Welcome to "Mise en Place" – a series dedicated to telling Chef stories. Mise en place is French for "putting in place", and it is what chefs do every day in the kitchen... but how did they get there? What are the experiences, tastes, and moments that put a chef in their culinary place? That's what we'll uncover together through "Mise en Place".
Meet Chef Irene Li
Meet Chef Irene Li, co-founder of Mei Mei Dumplings in Boston, Massachusetts. Not only is she a James Beard Leadership Award winner, she’s also passionate about supporting local farmers, workers, and small businesses. She loves to cook with seasonal ingredients and claims the farmers market is her happy place. These days, she’s helping operate her shared dumpling business while running a tech company, volunteering with anti-hunger organizations, and working on reconnecting with home cooking.
What originally brought you into the kitchen? How did you start learning to cook?
I started cooking by participating in Thanksgiving dinner. My sister and I would plan menus long-distance and then converge at home in Boston to make all our favorite recipes. Because it was the early aughts, we were obsessed with bacon — my favorite side dish was a bacon mushroom leek stuffing.
What is your favorite cooking memory from growing up?
Honestly, making brownies out of a box. It probably sounds crazy, but it was one of the things I could do on my own, without using the stove. I still love the nostalgia of a Duncan Hines brownie fresh out of the oven.
The cooking world is so demanding. As a chef, what makes you feel supported in big or small ways?
In our community, generosity is a given; it’s our natural state to be hospitable and we strive to delight. I’m not sure if you get that in other spaces the way you do among cooks.
What is one of your all-time favorite dining experiences?
I have a really fond memory of going to Animal in LA long before I was ever interested in cooking. We ate beef tongue, rabbit, sweetbreads, and all kinds of other food that I’d never tried before. I think there was a spark of magic at that table which made me curious about how these ingredients ended up being so delicious on the plate.
What’s your favorite food city in the world and why?
I recently spent some time in Chicago and was blown away by the variety of food — all cuisines, all price points — every neighborhood was filled with gems. It made me wish there were more hours in the day so that I could try more restaurants.
What do you love about the Boston food & drink community?
It’s home. And on top of that, I think there’s a real collegiality here that you don’t get in other cities.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to an aspiring cook?
Understanding the science of food is what empowers us to get creative, freestyle, and experiment successfully. For example: what makes mayonnaise emulsify? Why do we brown meat? What plants are botanically related? You don’t have to be a scientist to get this stuff; it just makes you a better and more flexible cook.
In your words, what makes an excellent knife?
I’m not a knife nerd, so as long as it’s comfortable and sharp, I think it’s an excellent knife. I try not to overthink it.
What's your favorite type of knife to use?
I love a santoku — they tend to be really comfortable and feel like the right size for my hands and cutting board.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself?
I really believe that cooking is for everyone. Both of my co-authored books, Double Awesome Chinese Food and Perfectly Good Food are all about making cooking achievable and fun for any level of cook. I also love products that are accessible and create joy in any kitchen, like a great WÜSTHOF knife!