of the biggest honors of my life. I mean, I think it was really difficult. I wasn't particularly proud of the outcome, but to be fair, we [fed] 250 people. We served 250 people four courses in 35 minutes. It was a little scary. Everyone clapped, so I was very happy. We actually got to go out and to see everybody. They did also send me a picture. We did a little picture with the Obamas and President Xi and his wife. They sent us a thank you with that signed picture. It was very nice.

Is there anything you would've done differently if you had a second opportunity to cook for the President?

I would have. I didn't realize how long [the finished food] had to hold ... [and] I understand it wasn't about me. It clearly wasn't about me, and I wasn't going to be a prima donna, but you care about your food. You're a perfectionist at the end of the day. I would have done food that held a little better, but that being said, nothing I could do about it now.

Why Chef Anita Lo thinks we should be eating more mussels

What's one underrated food that we should all be eating?

Gosh, there's so many of them ... I think it's really important to eat diversely. I really think learning about other cultures through food is a way of opening your mind, and I think we could all use a little more unity right now. That's an easy step to take. I think eating diverse ingredients in general is better for your body and promotes biodiversity, which is better for the planet. There's a whole bunch of underrated ingredients.

I think there's a lot of fish that people have thought of as "trash fish" that are perfectly edible and plentiful. I'm not really advocating eating down the food chain, but we should eat what the ocean has to offer rather than what we want to take from it. Mussels could be one of them ... there are wild mussels out there, but mostly what you're buying in grocery stores and fish stores are farmed. I think more people eat mussels than not, but it would be great if more people ate more of those because of how quick growing they are and how sustainable they are.

Why are mussels a good choice for a delicious dinner?

Well, first of all, they're inexpensive. They're really quick-cooking, but they're also probably one of the most sustainable foods out there. I mean, you don't even need fresh water to grow them. They grow really, really fast. They actually clean the ocean while they're growing, and they don't take up a lot of space in the ocean for growing. They're delicious.

I think a lot of people are afraid of cooking fish and shellfish, and I think this is a good introductory dish that most people love and that's endlessly adaptable and easy [like] most of the dishes in my cookbook. And this [can] take 30 minutes or less. We're going to stretch it out, so people can keep up. But ...you could make this in 30 minutes. It's a great weeknight dish!

How to be a better home chef, according to Chef Lo

Do you have any tips for our Mashed readers who would like to become better home chefs?

Well, I'm going to share a bunch of that for CocuSocial, for that class, which should be fun. I think the tips, the ones that I always give are to taste everything .... make sure it tastes good before you add it and ruin the whole thing. I mean, taste and adjust. I really do believe that cooking should be about you. I think you should cook what you love and that love will come through on the plate.

Are there any very common mistakes that you've noticed novice cooks making in the kitchen?

I don't think it's across the board, but I think largely a lot of novice cooks are afraid of seasoning things properly. A lot of times, when I've eaten novice cooks' food ... it's under-seasoned or at least [according to] my palette. It's one thing if you've got high blood pressure and need to watch your sodium, but if you don't, when you're drinking enough water, salt is one of the elements that you need in your body. It makes everything taste more like itself.

I think salt is one of the most important things — getting that level right — is one of the most important things you can do in the kitchen. I also think that novice cooks are afraid of high, high heat, and I think you've got to get over that.

Is there a dish that novice cooks should not attempt at home — that they should leave to the professionals?

No, not at all. I believe in people's abilities. I think that, yes, especially if you take some of these classes with me ... I've always found people could learn how to cook. It's not rocket science!

The course description mentions that you will be teaching how to plate in your course. What would you say is the biggest mistake we make when we're trying to plate dishes at home?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But I do think when you're plating, you need to think about how it's going to be eaten. So, for instance, if you need a sauce to go with a certain part of the dish, if you plate it too far away from that, it's not going to be intuitive for the eater to swipe it through that sauce. So you need to make sure [it's] close to it.

For instance, in my dish, we're making a fish stew. I've got some garlicky bread that goes with it, some toasted bread or grilled bread ... so if you want it to really soak up the juices ... put it in the bottom of the dish and let the stew go over the top. But if you want it to stay crunchy, you might want to either put it on the side or put it on the top.

What are some ingredients that every kitchen should have?

