Apr 30, 2021 • 31M

A Conversation with Irene Li

Talking to the Mei Mei Boston chef, project manager at Commonwealth Kitchen, and writer about the state of restaurants.

Alicia Kennedy
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Irene Li is a hilarious writer on serious issues, which I discovered when she sent me her piece, “8 Totally Achievable Ways to Show Up for Racial Justice… When You’re White and Own an Asian Restaurant!” She’s also the chef of the former restaurant Mei Mei in Boston, which has become a packaged dumpling company, as well as a project manager at Commonwealth Kitchen, where she’s helping Black and Latinx restaurant owners make their businesses work better for them.

We discussed how her social justice work influences her cooking, and vice versa, as well as her new job. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Irene. Thank you so much for coming on to chat today.

Irene: Thanks so much for having me.

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Irene: Yeah.

So I grew up here in the city of Boston. And my family is Chinese American. And so, we ate lots of Chinese food at home and also all the other things that a kid can find to eat in Boston. So tons of grilled cheese and pizza and mozzarella sticks. Cheese was a big theme. And we ate kind of more classic Chinese homestyle food for dinner every night, like white rice and stir fry. And it was a while before I figured out that not everybody ate that at home every night. So I definitely remember some sort of consciousness around that developing at some point for me.

Alicia: Well, what did that consciousness kind of mean for you?

Irene: Well, I think there were the points where I started going over to friends’ houses and realizing that there was not always a rice cooker on the counter but always a microwave. 

But having a lot of fun with trying different foods, and bringing friends over to try food at my house, I feel like I was really lucky in that the friends who I had were always really interested in eating what was going on in the Lee house. Rice porridge, like shee fun or zhou, is a big feature of my childhood. So if you need to make a big pot of something and you only have a little bit of rice, that's how you do it. 

And one of my favorite memories is taking the turkey carcass after Thanksgiving, and making a big pot of rice porridge out of that. And I have some great memories of my friends and I just lying on the floor of my house on this really plush rug, because we had just eaten so much rice porridge and we couldn't bear to move. So there was a lot of that. [Laughter.]

Alicia: Well, you are now a chef. And you work at your family's restaurant. But you did a lot of other things before you decided to do that. Can you tell us kind of what you did before that and what made you want to get into the family business? 

Irene: Yeah, so it's actually kind of funny. 

The family business for my grandparents was owning and operating restaurants. So my paternal grandparents had one restaurant in New York City, and then one in White Plains, New York. But as is the sort of tale of so many immigrant families, they ran a restaurant so that their kids could pursue higher education. And so both my parents are actually doctors. We kind of joke that it skips a generation. But I'm fortunate in that my—where I fall in the sort of generational path is that I had pretty much all the things that I needed when I was growing up, and so I could sort of choose based on my sense of self-actualization to go into restaurants. 

And so my brother initially had been working in fine dining, and he had this idea to open a food truck. He was watching way too much Food Network, and he's definitely an ideas guy. And so it was his idea for us to open the food truck in 2012, and then we opened the restaurant in 2013. So in a way, it's kind of a full circle around the kind of immigrant restaurant owner story. 

And prior to opening the food truck, I was really interested in different social justice and food justice issues. I was going to school in upstate New York and getting really interested in farming and the kind of economics of farming, and just going to the market every weekend and buying a vegetable that I had never seen or heard of and then take it home and try to figure out what to do with it. And so all of those things kind of collided when I got the call from my brother.

Alicia: And so, how does that prior experience that you had influence how you work in a restaurant? 

Irene: Well, I think that for a while I thought of food as kind of an escape from the very sort of complicated political and social issues that I was interested in. When I was at Cornell, I worked in a men's maximum security prison facility as a college level course instructor. I was really interested in a lot of issues around the living wage and the One Fair Wage, and cooking on the weekends was kind of how I got away from that. 

But of course, things came full circle. And the more I got interested in food and the restaurant industry, the more I saw that a lot of these issues that are deeply rooted in our history of slavery in the U.S., in so many of the struggles of different immigrant groups—those are very much present in the restaurant industry to this day. And so I kind of feel I came all the way around this corner. And now that's what's most interesting and exciting to me about the restaurant industry, is addressing those issues.

