Chef Irene Li ‘15 has amassed a host of honors — gaining a spot on last year’s Forbes 30 under 30 list and being named a three-time James Beard semi-finalist. Now Li’s business is making even more strides in the areas of ethical sourcing and fair employment practices.
Last year, Li’s restaurant, Mei Mei, implemented an open-book system. This means that all staffers, from the dishwashers to sous chefs, are involved in a weekly discussion of the performance of the business. Staffers learn restaurant management skills, skills they might use to open their own business.
“The restaurant industry has a lot of problems and sustainability and employment are among the biggest,” Li said. “If we’re not actively trying to solve them, we’re just replicating all the inequality of the status quo.
“Cornell, and living in Ithaca, taught me a lot about the potential of democratic communities and non-traditional power structures, and the many faces and root causes of inequality.” ”
Li, a College Scholar in the College of Arts & Sciences, co-founded Mei Mei Restaurant Group and Street Kitchen with her two siblings. Mei Mei, named the Eater Boston Eater Restaurant of the Year, serves Chinese-American cuisine.
“I fell in love with cooking while I was at Cornell, visiting the Ithaca Farmers Market every weekend,” Li said. “I really loved getting to know the farmers. There was a feeling of community —almost spirituality — that I got from shopping and cooking, and I often reference the Ithaca Farmers Market as feeling like church.”
Mei Mei began operating as a food truck in 2012 but has now expanded to a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Li is a chef and also in charge of administrative duties. With no formal restaurant training, Li started her career after graduating as a line cook while living on an organic farm.
“My decision to enter the industry was twofold: on the one hand we just wanted to experiment with a new idea, a food truck, and on the other hand, we wanted to see if we could improve on industry standards for sourcing by being a little scrappier than other, more traditional restaurants.”
Mei Mei serves meat that is local, all-natural, pasture-raised and humanely slaughtered. The restaurant also works mostly with local and family-based producers, which leads to a lower carbon footprint. In addition to the environmental benefits, Mei Mei’s model supports local economic sustainability and self-sufficiency. Mei Mei is a certified Sustainable Business Leader by the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts.
Yvette Lisa Ndlovu is a communications assistant for the College of Arts & Sciences.