Obituary: Anna Sy Kao / Cooking teacher, popular restaurant owner

Dec. 16, 1933 - June 17, 2014

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She spent years perfecting the art of cooking and then passed her talents along to her many local students through lessons held in her Penn Hills home. Her son, Yuan Kao, of Tampa, said that cooking lessons permeated the entire house. The home‘‍s downstairs was renovated to facilitate her cooking school.

“She turned our ping-pong table into a teaching table” he said. 

Mrs. Kao died on Tuesday at Marion Manor nursing home in Green Tree. She was 80.

Anna Sy was born in Shantung, China, and reared in Seoul, Korea. Growing up, her family had a paid cook so it was not her job to cook or clean. Her duty was to go to school. Tradition dictated that she learn skills not in the home, but from teachers in a formal setting.  So she walked to school three times a week for cooking lessons. 

She married Yu Chang Kao in Taiwan in 1955. He arrived in Pittsburgh in 1959 to study at what is now Carnegie Mellon University, leaving his family behind. In the meantime, she graduated from the University of Taiwan in Taipei in 1961 with a degree in culinary arts. She completed culinary programs at five cooking schools.

Mrs. Kao and their children joined her husband in Pittsburgh in 1962. In an effort to make friends she joined a local card club. Each week the ladies took turns cooking a meal. Mrs. Kao was concerned because she didn‘‍t cook like the other ladies. Her husband assured her that they would like her cooking. When it was her turn, she prepared a 10-course banquet. She soon had requests for cooking lessons from many women in Squirrel Hill.

In 1964,she started giving cooking lessons at the YWCA in Penn Hills and then moved her business into the basement of their home. In an effort to expand her reach, she opened Anna Kao’‍s Chinese Restaurant on Freeport Road in O‘‍Hara in 1973. Mrs. Kao ran the popular spot for many years before selling it to her brother, Bill Sy. The family was no longer involved after he moved to Phoenix. 

“If you wanted a reservation on a weekend you had to call two months ahead,” said former cooking student Dorothy Tague. The customers seemed to go there as much for the quality of the food as they did to see Mrs. Kao in her silk kimono, she said. “They wanted the food as much as they wanted to talk to her.”

Because of the huge demand, Ms. Tague waited four years to get into Anna Kao‘‍s cooking classes. She took classes off and on from 1988-1993. The classes were so popular and well-attended that Ms. Tague said “it kept me going because if you dropped out you couldn’‍t get back in.” She said that Mrs. Kao stopped teaching lessons after her husband died at the end of 2000.  She missed those lessons so much that it inspired her to open her own cooking studio in the East End. “We still talk about Anna Kao at our lessons, and we probably always will,” she said.

In 1982, Mrs. Kao became the third woman to be inducted into the American Academy of Chefs. A collection of her recipes, “Classic Chinese Cooking Made Simple,” was published by Simon and Schuster in 1985.

In addition to her son and brother, Mrs. Kao is survived by two daughters, Joan Kao of Coraopolis and Lisa Judge of Los Angeles; another brother, Dick Sy of Salt Lake City; and four grandchildren. 

 Arrangements are by Beinhauers. A memorial service will be scheduled at a later date. Memorial contributions can be made to the Crossroads Foundation, 2915 Webster Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15219.

Lorri Drumm:, 412-263-3771

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