Alicia: And how do you do that? Is it something that manifests only in your writing? Or is it something that really manifests in the day-to-day work in the kitchen and in the restaurant?

Irene: So I would say prior to COVID, we were trying to build Mei Mei Restaurant as a model for a fairer form of employment, as a business that really invested in its team. And there were a few different ways that we did that. 

We had a very, I would say, sort of positive culture overall. No yelling, no throwing things, which is—in a way, it's kind of wild that you have to say that. But of course, we're talking about restaurant kitchens. 

So we had a staff that was typically majority women-identifying, majority person of color-identifying, and with a very big LGBTQI group as well. And so in a lot of ways, we were able to kind of cultivate this space that for the most part, I hope and believe was safe for many people who may not have felt safe in other parts of the restaurant industry. 

We also did a lot of work to try to educate our staff and also our guests on how the industry really works, what's sort of going on under the hood. And so in early March of 2020, we hosted this public event where we showed everyone our profit and loss statement for 2019. And we really wanted to just kind of start a conversation about when you buy a $20 plate of pasta, where does that money go? 

And I think consumers are very narrowly focused on what's on the plate, because it's the most immediate thing. And so that's why you read so many Yelp reviews, where people say, ‘I could have gone to the grocery store and paid $4 and made this myself.’ And yeah, that's the secret of restaurants, is they’re scamming you and food costs are only 20 percent of the menu. 

And so, that financial transparency is something that we had been practicing internally with the staff for several years. And so, we really wanted to take that conversation kind of on the road and see what people would think about what the kind of realities are in the industry, where the average, independent mom and pop restaurant only clears about 4 to 6 percent profit in an—in a pretty good year. And then of course, days later the pandemic hit, and we were all in even sort of deeper water than we were before.

Alicia: And what was the response like to that event from the public?

Irene: The event was awesome. We also broadcasted on this thing called Zoom that I had never heard of before. It was wild.

We got such a great response, especially from the people who were able to attend in person. They asked tons of questions. And as a speaker, I tend to be a little bit more honest than maybe my partners or team would want me to be. But people asked about my salary. They asked about the ways that I still felt we had to improve. 

We did a feature with Eater, and that generated a lot of conversation on Facebook. And some of it was not entirely positive, but even that felt great. Yeah, if you think I'm a moron because of what my books say, let's talk about it. You can show me your books, or we can just have a conversation. And all of that felt really generative.

Alicia: And so, how did the pandemic kind of change the way you ran the restaurant and the business model? I know that a lot of restaurants that didn't have a tipping model, that had a kind of hospitality-included model and were more transparent around the business side of the restaurant and those tiny profit margins kind of weathered this switch a little bit better simply by the nature of their-how they ran their businesses and by how they—how much money was in the bank, because they knew they had a big payroll anyway.

But how did the pandemic kind of come hit your restaurant, and how has it been in the over a year since?

Irene: So initially, I will say going back to having two parents who are doctors, we were very conservative about closing down and not asking anyone to come into work. We really did our best to keep people employed as long as we could. So there were some restaurants that laid everyone off in March, and we kept almost all of the team employed through June. And then, we laid off about two thirds of the team at that time. And that is probably one of the worst things I've ever had to do in my life. 

And at that point, we were kind of looking around and saying, ‘Oh, ok. The pandemic’s not getting better. It's been a couple months. And it's actually getting worse,’ because we're seeing what's happening in other parts of the country that maybe we thought no one would be as hard hit as New York City, for instance. But things looked really bad. And so at that point, we made the decision—I guess I made the decision with the help of my partners and my team—that we weren't going to reopen Mei Mei as a restaurant. 

And that had to do with a lot of different things, including the timing of our lease, which we felt didn't really allow us the time that we would need to rebuild. And so that, in addition to the fact that there was just so much uncertainty, we decided we were going to take things in a different direction. And so now, we are evolving Mei Mei into a packaged dumpling company. It is a really exciting project. And I have partners now who are going to sort of carry that forward, which has been amazing for me because it's opened up the opportunity for me to work more on supporting other restaurants. 

