Eileen Yin-Fei Lo – author of 11 Chinese cookbooks, a James Beard Award winner and a beloved Chinese cooking teacher – died on Nov. 13, 2022, at her home in Montclair. She was 85.

Ms. Lo was a natural chef in a way that few others – professional or otherwise – could profess to be. Before the age of 9, when she was growing up in China, an aunt who was particularly adept in the kitchen asked the young girl if she truly wanted to cook. She’d already taught Eileen how to kill and properly clean a fish. Eileen nodded, wondering where the question would take them.

Eileen followed her aunt to the wet market, where they bought a live chicken. Back in the kitchen, her aunt directed as Eileen “spread its wings back, bent its neck, and made a cut in the neck” to drain the blood into a bowl.

But her real boldness as a chef came after a neighborhood boy caught a snake – a non-poisonous water snake. The boy taunted Eileen, saying: “Sure, you know how to kill a fish. Sure, you know how to kill a chicken. But can you kill a snake?”

Eileen hadn’t but she’d watched others do the task. She took on the dare and “cut the skin around the base of its head … then stripped the skin downward completely” as if she were peeling a banana. She “raced home” to tell her mother who applauded her, for snakes were a delicacy.

Relating these stories in her 1999 cookbook "In the Chinese Kitchen," she admitted, “I confess I have never done it since, nor I expect, could I do it again. … I simply cannot. Yet what I had done that afternoon was, in a small though real way, a continuation of Chinese history.”

Cookbooks written by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo. (PHOTOS COURTESY OF STEPHEN FERRETTI)
Cookbooks written by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo. (PHOTOS COURTESY OF STEPHEN FERRETTI)

Eileen Yin-Fei Lo was born on May 4, 1937, in Guangzhou, China, the capital of Guangdong province and the epicenter of Cantonese cooking. She grew up in an upper-middle-class family who cared deeply about food. Her father, Lo Pak Wan, a government official, “would say, partly joking, that fine vegetables should be chosen with as much care as one would a son-in-law.” He showed her the correct way to prepare rice, “telling me that if our rice was old then perhaps more water than customary might be needed to give our congee” – rice porridge – “its fine and silky finish.”

Her mother, Lo Chan Miu Hau, encouraged her to learn how to cook, a skill that was often relegated to paid help in upper-middle-class Chinese families. “If you are wealthy and know how to cook, then servants cannot take advantage of you,” she told Eileen. “If you are poor and know how to cook, you will be able to create wonderful meals with few resources.”

Those words would serve Ms. Lo well in the tumult of the years that followed when the family fled China for Hong Kong around the time of the Communist Revolution. In Hong Kong, while working in a department store as a hostess, she met the American journalist Fred Ferretti, who was on assignment for Stars and Stripes, the U.S. military newspaper.

He was smitten with her at first sight and returned to the store multiple times before he persuaded her to go on a double date. They married in 1959 and moved to Queens before settling in Montclair.

Stephen Ferretti watching his mother cook in the family's Montclair home.
Stephen Ferretti watching his mother cook in the family's Montclair home.

Ms. Lo's cooking career began shortly after they moved to Montclair and her husband began working for The New York Times. One evening, they hosted the editor Arthur Gelb at a dinner party in their home; upon devouring the delicious Chinese meal that Ms. Lo had cooked, Gelb told her that “she ought to do something with her skills,” son Stephen Ferretti said. She began with Chinese cooking classes before turning to cookbook writing.

Soon, Ms. Lo and her husband were also professional partners, as she began writing food articles for The New York Times, and they reviewed New Jersey restaurants together for the paper. He often helped edit her work. “My father had tremendous respect for her,” Stephen Ferretti said. (Fred Ferretti died earlier in 2022 and her daughter, Elena, died in 2020. Ms. Lo is survived by sons Stephen and Christopher.)

Ms. Lo's approach to Chinese cooking was uncompromisingly pure. She derived much of her knowledge from her upbringing and fortified it with rare, out-of-print Chinese cookbooks published in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

“With cookbooks, my first test is authenticity … any cookbook that I write, or that I would consult, or from which I might seek inspiration must be true,” she told an interviewer for Seriouseats.com.

She also sought inspiration from non-Chinese cookbooks and food journalism, such as Elizabeth David’s "Mediterranean Food," Marcella Hazan’s "Essentials of Italian Cooking," and even Alexander Dumas, author of "The Three Musketeers." He wrote a book titled "Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine," a dictionary of culinary terms, recipes, and anecdotes that began with "Absinth" and ended with "Zest."

Her cookbooks presented not just recipes but much about the culture and history of Chinese cooking, with anecdotes about Confucius and Yuan Mei, a gastronome from 18th-century China. She wrote about her upbringing and her family’s love for Chinese cooking, something that connected her to family and Chinese culture. She is one of the most prolific Chinese cookbook writers of the generation who were born in China, left in exile, and continued the tradition of Chinese cooking in America.

She believed in Chinese medicine and the balance of yin and yang. When a reporter once told her that she liked tofu, Ms. Lo examined her face and said that she ate “too much of it. Your system is too cool. I see it in your color. Cook the tofu with ginger to transform it into a warming dish.”

The Chinese chef and television presenter Ken Hom, a personal friend of Ms. Lo, said of her: “I remember hosting a book party at my home for her first book, which was well researched and written with passion. She was a brilliant teacher as well. She will be missed on the Chinese culinary scene in America.”

Asked why he thought his mother was so influential to the advancement and the understanding of Chinese cuisine, Stephen Ferretti said: "I think that Mom was two things. Traditional Chinese cooking was not recognized or celebrated as to what it truly is: regional cooking depending on where in China the customs and flavors developed. And second, love. She spoke through cooking: the preparation, the ingredients, the occasion, the flavors all mixed into a tapestry of tastes and textures. She truly spoke to you through food.

Jen Lin-Liu is an author and culinary journalist. She founded Black Sesame Kitchen, a private dining space and cooking school in Beijing, in 2008.