Restaurant cookbooks can often be intimidating, with expectations of gallons of veal demi-glace, exotic kitchen equipment and a staff of minions at the ready to prepare the evening meal.
“Cooking Without Borders” by Anita Lo, the chef-owner of New York City’s Michelin-starred restaurant annisa, with Charlotte Druckman (Stewart, Tabori & Chang; October 2011), is a welcome respite because her food is presented in ways that most experienced home cooks can understand and appreciate.
Taking culinary cues from her stint in the kitchens of David Bouley, Lo started out as a classically trained French chef. But, as with Bouley and one of his most famous mentors, Joël Robuchon, she has been strongly influenced by Japanese techniques, blending these classical approaches to cooking with such disparate influences as the foods her Hungarian nanny used to feed her and the seafood she catches off her home in Long Island. This is fusion food at its best.
In many restaurant cookbooks of recent times, one needs to “first master the glossary at the end of the book,” as Simon Hopkinson notes in “Week In Week Out: 52 Seasonal Stories.” In other words, it is assumed that before attempting the main recipes, the reader will delve into the many sauces and garnishes and essences that the author expects will be part of the kitchen’s repertoire. This way of writing has given rise to such expedient notes as “see page 293,” which, as Hopkinson points out, is part of this “reliance on ‘back-up stuff’ ” that so many restaurant chefs make as part and parcel of their cuisine.
Food isn’t about aspirations but about eating
Lo, on the other hand, notes that while “Cooking Without Borders” “has elements of a chef’s cookbook … for me, food isn’t really about aspiration; it’s about eating, and sharing time at the table with others.” Granted, there are times when the list of ingredients in her recipes appears daunting and presumes setting aside both a couple of hours for hunting down elusive items in ethnic shops and plenty of time to prep, but such recipes are relatively few.
Her pan-roasted sea scallops with uni, bacon and mustard greens, for example, calls for extra-large sea scallops, lobster stock, Chinese mustard greens, bacon lardons, fresh tarragon and sea urchin, items one would think are rarely if ever in most people’s fridges. But the photography by Lucy Schaeffer, as well as Lo’s introductory paragraphs for each recipe, convinced this reader that such dishes would be worth dedicating a Sunday to preparing.
Simple and refreshing
Others recipes are simple, refreshing and inventive, like the salad of feta and grapes with dill and pine nuts. Underneath the dense cheese, bitter greens and sweet fruit are crystalline cubes of effervescent Prosecco jelly that refract the light and add an unexpected visual dimension to a sprightly starter course. Exquisite.
Through her prose, we get to know Lo personally. Her writing is fluid and fun, with warm notes that make the reader feel as if each recipe were a personal letter, telling us where the recipe came from, how Lo changed it over the years and the ways she likes to serve it. We become witnesses to the entire progression of creating culinary fusion, as Lo discusses modulating and reconfiguring the traditional cuisines of many nations into annisa’s signature dishes. Lo is generous with her knowledge; by the end of the book, one ends up feeling like time has been well spent at her elbow learning the tricks of her trade.
“Food has defined me ever since I can remember,” Lo writes. “I was first what I ate, and became what I cook.” Inspired and inspiring, hers is a uniquely global and friendly approach to creating restaurant-caliber food in a home kitchen.
Zester Daily contributor Carolyn J. Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney’s in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.
Photo: “Cooking Without Borders” book jacket. Credit: Carolyn J. Phillips