So I joined CommonWealth Kitchen, which is a food business incubator here in Boston, as a program manager for an initiative called the Restaurant Resiliency Program. And I work with eight Black and Latinx business owners to strengthen and improve their restaurant businesses. Honestly, it's just my dream job. So much of it is about not teaching them basics or mechanics, but really being there with them and making sure they have the confidence to do what they need to get done. So I just ordered eight kitchen scales. And I'm so excited to visit the restaurant and do some costing and really kind of get up to my elbows with them. 

And so for me, that really feels like trying to take what I learned from Mei Mei and the mistakes that I made, the mistakes that I could afford to make as someone from a privileged background coming into the restaurant industry, and really trying to pay that forward to support an industry that I hope will be made up of really diverse restaurants run by really interesting people with a lot of different stories. 

It's funny. At the event last March, I said, ‘If Mei Mei doesn't exist in ten years, that's too bad for me. But if there aren’t any cool independent restaurants to eat at in tneen years, then I'm going to be really pissed.’ And so for me, it's always been more about the industry at large and the restaurants that I want to be able to eat at than my business specifically.

Alicia: I mean, we've talked a lot about the government inaction during the pandemic in order to help independent restaurants. What do you think in the future, either from what you've learned, running Mei Mei or now in your new position, to-what could be useful to small business owners in the food industry, from a governmental-from a policy standpoint, really?

Irene: Man, where to start? [Laughter.] There's so many different things that could be done. 

I guess, for me, having access to federal aid and even state aid. Getting assistance to fill out the Payroll Protection Program application. I am college educated, and I could barely get myself through that. So I can't imagine not speaking English as a first language, for example, and trying to wade through all of that. So I think offering the technical support is really key. 

I think the government, the federal government, learned a big lesson with the Payroll Protection Program in that there are going to be large companies that take advantage of opportunities because they are qualified on paper. So, if you're really looking to help small businesses, then you have to be targeting companies that are posting revenue below a million annually, for example. 

I have been so moved to be involved in different mutual aid efforts, whether it is a community fridge or a grocery program or just neighbors helping each other navigate government paperwork. And so honestly, it's hard for me to imagine what better government support looks like because this funnel of people just saying, ‘Fuck it. We have to figure this out ourselves.’ That has been really exciting to me. 

I will say, I am really optimistic about the American Rescue Plan. I like the opportunities that are built in there for restaurants. I am very hopeful, cautiously optimistic, that that money will go to the restaurants who really need it. And I think what is exciting about the way that bill is formed is that if you didn't get any PPP money, you can get more money from this plan. So hopefully, that will address some of the barriers that especially immigrant restaurant owners and Black and Latinx restaurant owners are facing.

Alicia: And as you're kind of getting into this mode of helping other small business owners not make mistakes, do you have—what are the top three mistakes that people make when they're getting into the restaurant business and making all these decisions?

Irene: I think all of it ultimately comes down to how often they're looking at the numbers, and how the numbers are organized. 

So I mean, I've observed over the years that a lot of small businesses early on, they're not paying attention to the bills necessarily, or they're paying the bills but they're not organizing them. And maybe, every invoice just goes into a shoe box and then at the end of the year you give the shoe box to your accountant and say, ‘Here you go!’

But having a profit and loss statement that is organized in a way that actually helps you make decisions, that is a luxury that not all businesses have invested in or have the resources for. Because there's a version of your financials that's just for taxes, and everybody has to have those every year. But there's also a version that provides a readout on how your business is doing that is so valuable. 

I think restaurant owners are incredibly smart. And their instincts are usually pretty dead-on. But there are a lot of little kind of details and finer points like, ‘Should we close an hour earlier? Should we open on Mondays? Should I take this dish off the menu?’ Those are questions that they can rely on their gut to some extent, but it's not going to get them necessarily to the point where they're really thinking about growing the business if they don't have the data to rely on. 

And so, I'm so lucky that I had a team that was really invested in getting the financials to the point where they would be useful. We also had a grant from the state of Massachusetts to work with a consulting firm that helped us implement open book management. And I am now at the point where I am so excited to see the profit and loss statement every month, because it's like, ‘Yeah, I want to know how I did.’ I hope that every restaurant owner can experience that excitement, and not just sort of the stress around putting financials together and then trying to read them.

Alicia: Yeah, I think that that's probably a problem for a lot of independent workers, speaking for myself as well, is that you don't like to look at the money because you're afraid of looking at it. I've learned so much better to just be aware and kind of go full-on and try and really understand what you're doing. But it's easier said than done. [Laughter.]

