Eileen Yin-Fei Lo
Jim Poris / March 2007
Food Arts presents the March 2007 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, the renowned Chinese cooking authority who, through 10 cookbooks and numerous teaching assignments and public appearances, has distilled the geographic spread and historical depth of her native country's cuisine for American consumption. Immersed in food and its preparation since her childhood in Sun Tak, a Cantonese agricultural area known as a cradle of good cooks, few, if any, writers working the Chinese idiom in the West possess her encyclopedic knowledge. And certainly none put as much heart, soul, and zest into their work.
"I'm very serious about cooking, and I have very high standards," says Yin Fei-Lo. "And I bring a lot of energy to it."
Anyone who's ever seen Yin-Fei Lo—all 4-foot-9-and-a-fraction of her ("don't forget the half"), barely 100 pounds—move about a kitchen with feline agility and grace can attest to the truth of her last statement. She never tires, whether frequently commuting from her home of 36 years in Montclair, New Jersey, to New York City to shop in Chinatown, appear on radio or television, fulfill longstanding teaching gigs at the China Institute or the New School, or meet with a book editor; whether working through the recipes and text for her books; whether cooking for her three grown children plus her husband of 48 years, Fred Ferretti, a former New York Times reporter and a frequent contributor (with her) to Food Arts; whether serving as a restaurant consultant; or now, helping take care of her granddaughter, a joy that takes her full circle to her youth in China.
As touchingly related in her newest book—My Grandmother's Chinese Kitchen—it was her mother's mother, her Ah Paw, who inspired and encouraged her to cook. As a girl, Yin-Fei Lo would walk over two hours to Ah Paw's village, and even though her grandmother—the well-off wife of a government official during the last throes of the Ching Dynasty—could barely walk and had never cooked because her feet had been bound, as per tradition for well-born females, she nonetheless had a sixth sense about food that she shared with her granddaughter. Yin-Fei Lo eventually wound up living in Ah Paw's house, then left on her own for Hong Kong at age 12 in 1950 after the Communists took over. There she lived with an aunt, another cooking mentor, and worked as a shop girl and learned English, until Ferretti, an American serviceman on leave, courted and married her in 1959 and took her to New York City.
By the time she moved to Montclair her cooking had become legendary among Ferretti's coterie of journalists, who encouraged her to teach and eventually write. The result is The Chinese Banquet Cookbook, an IACP Award winner, and Chinese Vegetarian Cooking, an IACP and James Beard Award nominee, among many other titles. Her next, a definitive book entitled The Art of Chinese Cooking, will be published within the next two years.
"Everything I do is from the heart," says Yin-Fei Lo. "My grandmother taught me that you learn from looking, touching, and feeling. I still do."