2015 Boston Rising Star Concept Winners Andy Li, Margaret Li, Irene Li, and Max Hull of Mei Mei

2015 Boston Rising Star Concept Winners Andy Li, Margaret Li, Irene Li, and Max Hull of Mei Mei
March 2015

If Irene, Andy, and Margaret Li were destined to grow up and run a family restaurant together, they didn’t know it. Growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts, the siblings were exposed to a strong food culture, with family gatherings and a city-proximate life. But no one, from the get go, had culinary collaboration in mind.

Instead, each sibling went their own way, with Andy, the oldest, ending up in the industry on the front-of-house end, working as a manager at Legal Seafoods and later Harvest, in Cambridge. Margaret, or “Mei,” stayed officially outside of the food world, even as a study abroad gig at London’s Imperial College found the young MBA intermittently hosting pop-up dinners with a friend. Irene, the youngest, found herself immersed in food the earliest, studying her junior year at The Mountain School in Vershire, Vermont, learning how to grow and harvest her own organic produce.

Irene would go on to Cornell where, like her sister, she would host a pop-up restaurant. But eventually, as families do, the three came back together, with Margaret returning from London as Irene finished Cornell and Andy began longing to ply his customer service skills at his own establishment. Enter Chef Max Hull, a relative newcomer on the Boston restaurant scene with his refined sense of flavor and sophisticated technique ripe for growth. At the time, food truck love was burgeoning in Boston, and the group founded vehicular Mei Mei Street Kitchen (April 2012) and brick and mortar Mei Mei Restaurant (November 2013). Accolades, including Eater Boston’s “Restaurant of the Year,” followed quickly—and haven’t stopped—as the siblings plus Hull combined shared memories, polished skills, and a backbone of uncompromising ethical sourcing into the aggressively creative, accessibly fun, entirely unexpected family restaurant.

Interview with Boston Rising Star Concept Chef Max Hull of Mei Mei

Sean Kenniff: How do you find inspiration for the menu at Mei Mei?
Max Hull:
The owners of Mei Mei—siblings Andy, Mei, and Irene Li—have a number of dishes that are close to their hearts for nostalgic reasons. A lot of these are classic Chinese-American staples like honey-walnut shrimp. These are things they remember from holiday banquets at Chinese restaurants, surrounded by family and friends, and that they still love today. The Li family really introduced me to this kind of cuisine, as well as the fun of eating huge meals in a family style format. As my own experience with this cuisine is comparatively limited, and not at all tied to childhood memories, I enjoy reworking dishes like these, mostly as a way to make something nice for those who hold them dear. A big part of this is elevating the sourcing and ingredient quality from generic to thoughtful.

SK: How does this style of cooking express who you are as a chef? What makes a dish, say the re-worked honey-walnut shrimp, true to the original Chinese-American classic and what makes it different? 
A lot of what I like to do as a chef is to take classic dishes from beloved cuisines and pull them apart. I like to think about each element or ingredient and find a way to make it more fun, more carefully sourced, more texturally interesting, and so on. Hopefully, it evokes the original dish in a new ways. As for the honey-walnut shrimp dish, it’s sweet and has strong honey and walnut flavor like the original, but it's not overpoweringly sweet like Chinese restaurant versions sometimes are. The buttermilk lightens the dish and its acidity helps cut the sweetness a little as well. Other original elements remain, like the mayonnaise and crunchy walnuts, but they're a little more refined or thoughtful. For instance, the mayonnaise is made with toasted walnut oil. Little things like these tie the dish together and make it more balanced on the palate, so you can eat it as a main or as one of many shared plates.

SK: The fried shrimp shells are an interesting element in the honey-walnut shrimp dish. How’d you come to include them?
Shrimp shells are normally a byproduct in kitchens, but they have a ton of shrimp and ocean flavor. We're very waste-averse and love crispy foods, so I figured they'd be delicious if we fried them. They came out really well, and the dish needed a crispy element—the honeycomb and walnuts were more crunchy than crispy, as well as fairly sweet—so all we had to do was keep the cooks from snacking on them during down times. The shrimp are cooked using cool steam in a rational combi oven to which probably the majority of people will not have access. If you want me to send you some instructions for working around that just let me know! 

SK: How did that entire dish come together?
Much of the dish came together relatively quickly. The nice thing about reworking a classic concept is that you know it will fundamentally work. This gives you the freedom to really bend the components around a lot for fun and in search of better balance without much risk of making the dish unpleasant. The balance of textures came once the first draft was all plated. I have to do the first plating based on intuition, and hopefully that lands you fairly close to a final workable balance of textures. The sauce does a lot to balance and lighten the dish and is the biggest departure from the original dish of all the components. To that end, it has acidity from the buttermilk to cut the sweetness, a slightly frothy airy texture to cut the mayonnaise, and is thin rather than thick and cornstarch-heavy.

SK: How do you think a dish like this relates to the New England cuisine today? 
This dish features a lot of local ingredients—honey, lettuce, buttermilk, and beyond—that it speaks to Mei Mei’s whimsical approach to dishes that are classic to any number of cuisines, be it Chinese, German, or New England. 

SK: Are there any other "ethinc" dishes that you’ve remodeled for the menu?
We do a ma po tofu dish based on the classic with ground beef and Sichuan peppercorns. We use smoked beef shank for depth of flavor and integrate cracked grains as well as local apples. We’ve done an unrecognizable version of jajangmyeon with house made rice noodles, house-cured ham, snap peas, and shaved cucumber; and a schnitzel with cranberry gastrique, and buratino and potato dumplings. We also have a loose interpretation of German potato salad on the menu right now that has pickled mustard seeds, smoked salmon row, house-cured bacon, caraway, dill, and cider vinegar dressing. We also make a variety of handmade dumplings, and our more casual lunch menu features sandwiches on scallion pancakes.