Irene: One of the other challenges in there that I'm sure applies to a lot of people in different lines of work is that as a business owner, for a long time, I didn't really know what accountants and bookkeepers did. Right? 

Alicia: Right. 

Irene: So I didn't really have a way of telling like, ‘Are you doing a good job or not?’ It's kind of when I take my car to the mechanic, right? And I don't know anything about cars, and so I kind of just shrug my shoulders and say like, ‘Ok, yeah, sounds good.’

And so, I think some of what we're doing through this program is kind of teaching the restaurant owners how to speak accountant or how to speak bookkeeper and to give them confidence in those relationships. And I think for some of these folks, they do not have the confidence working with professional services to really say like, ‘Hey, this is what I need. This is how I want you to do it.’ And so, they're going with the flow but it's maybe not as useful as it could be.

Alicia: Before I ask specifically about a couple of the pieces you've recently published, I wanted to ask what inspired you to start writing about certain issues in the restaurant industry? Do you like writing, or is it more about something that you just feel there are things that need to be said? 

Irene: Yeah.

I will say, I love writing. I am so in awe of anyone who can do it on a schedule, ‘cause I really have to be in the right place with the right idea to produce anything. I did write for the local public radio station WBUR for a few months, and that was great experience just in terms of working with an editor and on deadline and all of that. And I think I figured out that it wasn't for me. 

But in this case, I usually write when I feel moved to. And usually that is when I feel there's a story that's not being told or a perspective that's not getting shared. So often, it comes from a place of wanting to tip the scales of a conversation, or make sure that things don't get left unsaid. 

Alicia: And one of those pieces that you wrote is the-a bit of satire called ‘8 Totally Achievable Ways to Show Up for Racial Justice… When You’re White and Own an Asian Restaurant!’ And I wanted to know, how did you arrive and feel inspired to tackle that subject from a satirical angle? I mean, this is a subject that's been written on. This is a subject that is just shockingly persistent in the white dudes owning Asian restaurants. That's very persistent. And so, I mean, I guess the reason you maybe wanted to approach it that way is because it is at this point such a joke and a trope, a cliché.

But yeah, what inspired you to go about it that way?

Irene: Yeah.

Well, one of the things I've said as I've talked a little bit more about the piece is, I've been writing this piece in my head for years. So it didn't come out of nowhere. But I guess it came out of my desire to engage on this topic that typically is not really engaged on. It's more an unstoppable force hits an immovable object, and where he says, ‘Hey, you can't cook that!’ And then that person says, ‘Yes, I can! I can cook whatever I want.’ And then the conversation goes nowhere. And actually, everyone leaves that discussion feeling angry or resentful. And then, I don't think we get anywhere productive out of that. 

And so, especially in getting involved in the restaurant industry myself, I felt these chefs are—they're not bad people. It's not about whether they're good or bad. And there's actually maybe some really important conversation and exploration that we can do here. 

And so my goal in writing the piece was, in part, to share my views without alienating anyone. And I don't think that's always necessarily the purpose of writing, but it felt like something that I could do pretty effectively. I went to prep school. And so, I feel I have been educated all my life in how to talk to well-meaning white people about how to be better. [Laughs.] 

And so I think that, I wanted to write a piece where by the end of it you couldn't really disagree with me. I mean, of course, a lot of people did, which is fine. But I wanted to sort of take the reader by the hand and be like, ‘Ok, let's go look at this thing together.’ 

And so, I didn't use the phrase cultural appropriation, which I didn’t notice until after I had written it. But I think that I wanted to accept that there is both something very complicated and uncomfortable about this topic. And at the same time, there's a lot of stuff that most of us just agree on, like, ‘Racism is bad, and taking credit for other people's stuff is bad.’ And so, how do you kind of weave those very simple truths in with this very complicated, scary territory? And so my hope was to kind of lead the reader through that space, so that they could come out on the other side feeling not like, ‘Oh, I am now bereft of my purpose. And everything I've created is for not.’ But to make them feel like, ‘Oh, there are some next steps I can take. And I can keep showing up to this conversation and be part of it.’

