Asian Desserts

Chef Irene Li of Boston-based Mei Mei shifted the enterprise to dumpling making amid the pandemic; 10 years after founding it together with her siblings, Li sees progress and recognition

Chef Irene Li’s Boston-based enterprise Mei Mei — which implies “little sister” in Mandarin Chinese language — initially began out as a family-run restaurant 10 years in the past the place she and her two older siblings specialised in eating, catering and ran an Asian fusion meals truck referred to as Mei Mei Avenue Kitchen.

Now the youngest sister has come firmly to the helm of the enterprise a decade later following her siblings’ departures, having shifted its focus amid the COVID-19 pandemic to dumpling making. The shift is proving profitable, all whereas incomes Li some spectacular recognitions because the enterprise of dumpling making continues to develop.

The three siblings grew up in Boston with Li’s brother arising with the concept to leap on a meals truck pattern in 2011 that was additionally consultant of the household’s Chinese language-American heritage, Li mentioned.

Li’s older brother requested his two youthful sisters to hitch him within the enterprise, to which they agreed she added, as long as the corporate was named after them, therefore “Mei Mei.”

By 2013 the siblings had opened their very own restaurant — primarily out of a have to function their very own kitchen Li mentioned — and expanded capability extra into catering. Catering got here to symbolize 40% of their total enterprise previous to the pandemic, she added.

“Specifically, our dumplings had been tremendous in style,” Li mentioned in an interview with MassLive. “All people loves dumplings. Each tradition has its personal model of a dumpling. And so whilst we had been taking up all of this catering, we by no means had sufficient capability for dumpling making.”

Li had been initially intending on opening two extra eating places in 2020, however pivoted amid the pandemic to refocus Mei Mei on its dumpling manufacturing.

One side that took off and helped the enterprise climate the pandemic was its already in style dumpling making courses which had been moved on-line and had been “extremely profitable” in accordance with Li, significantly amongst company purchasers.

For its digital courses, Mei Mei ships kits throughout the nation with all of the elements and elements one would want to make use of in their very own kitchens whereas they observe alongside stay, Li mentioned.

Whereas nonetheless largely digital, the dumpling making courses can accommodate up to some hundred people at a time have returned to in individual as properly, Li mentioned. Current in individual courses have taken place at breweries corresponding to in Cambridge and Lowell she added.

Mei Mei Dumplings

Dumplings made by Boston-based Mei Mei

“It’s not a extremely exhausting dish to make,” Li mentioned. “But it surely actually helps to have somebody who’s educating you reside. And so we really feel just like the objective of these courses is simply to get individuals form of having enjoyable and being artistic within the kitchen.”

On the top of the pandemic Li mentioned Mei Mei couldn’t prepare sufficient instructors to satisfy demand for the courses in style with adults and youngsters alike.

After having doubled down on dumpling making, Mei Mei intends broaden past its 506 Park Drive headquarters in Boston’s Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood with a brand new second location in South Boston later this yr, Li mentioned.

The South Boston location may have a wing devoted to dumpling manufacturing additional growing the enterprise’ output, she added.

Whereas promoting dumplings from its storefront, Mei Mei additionally plans to promote its dumplings in almost three dozen farmer markets in and round Boston by this summer season from Andover within the north to Hingham within the south and from Salem within the east to Westborough within the west.

Mei Mei can be trying towards the wholesale market to have its merchandise seem in shops, Li added.

The enterprise’s dumpling varieties embrace its hottest “lemongrass pork,” a extra conventional form of Asian taste profile, Li mentioned.

Nonetheless, Mei Mei additionally branches out in its dumpling flavors too together with a “cheddar scallion potato” dumpling — Mei Mei’s “love letter to the pierogi and the knish,” in accordance with Li — along with its “curried candy potato” taste made with a French curry powder and its “cumin lamb dumpling.”

Throughout the pandemic, Mei Mei additionally launched “dessert dumplings,” consisting of a fruit-flavored pie filling pressed and sealed right into a dumpling which Li described as “form of like fancy toaster strudels, they’re so good.”

