Irene Li is a stickler for great ingredients. She spent years building up relationships with farmers around New England to be able to bring in the best possible foods to cook at Mei Mei alongside her two siblings. Li is a chef, but her role as an owner gives her the opportunity to influence menu planning and development while leading the charge for local sourcing.
Family is a big part of what goes on at Mei Mei, a popular food truck and restaurant in Boston, MA, that serves Chinese-American cuisine. In the literal sense, chef and owner Irene Li works with her older brother and sister. In the figurative sense, Li is part of the larger family that staffs the restaurant, and she spends a good portion of her time looking out for people and making sure that things are running smoothly for all who sustain the business.
Li is a chef, but beyond that, she is in charge of a hefty chunk of administrative duties for Mei Mei, which began operating as a food truck in the Boston area in 2012. Since then, Li and her siblings have added a brick-and-mortar restaurant and a satellite operation based out of a shipping container in Boston's Seaport. They're also producing a pantry line of homemade sauces.
"I would say that I split my time right now between cooking and what we call just admin," Li said. "I'm definitely not a traditional chef — I rarely work the line and I really think of my role here as a kitchen manager, managing the ingredients and helping to move the kitchen forward and not necessarily doing the work in the kitchen. Working on new dishes, new ideas is a big part of what I do," she said.
Before Mei Mei came to life as a food truck, Li was living in upstate New York, her sister was in London, and their brother was still in the Boston area.
"My sister and I had been writing this blog together about food, like what we were eating, what we were cooking, dinner parties we were having, and our brother discovered us, many years after we started doing it," Li said.
At that time, Li said she was getting interested in farming and food justice and access issues, and was beginning to discover the possibilities of building community around food. She would shop at farmers markets, where she came to know the producers, and cooked almost exclusively using those products.
Boston's food truck scene was growing, local food was gaining momentum, so Li and her sister decided to move home near their brother and parents to start Mei Mei.
Li had been cooking at home, watching YouTube videos, and reading blogs, but had little beyond self-taught cooking skills. She worked as a line cook at a Boston restaurant for six months before leaving to open the truck. Now, the Mei Mei team is largely self-taught and internally trained, just like she was.
Early on, the Li siblings faced some trial and error. They struggled to produce enough food out of their commissary kitchen (a requirement for food trucks in Boston), and had to revamp the menu when their plan to serve mostly dumplings hit an unexpected bump the first day.
"I think pure panic is a great motivator."
"We had gone through a massive fraction of the dumplings we had been stockpiling and we were like, ‘oh shit, we can't produce enough dumplings in this situation for this menu to work,'" She said. "So we kind of just went back to the drawing board every single night."
Li and her siblings refocused, ultimately deciding to move away from a dumpling-centric menu, and they introduced one key pre-made ingredient to the mix — the scallion pancakes, which are used in the truck's signature dish, the Double Awesome.
The truck took off, and eventually, the Li siblings opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Boston in 2013. With its own kitchen, Mei Mei started serving five different dumpling varieties, along with items like salt and sichuan wings, hot dog mac and cheese, and whole steamed fish.
The Double Awesome also made the transition to the restaurant, featuring those staple scallion pancakes, pesto made from local greens, cheddar cheese, and oozing eggs, with an optional add-on of pasture-raised cottage bacon, ham, or turkey.
Mei Mei is still a young business in Boston, and Li has worked tirelessly through tough moments to bring it to this point, building a loyal following in the process. "There are always times when you compromise, you have to make a snap decision, or you do something that's not ideal, but really making sure that we're staying true to the things that matter the most to us is how we've pushed through those really hard moments," she said.
"I think pure panic is a great motivator. But I also think that the reason that I do this is because I love feeding people and I just want to make people happy," she said.
Since Mei Mei started in 2012, the availability of local-grown foods has expanded, the infrastructure exists to support distribution to restaurants, and Li has been able to get bigger distributors to take a chance on her as an instrumental figure in sustaining connections with local providers.
"I've also had some success getting other distributors to start coming to Boston who didn't previously. To me, that's really about building the strength of our network as chefs and farmers," she said. "The more interconnected everyone is, that's really awesome. That's what I'm most proud of, not necessarily anything that we do here specifically, but just knowing that we're helping forge those connections is really important to me."
Li also works to educate the Mei Mei staff on farming practices. "That's something that we always run out of time for, but we did do a chicken slaughtering day on a local farm, so we took people from the staff out to process chickens, which is like a really up close, personal experience," she said. "We also have a lot of people on staff who either are farmers or were farmers."
Overall, Boston is a pretty great place to do what Li does. "People talk about the spirit of collaboration in Boston and I think it's really true," she said. "Everyone here has been so kind to me and to my family and when you ask, ‘hey, where are you buying this product?' people are always willing to share."
Moving forward, Li wants to improve how Mei Mei functions as a business.
"The number one thing that I am interested in doing — and we are doing a lot of strategic planning right now — is making sure that everything is happening as efficiently as possible, and that we're taking as good care of our staff as we can," she said. "I think that the first year that the restaurant was open, it was definitely just struggling to keep up all the time, and now I feel like we have a little more time, a little more space, and more things going more smoothly, and so what we really have to look at is our organization and if we are doing the best job that we can."
Dana Hatic is Eater Boston's associate editor.
Irene Li is the chef and owner of Mei Mei in Boston. Images by Katie Chudy.
Editor: Sonia Chopra
Copy editor: Dawn Mobley
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