From arranging presidential state dinners to worrying about the gradual extinction of local dining.
By Anita Lo as told to Garin Pirnia
Zagat Stories asked people in hospitality around the country what’s at stake for them in the 2020 election. New York City-based chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author Anita Lo helmed the Michelin-starred restaurant Annisa from 2000-2017, when it closed permanently. In September 2015, she became the first female guest chef to cook for a White House state dinner, for the Obamas and their guest, China’s president Xi Jinping. Though Lo hasn’t owned a restaurant in three years, she’s still an advocate for restaurant equality. Joe Biden’s campaign reached out to her about getting involved with the Chinese Americans for Biden fundraiser and being one of 150 chefs/restaurateurs to sign Restaurants for Biden, in which the presidential candidate promises to aid small businesses affected by the pandemic.
I don’t understand why anyone would be pro-Trump. It doesn’t make any sense. But I want to understand it. I get that Joe Biden wasn’t our favorite. Everyone has their flaws. But Joe Biden versus Donald Trump? Hello! Joe Biden isn’t going to blatantly lie to you. Joe Biden isn’t going to use the presidency to make himself richer. You can’t have a strong economy without bringing the virus to heel, and we’re not going to do that with the current leadership.
If you care about the planet—Trump has rolled back so many protections. It’s so frightening. He’s a big science denier. You care about your rights? I can spend a day explaining why you can’t vote for Donald Trump. The attitude of “my vote doesn’t count” is harmful. Your vote absolutely counts. It’s what our country was built on. I think no president ever has been able to fix everything, but at least we know that Biden’s going to try, and his heart is in the right place. I think President Trump hasn’t cared at all about small businesses. Look at that meeting he had with the restaurateurs. It was a lot of big corporations and the white guys in power. And then what I heard from one of the people who was at the meeting, it didn’t do anything. It was a waste of time.
Consulting for the state dinner was one of the biggest honors of my career. It was incredible. However, I wasn’t that happy with the food. From the moment I got there, they’re like, “This is not about you. You’re basically consulting on this meal. You’re going to need to have everything ready in case they need to move it up an hour and half, or whatever.” We served 250 people 4 courses in 35 minutes out of a small side room that wasn’t a kitchen. It wasn’t what I wanted, but it still was an honor. Leading up to it was thrilling and fun, and the people in the kitchen were wonderful. It seemed like a really welcoming place.
Thank God I don’t have a restaurant right now. I have survivors’ guilt for sure, but we would just be bleeding if we were still open. I don’t ever want to own another restaurant. The only way I would do that is if my partner Mary Attea—chef at the Musket Room—would want to open something. If I had to be part owner, I would do it. It’s not something I’m seeking out right now. We’ve already lost a ton of restaurants. I really wouldn’t be surprised if one in three restaurants, or even more, didn’t make it through this.
I don’t know what’s going to happen when it gets colder—I don’t know how you continue to do outdoor seating. I know a lot of people, including myself, are not that comfortable eating inside yet. In New York City, restaurants are operating at 25 percent occupancy indoors. That includes your staff. It is not going to help anybody. It’s not going to make restaurants profitable or break even. It’s almost nothing. If we’re already seeing spikes of COVID cases in the Northeast, I don’t know. Without some help from the government, and I’m pretty sure we’re not going to get any with this administration, I don’t see it turning around.
If one in three restaurants in New York City are going to die, it’s been said 50 percent of restaurants in New York’s Chinatown aren’t going to make it. Someone to talk to about Chinatown is Moonlynn Tsai or Grace Young. They have a little more of a handle on that. But what Grace told me is not having money to build sidewalk seating areas is one thing, and in Manhattan’s Chinatown, there’s no space. That’s in addition to the xenophobia and immigrant-owned businesses having a difficult time surviving.
I’ve had people say to me they blame China for the virus. Why would you say that to me? Do you think our government has been any better at this? Yes, it started in China, and mistakes were made, but it wasn’t ignored in the long run, like what the US did.
I’ve always thought that the restaurant business was broken. When I first got into it, I was more wide-eyed. We clearly have a long way to go. I know in New York City, the front of the house in nicer restaurants, they’re making three times what the kitchen’s making. The media seems not to care about that, because there’s always been so much focus on the waiters. You can’t have these one-size-fits-all laws. It ends up hurting the back of the house.
What has to happen is, we need to get rid of tipping all together. That’s key for making the restaurant industry more equitable. I think that way we can at least help the back of the house. A lot of the back of the house does not have paperwork to even get unemployment. We have a huge crisis on our hands. There’s so many other reasons to get rid of tipping. It has roots in slavery, and I also think as far as women are concerned, it can lead to sexual harassment. It’s not okay.
Representation is everything. We need to diversify Bon Appétit and the James Beard Foundation. We need to raise our kids and have equality in the household. I do think that these gender roles need to go away, because it’s holding women back. If you’re a kid and see your mom doing all the cleaning, you grow up thinking that’s what you have to do as a female. The #MeToo movement has shed some light on some bad behavior in restaurants. Yes, it’s been addressed, and it’s getting better, but it’s not gone. And there’s still a pay gap. I think there’s a bigger pay gap in the restaurant business than there is in the population as a whole.
But I do have hope for the next generation. I think they’re less homophobic. I think they, for the most part, believe in equal rights. I’m hopeful for what will happen in the future.