How did you get into food? "I have always loved to eat. I come from a food-obsessed family. Whenever we travelled, my parents would research the cuisine and we'd learn about the culture through the food. When I was studying French in Paris, I learned how to cook for myself. My sister had been living in the city and was taking some classes at La Varenne. I ended up going there, too, taking a couple of week-long classes and I fell in love with it."
Did your parents teach you to cook? "A little bit. I grew up eating many cuisines. My mother was Malaysian Chinese and her family was from Fujian province. My father was Shanghainese, but he died when I was three years old. My mother remarried and I had a white stepfather whose former family was German. They both worked so we had nannies, and the one who was with us the longest was Hungarian. It was normal to me, but I grew up in a monochromatic suburb of Detroit so we were definitely freaks. But I have a multicultural identity. People talk about fusion cuisine but I think all cuisines are fusion. They have been influenced by their neighbours. Cuisines evolve, like language."
Where do you get your inspiration from? "It can be from a staff meal a dishwasher makes, I read, travel, I draw on things that I grew up with, or have eaten at other people's restaurants to get ideas. What I'm trying to do with my food is make it taste good. I think it's great a guest can have something they've never had before, and be exposed to something that's not usual in their culture, like braised tongue, but the Japanese grill it medium rare and it's delicious. I've served cod sperm [milt]. It won't be the centre of the plate, it'll be a garnish, with pollock."
Was opening Annisa a dream of yours? "I've had Annisa for about 16 years. I didn't start out wanting my own restaurant. You don't want one because it's so crazy and so hard to open a restaurant in New York and it's getting harder every year. I did it because it became apparent to me that if you weren't in charge you wouldn't be able to do what was in your heart."
Tell us about the fire in 2009. "That year many bad things happened. I had opened a second restaurant around the corner, but it was not successful and we had to close that, my mother died, thing after thing happened, and in the middle of the night I got the call. The media portrayed me as taking time off, but I had already planned two trips, including one to Mongolia, two weeks after the fire. I almost didn't go. Luckily, I had a business partner who was better at handling this stuff than I was. It took nine months to reopen and then we had two banner years."
How did you get involved in cooking for Barack Obama and Xi Jinping? "When I got the call [to do the state dinner], it was a great honour. We did Chinese-American dishes, just bridging the gap in the food - that comes natural for me, because my parents were Chinese and I grew up in the States. That's my identity."
Do you have a favourite ingredient? "I love everything. We're working with stinging nettles; we sauté them and make a purée. It's simple but so delicious."
Which restaurants do you like to eat at? "Indian Accent, in Delhi and New York, is fantastic. It's modern Indian and the flavours are really delicious on top of being fun and beautiful. La Chine, in the Waldorf Astoria [in New York], is modern Chinese; there are so many things we ate there, Peking duck and vegetarian dishes. I was just in Vancouver and we ate at Vij's and Ask For Luigi; I liked them a lot."
What do you do when you're not in the kitchen? "I like gardening, riding my bike, travelling. I haven't seen enough of Africa and want to do coastal Japan, and do some fishing there. I loved Istanbul and want to see more of it. The food and people there are amazing. It's partially in Asia and you can sort of see in the cuisine a little bit of East Asian influence. There's so much history and people fishing in the middle of the city."