You have to have lemons. I think you need lemons. You've got to have salt, you've got to have garlic, onions. What else do I always have in there? I always have three different types of olive oil. Two for frying, with a finishing olive oil, and a cooking olive oil. What else does a kitchen need? I have a really well-stuffed kitchen! Even before the pandemic, I had a well-stuffed kitchen! In my book, Solo: A Modern Cookbook for A Party of One, there is a list of pantry items that I think you should have to make it easier on yourself.

Is there one essential tool that everyone should have in their kitchen?

I think there's a lot of essential tools just to have. I don't know. I think one that people probably don't have, and it's not necessarily that essential but I really like, [is] a microplane. This is one important tool to have. It just makes things a lot easier. I love a little hand blender. If you're cooking for one, a little hand blender is really important with a little chopper attachment. In my book, I have a whole list of pieces of equipment that you need if you're cooking for one.

What inspired Chef Anita Lo to write her new cookbook

What inspired you to write a cookbook for people who were just cooking for themselves versus feeding a large crowd?

Two things. First of all, it's written for one, but you can multiply any of those recipes! It's so much easier to multiply than divide, especially as everything's written for four, and you're trying to do something for three. So it's not just for one. I think there is some sort of problem with everything [being] written for four people, for a family of four. I don't know, I live in New York City and that's just not the reality. I think more and more these days ... there weren't that many cookbooks written for one and I wanted to write it. I wanted to show how you can. It's hard not to waste food when you're cooking for one, and food waste is always such a big issue right now — it always has been. I think 30% of our food in the United States goes to waste, and 10% of our carbon footprint is from food waste, so this was sort of a guide to help people with that. 

The reason why ... I decided to do this in the first place because it was I was talking to a friend of mine. For some reason we got on this long ideation session of cookbook titles with my last name on it, which is Lo. So we came up the Lo Country Cooking, we've got Lo and Slow, the barbecue book. It just kept on going on and two of the titles were ALOne and SoLO. I was like, oh my God, I have to write that book! It could be funny. It could be easy. That was actually was the real impetus. I think, the more I thought about it, then those other reasons came up.

The biggest accomplishment in Chef Anita Lo's career

You've had so many accomplishments — cooking for President Obama, your cookbooks, the Michelin star, owning an acclaimed restaurant. You've been on Iron Chef and Top Chef. Of all this, what's been your most meaningful accomplishment?

All that stuff is amazing, and I'm really thankful and grateful for all of it. But after my restaurant [Annisa] was burned down at one point ... we ended up having to close for like nine months. At the end of that, every single one of my employees came back to help me reopen, even if they didn't stay. Only one couldn't come back because she had taken a management position.

I think that was really my crowning achievement. Not just me, it was me and my partner, Jennifer Scism, had created a place where people will do that for you. We were far from perfect, but it was amazing to be supported like that.

How were you able to foster the type of an environment where people were so willing to give back?

I think there's a sense of, I think you need to be fair. You need to have some humility, realize that you can make mistakes, and you should be able to apologize if you've done something, etc. I think you need to hear people. You need to make them feel respected and valued. Annisa was far from perfect. But as you know, I don't think there are any perfect places anyway, but I think we really did try to create that ethos.

Closing thoughts from Chef Lo on upscale restaurants, food trends, and junk food

When people are at a high-end restaurant, are there any entrees they should avoid ordering?

I personally don't go to steak restaurants just because it's so expensive ... I tend to just buy my steak because I know how to cook it, and I think I save a lot of money that way. But for the home cook [it depends] on what and how well you can cook — how knowledgeable you are about cooking. There's some really great home cooks out there that make their own cheese!

Is there a new food trend that you predict will become the new avocado toast? Especially due to the pandemic, do you think there's a new type of food that people didn't want as much of in 2019?

I'm a meat eater, but I think there are greater reasons now to shy away from meat. We've cut down because of the pandemic and what it's like to work in some of these meat processing plants.

Do you have any guilty pleasures when it comes to food? Do you ever eat fast food?

There's so many! I'm from Michigan! Oh my God. Well, I'll ... name of a few. I eat a bag of Doritos about once a year, like an entire bag by myself. Yeah. I have a thing for fake cheese. I like Kraft Deluxe Macaroni and Cheese. That doesn't even happen every year, I think. But yeah, I do, and I don't know if I feel that great after I've eaten it, but I do sort of like it going down. Cheese balls. What else do I eat? Yeah, that's totally fast food.