Some 5,000 people attended this year's Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, but judging by my time hanging out in the Grand Tasting tent with recent Top Chef winner Mei Lin, it seems like everyone is from Los Angeles. We bump into her friend Alvin Cailan, the chef/proprietor of the massively popular Eggslut and Ramen Champ. He's slinging jars of luxurious coddled eggs topped with caviar. Just moments later we run into Ellen Bennett, the energetic creative force behind Hedley & Bennett — the makers of all those cool aprons you've seen chefs wearing lately. ("I want to design a completely black apron for this badass," Bennett says, laughing.) Lin's Los Angeles community just seems to find her.
After watching Lin crush challenge after challenge on the most recent season of Top Chef, you'd be forgiven for assuming she is always that sharp, that intense, and that serious. Within moments of meeting her, those presumptions will fade away. Lin is warm, confident, and at ease. She can laugh at herself — she was a dedicated reader of comedian Alison Lieby's Top Chef recaps — and she is totally honest and upfront about what reality television has meant for her, including about her winnings.
"I haven't touched the money," the 2014 Eater Young Gun says of the famous $125,000 dollar prize for winning Top Chef. "I'm giving a lot of the money to my parents... A lot of people think $125,000 is a lot of money. Yes, it is, but they don't think about what kind of taxes you have to pay. Literally it's half, it's 40 percent of your winnings [that] go to the government. At the end of the day it's not that much money. Especially if you want to open up a restaurant."
While Lin says she does want to open a restaurant, she's keeping quiet on the details. She says she's still exploring her next steps, and that "there's a lot of projects going on but I can't really say anything... I don't really know for sure what's going to happen in the future." She does want to eventually open her own restaurant, and here's what she'll confirm: It would be a casual spot in Los Angeles. She wants a quicker-service style lunch — perhaps congee and noodle bowls — and a full-service dinner. Beyond that, we'll all just have to wait and see.
Here now, intel collected from an afternoon spent with Mei Lin:
On life after Top Chef:
"It's been a whirlwind after the show aired the finale. I mean, it's been a crazy ride. It's a lot of travel — just traveling around the country, doing dinners and stuff like that. I actually just went on a vacation to Hong Kong and Japan. Like an R&D vacation."
On the likelihood of opening a restaurant with her Top Chef soulmate Melissa King:
"She won't move to LA, so that's not going to happen. I will tell you that we are planning a dinner with a lot of the women chefs from LA from the show. It's going to be me, Melissa, Antonia [Lofaso], Shirley [Chung], Brooke [Williamson], Nyesha [Arrington], and Jamie Lauren. That's happening August 17. Look out for that. That's gonna be a crazy, awesome event." [Ed. Note: No firm date has been set yet, so stay tuned.]
On what her hypothetical fast-casual restaurant would look like:
"My fast-casual concept would be a congee shack. A bowl of rice porridge, a noodle/congee shop. Just something super simple. Come in, eat a bowl, leave. Super super casual lunch spot. That's actually what I want my restaurant to have for lunch, and then go into a semi-casual, fine-dining place for dinner."
On keeping her Top Chef win a secret from her family:
"There's a lot of contracts and stuff that get involved with the show. It's like life and death, pretty much. You don't tell anybody. Michael [Voltaggio, her former boss and a Top Chef winner] knew. There's a lot of NDAs that you have to sign."
On a killer recent meal in Hong Kong:
"We went to this three-starred Michelin restaurant called Lung King Heen. They're famous for their duck. No fat, all the fat's rendered. All you get is this big roasted duck, crispy skin like you can hear it. They're cutting into it and it's like you just want to die, it's so amazing. They serve it with crepes, hoisin sauce, scallions, and cucumber and you just make your own taco. It's amazing."
F/M/K Top Chef Judges:
"Oh my god. That's hard — I don't want to kill any of them! Okay, I'd marry Gail, I'd fuck Padma, and I would kill Tom. But I love Tom, Tom's awesome."
On her dining preferences:
"I live in LA so I tend to not like foo-foo. I like the more casual dining experiences... the restaurants that you can just walk in, get a few plates of food, have fun with your friends and then go out at night. No tasting menus and stuff like that. Obviously, there are a lot of great restaurants that do tasting menus, but I tend not to eat like that on a casual night. Those are more for when I go out on vacation. Going somewhere else, I want to experience those things."
On what she'd do differently vis a vis Top Chef, knowing what she knows now:
"I think I would've crushed it a lot harder. I mean I think having gone through that experience and doing it again, I think the second time becomes easier."
On interacting with the press:
"Some chefs are [afraid of the press]. I think being interviewed, you're being put out of your comfort zone, but you have to get good at it. You're trying to promote your restaurant, so you just have to suck up and do it."
Current new LA restaurant obsession: Jon & Vinny's
LA go-to's: Ricky's Fish Tacos, Animal, Son of a Gun, Connie & Ted's, Jaragua.