Now that the the list of Eater Young Guns semi-finalists has been released, it's time to get to know these rising stars. Check this space for regular introductions to each of the 50 semi-finalists and tune in on June 24 to find the list of winners.
[Photo: Katie Chudy]
Last August, a Mei Mei Street Kitchen regular stopped by the Boston food truck bearing a bourbon pecan pie for its two chefs Max Hull and Irene Li. "For no good reason, she just brought us a pie—that's awesome to begin with," Hull says. "We cut a slice out, covered it in our corn fritter batter, deep fried it and handed it right back to her."
"Later that day Ken Oringer, who is a chef that we admire, came by and it was his birthday," he continues. "We served him a piece of pie that we had deep-fried, too. That was icing on the cake—it was an extra dose of Boston food culture and what it can be."
"I love Mei Mei," says Oringer, a James Beard award-winning chef and restaurateur, whose latest endeavor is Toro NYC. "They use local ingredients to create bold Chinese flavors. It's awesome, tasty food."
Irene and Hull, now both 24, met through mutual friends in Ithaca back in 2008, and they started experimenting with recipes and exploring the farms in the area. They moved to Massachusetts at the same time and in 2011 Irene's brother Andy, a veteran of the industry in Boston, created Mei Mei. He enlisted the pair to handle the menu and buying.
"They both came to this restaurant with very little formal experience," says Margaret Li, a co-owner and sibling. "I'm so impressed with what they've managed to accomplish in such a short period of time and at such a young age."
Mei Mei recently expanded to a brick and mortar location, and the staff has swelled to around 35. Margaret points out Irene and Hull's responsibilities now include staff development, training and supporting the staff, many of whom are also new to the industry. "He has a beautiful sense of texture and flavor," Margaret says of Hull. "He's very talented and the great majority of it is self-taught."
The mobile version of Mei Mei is now "a well-oiled machine that can run itself," according to Irene, but the original four still spend time on it every week in addition to working on the menu and sourcing.
"Irene goes out of her way to find local, pasture-raised, humanely-treated animals from small farms," Margaret says of her younger sister. "It would be much easier for her if she could just buy from anywhere. She'll drive up to Vermont or head down to Rhode Island to make sure she feels comfortable with, for example, the way chickens are being treated."
Eater Boston editor Rachel Blumenthal calls the duo "beloved by the entire food industry in Boston. You'll see them at every event possible, smiling and serving up ultra-interesting modern Asian-inspired dishes made with local ingredients."
Says Irene, "We have learned a lot in [a couple of] seemingly short years. Our newness to the industry has allowed us to pursue things in a different way."
What's next for these two? Max wants to work in the kitchens of chefs he admires in Boston to keep learning, and Irene is actually finishing up her degree at Cornell in the fall, focusing on local food systems. Someday she wants to open a slaughterhouse.
— Katie Abbondanza
· All Coverage of Mei Mei [Eater Boston]
· All Coverage of Young Guns 2014 [~E~]