“These are largely not your grandma’s dumplings, not my grandma’s dumplings,” Li mentioned, however added that Mei Mei’s taste palate is de facto impressed by what there’s obtainable in New England, the place rising seasons might be restricted.

Mei Mei Dumpling Stand

A cell stand for Boston-based Mei Mei.

The corporate is enthusiastic about supporting native meals infrastructure, Li mentioned, whose enterprise works with 20 to 40 farms over the course of the yr.

“We actually like supporting meals hubs and aggregators which might be making an attempt to make native meals accessible for not simply cooks, but additionally faculties, hospitals, neighborhood organizations, stuff like that,” Li mentioned.

About 70% of Mei Mei’s produce is purchased regionally or regionally in New England or New York, Li mentioned, including that the entire firm’s meat is regionally sourced and comes from animals which might be raised on pasture as properly.

Mei Mei’s success has not gone unnoticed by critics. Li has obtained six nominations for the “Rising Star Chef” award from the James Beard Basis — thought-about one of the vital prestigious awards on the earth of meals — in addition to lately successful a James Beard Management Award, changing into the youngest recipient, in accordance with WBUR.

Li mentioned the popularity is a “enormous honor” not just for her but additionally for the entire workers of Mei Mei.

“For everybody who’s ever labored at Mei Mei, we’ve had nearly 200 workers over 10 years, and I all the time really feel like I can solely do the stuff I do as a result of I’ve so many superb people who find themselves on the workforce,” Li mentioned.

Whereas Li says she has loved quite a lot of privilege in her life due to the help she has had, the importance of the popularity and listening to from experiences of others within the business who’ve felt much less welcome within the culinary world due their gender or background is just not misplaced on her.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu additionally gave Li a private shoutout online following information of her award win, writing that Mei Mei is “a shining instance of how scrumptious meals can convey communities collectively—even within the face of great uncertainty. Boston is so happy with you!”

“That was superior,” Li mentioned of Wu’s shoutout.

Li mentioned she resonates with Wu’s private story, particularly given the mayor’s background in meals and meals service having beforehand run a tea store and understanding a lot of the pink tape concerned for individuals who want to function a small enterprise.

Dumpling Making

A photograph from the ebook “Double Superior Chinese language Meals” with Chef Irene Li of Boston. Photograph by Michael Piazza.

Li took over the enterprise from her siblings in 2018 now with new companions, however the Li siblings all stay on the earth of meals. Her brother Andrew now operates Flora’s Wine Bar in West Newton and her sister Margaret operates the web site Meals Waste Feast, to assist customers make the most of the meals they have already got and scale back meals waste.

Li mentioned she was solely 22 when Mei Mei first opened and had solely labored in a single kitchen on the time. The enterprise she began together with her siblings simply marked its 10 yr anniversary this April.

“They trusted me in a manner that like no sane enterprise proprietor ever would have,” Li mentioned of her older siblings. “They actually trusted me and gave me the possibility to do one thing that lots of people by no means have the possibility to do.”

Along with her work at Mei Mei, Li has been engaged on a digital device presently in beta referred to as Prepshift to assist restaurant homeowners and employees keep on the identical web page, significantly amid onboarding, in an business the place turnover reaches 50 p.c throughout the first two months of employment, Li mentioned.

The service, which might be supplied in free and paid variations Li mentioned, is supposed to permit homeowners to offer their workers with interactive dependable data that’s simple to digest and bear in mind, but additionally simple to refer again to — all in an effort to save lots of time and scale back turnover — in accordance with its web site.

“The objective is to form of empower enterprise homeowners to be the form of boss that they’d like to have, and to provide workers extra alternative to study and develop and never simply be form of a cog inserted into the machine,” Li mentioned.

Li added she works on the board of various anti-hunger and meals organizations in Boston together with Haley Home, Lovin’ Spoonfuls and Challenge Bread and makes use of Mei Mei’s community to help laws and organizations dedicated to feeding these in want.

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