All of that being said, I did get a lot of calls from people who were like, ‘I read your article. It made me think so much. And I'm just wondering, what do you think I should do?’ And, well, I did write a list. So let's start there. And I think that that kind of response is about what I expected, and I think it's totally appropriate for someone who has never really engaged with these ideas to come right to me and say, ‘Help.’ And so, I welcome that. And I am glad that they wanted to call me and talk to me. 

But it's just so new to some people that even after reading a list of eight things that you can do, the question is like, ‘Wait, what? Sorry, now?’ How? Where do I—’ It's fascinating to watch.

Alicia: And as you mentioned, you did not mention, use the phrase cultural appropriation, which I think actually did serve the piece to make it a bit more powerful because you didn't-It was so straightforward. 

And cultural appropriation, as a phrase and as a concept, I think, has been—it's screwed over as an idea because of the right and the way that the right has taken it and suggested that its meaning is something that it's not. 

Irene: For sure.

Alicia: And that's just ruined it, because no one can say it anymore without being called—I don't know how the right talks. I just know that they like to take phrases and just be like, ‘Look at what they're saying. They're saying you can't cook a—if you're white, you can't make a burrito in your house.’ And it's like, ‘Dude, how dare you? That's not it.’

And so, how does that phrase play into your life right now or thinking at all about food?

Irene: I guess to me, the phrase invites a lot of argument because it is—it invites opinion and asks for nuance. And sometimes, those two things don't go hand in hand. And so, while part of me wanted to write ‘8 ways for cultural appropriators,’ I felt like, ‘Ok, if I really want to get the attention of the people I'm talking to, let me use phrases and facts that they can't argue with. Are you white, yes or no? Do you own an Asian restaurant, yes or no?’

And so yeah, my hope was to kind of get my foot in the door with that, and to not, to try not to make kind of value or moral judgments about them. And to just say, like, ‘Hey, you meet these qualifications so maybe we should talk about this thing.’ And I've had some really great conversations with white folks who own Asian restaurants. And I am hopeful that this conversation goes somewhere. 

My incredible friend, Tracy Chang, who is a restaurant owner in Cambridge, she said to me, ‘Just make sure they know it's not Monopoly, where you land on Community Chest and the card says like, ‘Ooh, mass shooting! Pay an Asian American organization $500, and then go on your way.’ And so, I think the longer term accountability is another really interesting piece of this that I'm hoping to be able to sort of keep up with.

Alicia: You also wrote about Raise The Wage. What is your involvement in that, and why did you decide to get into that?

Irene: Yeah.

Well, I've been working with the Restaurant Opportunity Center and high-road restaurants, which is their sort of employer-side organization, on the campaign around One Fair Wage. So in both wanting to raise the minimum wage, and abolish the sub-minimum wage, which is what servers are paid if they receive tips. So federally, the sub-minimum wage is $2.13 an hour. And locally in Massachusetts, I believe it's $5.55 an hour. 

And the piece that we wrote on Medium was from a group of Asian American women, talking about how these laws disproportionately affect women and people of color. And so in a way, there's kind of a similar message, which is like, ‘Do you like racial equity? And do you think that the way people are paid should support racial equity?’ And then, ‘If you do, which I'm sure you do, the only logical conclusion is that we have to change tipping policy in this country.’

Of course, it's not that simple. But I think that to me, the motivation for changing the way we do things is so clear. And so, I'm hoping to get more involved in that conversation. Even though I'm not a restaurant employer anymore, I actually feel like maybe I can play a different role in that community and in highlighting this issue.

Alicia: Right. 

And for you, is cooking a political act?

Irene: Oh, yeah. 

I mean, I think cooking is partially political. What really feels political is when I feed other people. So to kind of wrap that in, then I would say definitely. I think that we so undervalue food and everything that goes into it. I think that is deeply tied to the history of slavery in this country, and you know, the way that, that capitalism works now. 

But I think that, for me, cooking is a way to imbue food with the value of my time of my love and energy. And that you can literally bring people to the table and make them, or ask them to listen, or to experience your perspective. I think that, that's what the magic of food is for me. And working with a lot of immigrant restaurant owners in particular, I think that the storytelling that happens through food is 100 percent political.

Alicia: Well, thank you so much.

Irene: Thank you.