On a recent weekday, head chef Irene Li glides around Mei Mei’s restaurant in Boston before it opens for lunch, pausing to fluff the curtains just inside the door with the care of an attentive mother. While the clatter of dishes in the kitchen signals the work of busy line cooks prepping that day’s menu, half of her staff is finishing up a finance class in the dining room.
A casual, hipster vibe permeates the small restaurant with its square wooden tables, exposed brick, and earnest messages stenciled in chalk on smooth black walls.
“We love food and spend a lot of time thinking about how we can use it to make the world a better place,” reads one. “We form reciprocal relationships with farmers we trust & work hard to make their products and wisdom shine!” reads another.
The scene at Mei Mei hints at how Ms. Li is constantly considering ways to improve an interconnected food system. The innovations she’s already put in place have touched an array of people, including regional suppliers for her restaurant and her employees.
Her work is being noticed. Under her guidance, Mei Mei has drawn accolades for its creative Chinese-American cuisine, made from locally sourced and sustainable ingredients. And she herself is becoming increasingly well known among the next generation of the restaurant world.
In short, Li is gaining recognition for helping to change the game – farm by farm, restaurant by restaurant.
“Irene has such inspiration and passion for doing what is right and understanding the whole food system and how everybody who has to work together has to take care of each other, essentially,” says Niko Horster, who operates Shire Beef in Vershire, Vt., and is one of Mei Mei’s suppliers. “She is a complete standout because she gets it.”
When she was a college student in upstate New York, Li had a weekly custom that laid the foundation for her mind-set. It was something that helped her feel grounded and connected, but it wasn’t participating in a sports team, an academic club, or even community volunteer work. It was going to the farmers market.
“My family isn’t religious, but when I went to the farmers market I thought, ‘Oh, this must be what it feels like to go to church on Sunday. You are here with your people; there is a routine; you are celebrating community and beauty and nurturing each other,’ ” Li says. “Building those relationships and sense of belonging in the community was really important to me.”
Taking the time to nurture relationships may seem nearly impossible in an industry that emphasizes volume, speed, and the bottom line. But Li has proved that such an undertaking can be as appealing as Mei Mei’s signature dish, the Double Awesome (cheddar cheese and two poached eggs tucked inside crispy scallion pancakes that are smeared with pesto made from locally sourced greens).
“There is a whole other level of care and concern that we get from Irene and the rest of the staff at Mei Mei for us as farmers,” says Tristram Keefe, a farm manager at Boston’s Urban Farming Institute and one supplier of the restaurant’s greens. “So whether that is having a conversation during the winter about the potential things that we could grow for them the following year or ... [how to make the] relationship work from both ends is kind of unique.”
Mei Mei began as a sibling-run food truck imagined by Li’s older brother, Andrew. Both Li and her older sister, Margaret, got on board with the idea right away – but the youngest Li had a single request: that all their menu items be locally and ethically sourced, including humanely raised meat.
Her siblings agreed and named the food truck Mei Mei, which means “little sister” in Chinese.
A typical restaurant may have only a few mainstream suppliers. And working just with regional producers demands daily ingenuity to devise menus centered around what’s available. But true to her vision, Li spent most of her time in the early days of the food truck developing relationships with more than 40 small-scale suppliers across New England and upstate New York. She explored how to get their goods delivered and how to get other Boston restaurants to sign on to make their trips worthwhile. She has since persuaded larger distributors to create new accounts for small farms.
“A lot of that is from sheer force of will from Irene,” says Caden Salvata, Mei Mei’s business manager, who started as a line cook for the restaurant’s food truck. He offers the example of The Piggery in upstate New York, which pasture-raises its meat and has its own butcher shop. Li lobbied hard for Baldor, a large-scale distributor, to deliver Piggery meat to Boston. It finally agreed. “It required a lot of work to get it set up,” Mr. Salvata says.
Mei Mei met with almost immediate success – a surprising result for three people who largely had no prior professional food experience. After the food truck rolled out in 2012, Boston magazine quickly deemed it the city’s best meal on wheels. The following year, the Lis opened their own bricks-and-mortar restaurant, located on the edges of the Boston University campus. The online publication Eater named it Boston’s restaurant of the year for 2014.
Today, Li is the only family member overseeing daily operations at the restaurant as Andrew and Margaret pursue other projects but remain co-owners.
A diverse staff
Li is keenly aware of what it means to be a minority woman at the head of a restaurant majority-owned by women. While women made up 53.5 percent of the labor force in the food industry in 2016, less than a quarter of all head cooks and chefs in the United States were women and just more than 10 percent were Asian, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
So it’s no coincidence that Mei Mei’s staff is 50 percent people of color and more than half women, Li says.
Most staff members are in their 20s or early 30s, such as Dolly Stanger, a line cook. This is her 10th restaurant job – and at seven months, it’s the longest she’s ever held. She responds to the trusting environment, the commitment to ethical sourcing and practices, and the opportunities to try new things.
“The fact that I am working in so many different areas in the restaurant is practically unheard-of” in the restaurant industry, Ms. Stanger says. “It makes sense to me. It just makes sense. That’s why I am here.”
Li’s efforts have caught the attention of the food industry. She’s been a semifinalist three times for the James Beard Foundation’s rising star chef award, and she’s been recognized as an Eater Young Gun – an up-and-comer in the restaurant industry. She was also recently honored as a top hospitality professional on Zagat’s “30 Under 30 National” list.
But Li is the first to say that the philosophy that launched Mei Mei isn’t going to get it to the next business level. Even excellent relationships with dozens of farmers won’t sustain the restaurant in the long run, she says.
“I’ve been especially interested in [food] hubs and aggregators” that serve as distributors for small farmers, she says. “If local food is going to be sustainable, it actually needs that kind of infrastructure.”
Now Li is driving efforts at the restaurant to implement an open-book management policy and improve the work-life balance of the staff. For Li this means maintaining a supportive work environment in an industry known for high turnover rates, toxic kitchen cultures, and wage gaps between the servers and kitchen staff.
In conjunction with ReThink Restaurants, a consulting group with a mission to improve industry practices, every member of Mei Mei’s staff – from business administrators to dishwashers – is paid to participate in a 36-week financial training class.
“We really teach them about how the business works,” Li says. “The first thing they learn is that we are not as profitable as they think we are. It gives them context for why we can’t pay everyone $5 more per hour. The next thing we do is empower them to make changes in the business,” she adds. That could mean coming up with a new menu item or experimenting with marketing ideas.
Her ultimate goal: improving finances to the point at which a profit-sharing plan with the staff can be launched.
“Creating opportunities and changing the lives of the team is something that is really important to me,” says Li. “I think we are doing pretty well now, but I think we can do a lot better, so that’s where I want to be going.”
• For more, visit meimeiboston.com.
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