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
You’ve been recognized as a mad scientist in the kitchen for fusing together southern and Asian-inspired influences. Explain the inspiration behind your signature style?
In Dallas, there has been a gap in the dining scene and it's hard to see more of an adventurous diner. When I went ahead with my concept, I didn't want to have any kind of boundary and told myself I'm going to shake it up a little bit. There would be some things put on a plate that could make people uncomfortable or not love them but I was going to do it anyways because it's something I thought needed to happen.
For a while, you might think, "maybe I'm doing the wrong thing" or "I should be serving rare steaks instead" but you then get back this feeling of "maybe I -should- do something different and help change the culture." This was something I and my staff took to heart. We didn't change course and so we kept grinding, doing the food we wanted to do.
From smoked kimchi to butter cajeta, you focus on unique ingredients to elevate and balance both the southern and Asian flavors in your dishes. Describe your flavor process.
For me, the food we do, I wanted to reflect things that I did as a child who was falling in love with food. Southern food was such a big deal because I had grown up on it and it was something that gave me my best memories.
When I started to dive into Southern cuisine, I learned about cultivation and what made the south different from the rest of the United States in terms of cuisine. We have a huge thing for rice here, for example. Tamales, as another example, are just as Mississippi as they are Hispanic or Tex-Mex.
As I slowly started to fall in love with the cuisine of Korea, Vietnam, Thailand and Taiwan, I realized similarities between the South American United States and parts of Asia; fermenting, pickling, rice, beans, etc. Different types of ingredients that had come into the southern part of the United States are another example. Cilantro was a huge thing in Texas in the start but it wasn't as big in the rest of the US in the beginning. It grew eventually but that alone had lots of influence in Thai and Vietnamese cuisine.
What’s an example of a great Southern Asian fusion pairing at your restaurant and what makes it great?
I think one of our best examples of Southern Asian cuisine is our warm potato salad. I grew up eating potato salad at every event, family dinner or holiday season. It’s huge in the south. This one is Okinawa and russet potato that we fry. Then we toss the potatoes with a garlic and scallion mayo, soft soy pickled egg, smoked kimchi, and fermented onion. We top the dish with crushed funyuns. It has most of the elements a good potato salad has just done with a lot of Korean influence.
What are the biggest flavor challenges you experience when combining Southern and Asian influences in your dishes and how have you overcome them?
One thing that was really tough at first about doing the cuisine I do was sourcing ingredients. That was one of the biggest reasons why I started to inoculate my own rice to make koji. I couldn't get a hold of it regularly and I happen to use a ton of koji. So, I found the bacteria, ordered it and started doing my own koji instead. This has also been the case with multiple other ingredients as well.
One other thing that has been tough is convincing traditionalists on both sides, Asian and Southern, whichever they correlate with while also trying to have a place in dining history. Sometimes people want things the way they have been done for a long time and that's fine, we actually adhere to those rules and traditions. We just also try to meld the two together in a seamless fashion. People here in Dallas are really starting to dig it though. It’s because you have to focus their options, almost making them experience something new. I know Edward Lee in Kentucky has had a lot of luck doing this exact thing and I think it's a seriously tasty style of cuisine.
Which new flavors and ingredients can we expect to see making their way onto your menu?
Koji is an underlying ingredient we’ll be using heavily in many items. We also love to use radishes, cabbages and lettuce whenever we can. Fish sauce is another one, we make this ourselves as well.