Chef Irene Li
We recently spoke with Irene to find out more about the world of mobile foodservice and its differing processes from work-life in a brick-and-mortar restaurant kitchen.Read Bio
Bringing Chinese American Cuisine to the Streets
Mei Mei Street Kitchen brings the flavors of Chinese-American cuisine to the streets of Boston. What inspired you to take a mobile approach to foodservice?
The primary inspiration for a mobile approach was how cool we thought food trucks were. When we opened our truck six years ago, the food truck industry was still really new to Boston so there might have been fewer than ten of them on the road. The idea of being in a truck and getting to serve cool food to people all over the city was really appealing. In addition to that, it has allowed us to function a bit more as a test kitchen as we get to try out a lot of different dishes. People don't have a set expectation for what they're going to find at a food truck. For the first few years, we were changing our menu every day, experimenting with different items. We've also found it to be more affordable than opening an actual restaurant, the barrier for entry is a lot lower but it is still very complicated, especially permitting which can be a nightmare. Overall, this was a great opportunity for us to get our feet wet and figure out what we wanted to next in terms of foodservice.
When creating your menus, how do you balance the flavors of Chinese and American ingredients in your dishes? Describe your flavor process.
We use a lot of Chinese ingredients while thinking about the different unique qualities they bring to dishes. A lot of them, for us, are all about savory, umami qualities. We also use a lot of Chinese spices like Chinese Five Spice. This is really cool because it echoes spices that are used in more Western-style baking so getting to meld sweet and savory components together is really fun. In terms of American ingredients, we use an abundance of cheese which is not typical in Chinese food and we work with a lot of local farms. Our thought process is usually to start with an ingredient that is in-season, one we're really excited about from a farm we love and then figure out what we can do with it. Sometimes it turns out to be Chinese, sometimes it doesn't; either way, as long as it's delicious and our cooks are also excited about it, we're happy to have it on the menu.
Is there a certain ingredient you've found lately that you're this excited about?
One that we’ve been playing around with is sweet corn. In the middle of summer, sweet corn is so good and doesn't taste that way any other time of year. Figuring out both how to cook with it so that it was extra delicious and finding spices and flavor profiles to bring out that sweetness without being overwhelming was cool. We were also trying to find ways to either preserve it or make it last throughout the winter, either with pickling or freezing or something else.
With taking your cuisine to the streets, describe how this has impacted the ingredients and cooking techniques that you utilize.
One of the things about having a food truck is that you can't fit a lot of equipment on it. All of our food has to be something that is either completely cooked before going onto the truck or something that can be cooked instantaneously upon someone ordering it. This forces us to be creative in a lot of ways because we have to balance out having hot food that need warming and cold foods that we can just serve. I think this definitely made us more aware of how to season and spice dishes, depending on what temperature they're served at. A cold food, for example is going to need a bit more salt, spice and/or vinegar than something than you serve hot in the winter. We have to be strategic in that way.
Describe the biggest flavor challenge you’ve faced with operating out of a mobile kitchen.
The volume we do is pretty intense and means that, for the sake of being streamlined, we have to keep our menu to a certain size. Right now, we only have six items on the menu. It's not many but it's enough that service can get pretty crazy when we have a lineup of 30+ people who need to order, wait for their food and eat, all during a 20-minute lunch break. Sometimes we wish we could do more stuff on the truck but the volume we deal with can limit us. One thing in general at Mei Mei is that we love to eat spicy food and I think that we're total chili heads so the more spicy foods we eat, the more we want to eat. For many of our guests who aren't accustomed to eating spicy food, it can get a little challenging so we have to moderate ourselves. Anytime we test out a dish, we'll be like, "this is great, it just needs to be a lot spicier," but then guests ask if there is anything on the menu that isn't spicy.
What is one piece of advice you would give a chef looking to start a food truck operation?
The very first piece of advice I would give is to get a job on someone else's food truck first, there's no better way to learn than on the job. Plus, that operator can give you tips about what the good parking spots are, how to get permitting and I think it also really teaches you about the ratio of service to un-glamourous aspects like prep, cleaning, driving and any truck repairs. Even if you're an experienced chef, there are going to be things about the truck that will be different to you from a traditional restaurant. If short-order cooking is something a chef is not familiar with, that has to be a really strong point of emphasis. You're also writing a menu in a way that people can read and have a good sense of what they're getting into since you don't have a lot of time to talk to everyone, explaining what every last item is.It's also about streamlining, which chefs are very good at, but doing it with the food truck environment in mind can be very different.