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
How One Freelance Food Warrior Rose to Running America's Most Accredited Test Kitchen
From chef freelancer to running the Chef’s Roll Test Kitchen, explain the impact this transition had on your career.
This transition has provided me with more structure. I previously worked in professional kitchens, so I had structure but when I went freelance, I was all over the place hosting pop-ups, private dinners and helping other chefs with special projects.
Now with Chef’s Roll, I not only have the freedom I had as a freelancer, but I also have structure. I have the ability to create and experiment on a daily basis and having all the elements around me to do so is a real bonus.
Share with us what a day in the life looks like in the Chef’s Roll Test Kitchen.
It's very similar to a regular kitchen. I may not have a per-day, cooks underneath me or diners to feed; however, I have a list of items and dishes I need to complete daily with the ingredients required to meet client’s expectations.
When it’s time to start cooking, I prep, taste, and cook while filming it all simultaneously. If I like what I’ve created, I'll keep it. If not, I'll try again and then, at that point, I'll edit everything once it's accomplished and I feel happy with what the outcome is.
With the dishes you create in the test kitchen, do you have a lot of creative freedom in terms of the direction or are themes and ingredients presented to you from which to put your own personal spin on?
For the most part, I definitely have creative freedom; however, I do have certain clients on my roster who have certain directions and expectations. On the other hand, with my background and the freedom of the Test Kitchen, I can create dishes that can be completely rustic or fine dining. I have the ability to create anything from a taco to an elevated taco, one with a fine French technique for example.
Ultimately what I do is essentially a collaboration between myself and the client to find the perfect combination in terms of technique, flavor and ingredients to develop dishes that we’re both excited about.
In the Test Kitchen you’re creating multiple unique and inspirational dishes daily and the end result is all about what you put into it. Explain your flavor process for finding inspiration and the essential ingredient selection that goes into the development these dishes.
It all starts with the featured ingredient, like a spice from McCormick for Chefs, for example. I'll begin by tasting that spice and thinking, “what would this go well with? Does it bring up a memory? What's in season? What did I see at the Farmer's Market?”
To truly understand required flavor, I’ll go to the Farmer's Market, to think about complimentary ingredients and how I can best utilize them. I also look to other chefs and cookbooks for inspiration and resources. I'm always gathering inspiration from everything around me to truly capture the featured ingredient in my dishes.
Explain the importance of spices and seasonings in the development of your dishes and/or enhancing the flavor profiles?
Spices and seasonings are extremely important in both developing and enhancing the flavor profiles of any dish. Every dish begins and ends with the spices that you choose and the quality of them. So, you need to ask yourself "where are you getting the ingredient from?" and taste it, taste everything.
It's also important to have a combination of fresh spices and dried spices but if a spice is dehydrated, or reduced down, that is a form of concentrated flavor and I believe that to be a bonus, something you can use to your advantage of to elevate your dishes.
Describe the biggest flavor challenges you face while experimenting in the Test Kitchen and how spices and seasonings work to overcome them.
Everything is a challenge from editing to over-using too many ingredients. You feel the need to prove yourself with how many different techniques and ingredients you can use and end up with a flavorful mess.
The key is to dial it back and use ingredients simply to enhance what you’re preparing; some items don't necessarily need to be manipulated. When you utilize a spice gently, that's when the spice and your other ingredient(s) will sing.
Which new flavors trends and/or spices can we expect to see in the Test Kitchen this season?
I've been working with various spices to re-create flavors. For example, I'll do a play on an Ethiopian spice like Berbere and re-make its flavor with a different spice to create a totally new experience. I'll also pull ingredients from different regions that I’ve never worked with to create flavorful fusions.
What is the most memorable or iconic dish you've developed in the Test Kitchen and why?
Two dishes come to mind. One was a rabbit offering. I de-boned the whole rabbit, pureed the thighs with herbs and spices and made a Mussolini. I then piped it down, rolled it, sous-vide it and sliced it, stuffing it with an apricot puree.
The second dish was a ribeye. I marinated the protein in flavors that mimicked an actual dry steak. I then used walnut oil, fish sauce and beef concentrate as a marinade. Then I cooked it and re-created the dry flavor without the aging process.