The Chaos Theory Behind Anita Lo's Perfect Plating

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[Photographs: Paul Yee]

A typical restaurant would serve a pork chop with little embellishment—there may be some braised greens underneath, but the star of the plate is the giant hunk of meat, brandishing dark grill marks and a protruding bone-cum-handle. It's a classic presentation that appeals to our primitive appetite for flame-cooked meats.

But diners don't go to Annisa for something classic. And it's not just the menu that's pushing boundaries—each of Chef Anita Lo's plates are similarly unique and imaginative, playful yet deliberate. Take, for instance, her grilled, koji-marinated pork dish, which looks more akin to Miró than Hanna-Barbera. The loin slices huddle tightly around a strikingly bright orange egg yolk, both of which are flanked by magenta-hued radishes and sepia-brown rounds of braised daikon. Dots of a smoked avocado purée add subtle pops of color throughout the plate. It's a carefully composed dish that holds many clues for the attentive diner: ones that speak to the restaurant's aesthetic, what the dish is all about, even how it's supposed to be eaten. I spoke with Lo about presentation and how it informs the dining experience at Annisa.

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Mise en place.

"There's nothing wrong with an ornate plate. I think people feel special when there's something beautiful to look at. It's like a prettily wrapped gift to the guest," explains Lo. In the pork dish, bright and contrasting colors belie the fact that it is a robust, rich plate with deeply developed Japanese flavors. The first component to go down is a viscous veal stock-based sauce that's reinforced with pork, soy, and radish. The sauce, which is spread across the plate with a large spoon, acts not as a point of contrast, but as a base to fortify and extend the flavors of the dish.

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In the center of the plate is the sliced Berkshire loin chop, cut from the bone and marinated in koji rice that has been inoculated with Aspergillus oryzae spores and allowed to sit for a few days. As the rice continues to ferment, the process converts starch molecules into sugar and promotes the release of glutamic acid. Ultimately, the koji marinade imparts a savory umami component, as well as a natural sweetness that helps develop a darker crust on the grill.

Lo explains that the placement of the root vegetables and dollops of avocado purée around the pork are intentionally random, prompting the diner to form every forkful differently. That way, the palate is continually presented with new flavors and textures—subtle pepper notes from the breakfast radishes and tokyo turnips, a smooth smokiness from the avocado purée, deep umami flavor from the braised daikon. Each of the multiple elements complements and enhances the pork, so there is continuity from bite to bite, but still enough variation so that the eater doesn't get bored.

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Berkshire pigs are prized for being well marbled, but the loin is relatively lean compared to a cut from the belly or blade end and can therefore take on additional fat. That richness comes from a warmed egg yolk which, when broken, flows through the dish and mingles with the other sauces.

Lo handles the delicate yolk with a small slotted spoon to assure that none of the warming liquid makes it onto the plate and dilutes the sauces. Along the same vein, Lo places the sautéed radish greens (with tweezers, tongs, or clean fingers) rather than pushing them off from a platter; it's important to control the amount of liquid that hits the plate.

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Minute details in the plating have a profound effect on the ultimate perception of the dish. Most notably, the warmed egg yolk and fried rice are placed intentionally right next to each other, to increase the likelihood that they are eaten together. The crispiness of the rice makes the egg yolk seem even richer.

Lo describes the plating of this dish as "random, but in a controlled way"; her cooks each do slightly different presentations, but what's most important is that the proportions of sauces and garnishes stay the same and the placement is generally similar. Her guiding philosophy is that presentation considerations are always secondary to flavor—nothing is added just for color or effect. She recalls a duo of tomato tartares that were on her menu this summer to which she had experimented adding a 'bubble' of clam juice. Regardless of how impressive and interesting the spherification was, it didn't make the dish any better, and never made it out of the test kitchen.

But ultimately, though Lo's presentation is painterly and precise, the food itself manages to be yet more impressive and complex. Lo describes her philosophy on plating best, "If the spectacle is greater than the flavor or deliciousness, then you [as a chef] have failed. The purpose of cooking needs to be eating."