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CHEF IRENE LI Mei Mei - Boston, MA
CHEF IRENE LI Mei Mei - Boston, MA
Irene Li operates Mei Mei Street Kitchen & Mei Mei Restaurant in Boston, where her work centers around ethical sourcing and fair employment practices. The award-winning food businesses merge modern techniques and multicultural cuisine with local foods and sustainable business practices. Mei Mei’s creative, farm-driven, Chinese American food has been featured in Food & Wine, Eater Boston & Eater National, The New York Times, Restaurant Hospitality, People, Bon Appetit, The Boston Globe, and more. Irene’s life experiences range from organic farming to prison education and many things in between, and while she never expected a life in the restaurant industry, her desire to create change and care for those around her remains constant.
Irene has spent several chapters of her life living and working on small farms and with each installment her emotional connection to her food choices and sources became stronger. “There’s no better feeling of satisfaction than being a part of where your food comes from and having a hand in that.”
Visiting the farmers markets in Ithaca, NY for the first time conjured strong feelings of belonging “it’s what I imagined church goers must feel when they are surrounded by beauty and community and knowing that each other are there to provide for and support each other,” says Irene.
“Farmers are the witches and wizards who hold the keys to the magic about the flavors of ingredients and the cycles of nature. I learned so much about the science of taste that would have otherwise been mundane if your food has no known point of origin. If you have a relationship with a farmer you build trust and there is transparency that is lacking in most food products.”
“At Mei Mei, we think of ourselves as collaborators with the farmers, not customers demanding this or that vegetable or fruit. We take what they have and want to elevate what they do—that brings more meaning to us and ultimately our customers. We’re in it together.”
“We use cranberries year round and for a lot of reasons. They have the most beautiful color and while food has to taste good, how food looks is also important — in Chinese culture, red is ‘auspicious’ and a lot of emphasis is paid to tradition. Any chance to use a local ingredient invokes nostalgia and a level of delight in supporting our hard won culture and the folklore of New England. You have to be resilient to live in New England and to rely on our local food system—that means trying harder and being more creative with what is provided. We have to embrace the bounty and the scarcity.”
“We dry, freeze, puree, and make jam out of cranberries because we use them all year—they offer a wonderful punch of brightness to food without adding salt. Cranberries and homemade vinegars are what we add when we need to elevate or balance the flavors of a dish. We don’t use very many lemons or limes. When we need acidity or a sour note, which is often on our menu, cranberries are our go-to.”
This year, Irene is leading her staff in a groundbreaking open book management training program in conjunction with Rethink Restaurants. She’s working to provide the entire team, from dishwashers to sous chefs, with valuable financial know-how and business management skills, and an opportunity for profit-sharing. She is an Eater Young Gun winner, Zagat and Forbes 30 Under 30 Honoree, and a five-time James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef semi-finalist.
Irene along with her brother Andrew and sister Margaret, co-authored the award-winning cookbook “Double Awesome Chinese Food.” 2019 Roost Books.