The New York Times calls her “The Cantonese Julia Child.” Chefs Charlie Palmer, David Burke and Jacques Pepin praise her cooking, as does Sirio Maccioni, owner of Le Cirque. She’s won two International Association of Culinary Professionals Awards, taught classes from Singapore to Helsinki and cooked with Martha Stewart. Her latest cookbook even earned a James Beard Award nomination. Chef Daniel Boulud calls Eileen Yin-Fei Lo “the Chinese godmother chefs wish they had,” but with today's fascination with so-called celebrity chefs, you've probably never heard of her.
May means Mother’s Day, and for foodies it’s also time for the Beard Awards, the food world’s version of The Oscars. Lo was nominated for “Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking,” a compendium of Chinese cooking techniques extant with 150 recipes. It’s the culmination of a life spent in the kitchen and a tribute to her beloved grandmother, her Aw Paw, who in the war-torn countryside of 1940s China instilled in Lo a passion for food.
In a life-imitates-art biography that reads like “The Joy Luck Club,” this Mother’s Day, Lo will be imparting those same traditions to her granddaughter Elliott, Lo’s cherished, “Siu Siu.” This is Lo’s third Beard nomination, and her first as a grandmother.
Julia Child dubbed James Beard (1903-1985) the “Dean of American Cuisine.” No single person other than Child herself did more to promote the art and practice of choosing, preparing, eating and enjoying good food in the United States. Beard legitimized American fare and put it on the culinary map. His foundation provides scholarships and invites chefs and cookbook authors to host “Beard House Dinners.” An invitation is the culinary equivalent of scaling Mt. Everest. The 200 dinners per year are open to a public who eats to live rather than lives to eat, as did Beard. Think of him as America’s first “foodie.”
France and China, said Beard, have the world’s two really great cuisines, but he judged China’s “which came first, to be the greater. It is the most complicated cuisine; it uses ingredients no other employs; and it is distinctive in that, for the most part, it is cuisine a la minute.” In other words, that a dish and its sauce are cooked just before serving. And Lo is one of the best at it. She’s hosted a Beard dinner and was a guest chef at the Beard House 10th Anniversary Reception honoring Julia Child.
"I am her heirloom," says Lo of her grandmother, Aw Paw. "Most of what I know about food, its meaning, its truth, its preparation has come from her.” Lo grew up in Sun Tak, a village south of the city Guangzhou, and started learning to cook at five at Aw Paw’s home, two-hours away by foot. Her grandmother’s compound had a large main house and a kitchen with five working stoves, additional houses for family and servants, a vegetable garden of several acres, fruit tree orchards, a stretch of fish-bearing river and several man-made lakes stocked with fish. She taught Lo the basics of planting, butchering and cooking, but more importantly gave her a sense of her ancestral culture and her place within it.
But even in the 1940s, Aw Paw represented a way of life that was starting to disappear. Her feet had been bound when she was a girl, a particularly atrocious practice reserved for aristocratic Chinese women that gave them tiny feet which made them unable to walk. Bound feet were a symbol of wealth as servants carried you, daily, for life. Lo’s mother also had her feet bound but undid her bindings when she was ten.
In 1949, Lo told Aw Paw that she wanted to leave school and move in with her because “school” consisted of touring villages and singing songs about the greatness of The People’s Republic of China, and writing letters of thanks to Mao Tze-Tung’s People’s Liberation Army soldiers. Her grandmother agreed.
Lo then decided to join her father in Hong Kong as the former British colony was accepting refugees fleeing Communist rule. Lo’s mother, afraid that Lo would be forced into field labor, urged her to go. Lo went to Aw Paw’s house and took four days to say good-bye. From there, she and a cousin went to Hong Kong. Lo was twelve.
Lo refused to return to China when her father went back in 1950, and she remained in Hong Kong with relatives. In 1952 Communists party members killed her brother, falsely accusing him of being a Nationalist agent. Her grandmother’s death in 1954 devastated Lo. She learned of her passing by letter, a letter that also said that her cousin, Aw Paw’s grandson, had joined the Communist Party. Lo remains grateful to this day that she stayed in Hong Kong.
In 1958 while managing a Hong Kong tailor shop, Lo met an American G.I. named Fred Ferretti. They went on a few chaperoned dates, he returned to the States and got a job at The Herald Tribune. (Ferretti went on to write for “The New York Times” and later was a columnist for “Gourmet” magazine.) They corresponded for a year, he returned to Hong Kong, married Lo and brought her to New York City in 1959. Part two of her “Joy Luck Club” life was about to begin.
Lo initially cooked only for her three children and friends. Whoever tasted her food always said, “you should do a book.” Twenty-five years later she did; she now has eleven. And they were her legacy until 2004, when her Siu-Siu was born.
To watch Lo with her granddaughter is to see Lo become her Aw Paw. Lo patiently teaches Siu Siu the Chinese names of basics like soy sauce, oyster sauce and rice wine, how to pleat dumplings and seal spring rolls. When asked, despite also being of Italian and Scottish descent, Siu-Siu emphatically declares she’s Chinese, “just like grandma.”
And just like her grandma, Lo will continue the tradition of grandmother passing to granddaughter the intricacies of an ancient cuisine by emphasizing technique and a dedication to the authentic, not just in cooking but in all things. And run for the hills if you mention the word, “shortcut.” Unless you’re family, then you’re forgiven. Because family is the only thing Lo loves more than food. I know this because Elliott, “Siu Siu,” is my daughter and Eileen Yin-Fei Lo is my mother.
Happy Mother’s Day.
Recipes from "The Mastery of Chinese Cooking"