Irene Li of Mei Mei Restaurant: Chef, Entrepreneur, and Everything in Between

Mei Mei Restaurant is known for its distinctly Chinese yet classically American dishes. Think Scallion Pancake Sandwiches, Pierogi Dumplings, or Sweet Corn Fritters. With a one-of-a-kind menu and a powerful vision to match, chef and owner Irene Li strives to celebrate her Chinese-American identity by uplifting the communities around her.

Throughout the years, Irene and Mei Mei Restaurant have received accolades from The Boston Globe, EaterBon Appetit, the James Beard Foundation, Food & Wine, and more. In 2017, Zagat National Restaurant Reviews and Forbes both honored her as one of their “30 Under 30.” In addition to Mei Mei, Irene is involved with a number of community organizations and serves on the boards of Haley House, Lovin’ Spoonfuls, CommonWealth Kitchen, and Project Bread. She also writes as a columnist for WBUR’s The Artery on food, culture, and the restaurant industry.

In a candid conversation, Irene shared her story and elaborated upon how her background and values have shaped her career so far.

On Starting Mei Mei

Throughout her life, Irene had always had a great appreciation of traditional Chinese food in combination with the various multicultural cuisines that Boston has to offer. Irene and her two siblings were inspired by their diverse upbringing and passion for cooking to start a food truck in 2012 after Irene graduated from college and moved back to the Boston-area. Though it was her older brother’s initial idea, he dedicated the business to his younger siblings by calling it Mei Mei, which means “little sister” in Mandarin. Together, the Li siblings aspired to share their multicultural, Chinese-American approach to food by merging the nostalgic taste of Chinese comfort food with the best regional crops and produce that New England has to offer. Irene emphasized that the food at Mei Mei does not strive to be traditionally Chinese. In contrast, she aspires for the dishes to carry the creatively hybrid yet authentic flavors of an immigrant experience. After a year of operating as a food truck, the Li siblings opened up a permanent restaurant to expand upon their menu, and Irene decided to invest more into the restaurant by taking on full ownership of Mei Mei.

Values and Mission

Irene is passionate about sustainability and community, which is reflected in Mei Mei’s dedication towards carefully-sourced ingredients and high-quality jobs. Though Irene never expected to pursue a career in the restaurant industry, her desire to create change and to care for others have not changed.

Under her direction, Mei Mei implemented an open book management program to increase internal transparency while providing staff with valuable industry skills and financial knowledge. For instance, Irene wants the employees to know that when a customer plays $10 for a sandwich, $2-3 covers ingredients, $3-4 covers labor, and around $3 covers the cost of operation such as credit card processing, rent for the restaurant, air conditioning, and overhead costs like toilet paper. Any leftover amount serves as profit, though margins are often lower than $1. Thus, by engaging the staff in the behind-the-scenes financial operations of Mei Mei, Irene hopes that they can develop a better understanding of their importance within the bigger picture of the business.

Irene is equally adamant about buying ingredients that create positive impacts in the community. She explained that these ingredients are not cheap but are worth much more than their price. Sourcing local ingredients provides for healthier and more nutritious meals for customers, and it is also a way to reinvest money back into the local economy in supporting family farms. Irene directly coordinates with local farmers as well to showcase provincial and seasonal produce like turnips on the menu. In addition, Mei Mei Restaurant is committed to composting, recycling and reducing food waste on an everyday basis.

Though restaurant economics make sustainable sourcing and fair employment very tough to maintain, Irene is thankful that her team is interested and invested in tackling these larger industry issues together. Independent restaurant work is difficult for everyone involved, but Irene is confident that improving the culture is possible. And of course, progress is best served up with some hearty and heartfelt food alongside.