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
Your signature cooking style at The Black Sheep has been defined as “going back to basics.” Describe the inspiration behind this style of cooking.
To me, my cooking style is comfort food meets refined touch. I wanted to go back to what I knew and bring it back to the basics. The simpler the food is, the more you can bring out the flavors and elevate the ingredients.
From spicy chicken wings to slow-cooked short-ribs, The Black Sheep menu has been developed around comfort food Vietnamese style. Describe your flavor process and how your cultural influences play a role.
My Vietnamese-American cuisine is non-traditional, it's food I grew up with. I take ingredients like pork belly, Vietnamese spinach and others and use techniques I have learned to enhance them. For instance, with our pork belly, I roll it into something that's looks like a porchetta -then- braise it for 6 hours. After braising, I strain the pork jus, add wine, Vietnamese herbs, and mirepoix to create the sauce.
The flavors of my basics go back to what I grew up eating in California and what I ate throughout my career in the restaurant industry, mainly Vietnamese and South-East Asian flavors with other influences like American and Mexican.
Share with us the cooking techniques you utilize to not only merge classic American comfort food with Vietnamese influence and ingredients but also to elevate these flavors.
I use a variety of techniques like dehydrating, braising, poaching and blending flavors together with the vita prep and knife skills I learned working in French kitchens. Taking these techniques, I try to use ingredients from my heritage to enhance flavors and the plating of dishes I create.
Which flavors and spices are you incorporating in your dishes to maximize their Vietnamese comfort food flair?
I'm bringing items like pork belly and braised shortribs into the kitchen but instead of using something traditional like Vietnamese spinach, I use seasonal ingredients such as rainbow swiss chard or beet greens. I then combine these with flavors I was raised with like star anise, fish sauce, thai chilis and cinnamon.
Describe the challenges you’ve experienced with introducing your Vietnamese heritage to the American plate and how you have been able to overcome them.
The challenge I faced when trying to introduce my Vietnamese heritage to the American plate was trying not to overthink dishes. I had to make sure that I found the right balance of flavors and not over-complicate what I was doing.
I was able to overcome my challenge by going with my gut, my sense of taste and with what I liked.
What would you classify your signature dish as?
I believe my signature dish would be my imperial rolls. They're a Vietnamese-French version of a spring roll but fried. People love the imperial roll because it is made from duroc pork, black (trumpet) mushrooms and white Mexican shrimp, then served with fresh frisee salad with house-made pickles.
What is unique about The Black Sheep compared to other restaurants you’ve worked with?
The unique thing about The Black Sheep is the passion found from the front of house to the back of house. There's so much more passion, creative freedom, asking of questions and the ability to keep things as fresh as possible compared to other places I worked. Beforehand, I was capped off because I had to stay within boundaries and couldn't go with any other visions besides the ones set for us.
In my kitchen, I not only have creative freedom but I can push my cooks to have the same.