Irene Li ’12, BA ’15, is a chef and a restaurateur, but her interests have long gone beyond cuisine. On the Hill, she was a College Scholar who focused much of her studies on criminal justice reform and prison education, including teaching at a maximum-security facility in nearby Auburn.
When she and her siblings founded a Boston food truck and Chinese-inspired eatery, Li became a strong proponent of using pasture-raised meats and locally sourced ingredients—and adhering to fair labor practices, including financial transparency with their workers.
For five years in a row (2015–19), the Arts & Sciences alum was a semifinalist for the “rising star chef” award from the James Beard Foundation, which bestows what are considered the Oscars of the food industry. In March, the foundation recognized her with its coveted Leadership Award—given, it says, to “visionaries for their work in creating a better food world”—which she’ll accept at a gala ceremony in Chicago in June.
“I’m surrounded by people who are intent on making the industry a livable and amazing place to work,” says Li, contemplating the current state of U.S. restaurants. “The amount of energy from new operators makes me really optimistic—and on top of that is what we’re seeing from people who are organizing, whether through unions or other initiatives, to improve their workplaces. There’s so much energy.”
Like so many others in the culinary realm, Li had to get creative when the pandemic forced the closure of her restaurant, Mei Mei.
Located in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood, the 36-seat eatery was known for its dumplings—some featuring unorthodox fillings, like braised beef with red wine and bleu cheese—as well as its sandwiches on housemade scallion pancakes. Its top seller: the Double Awesome, comprising two “oozy” eggs, Vermont cheddar, and pesto made from local greens.
When COVID hit, Li converted Mei Mei into a dumpling production facility; its wares are now sold at area farmers’ markets as well as by mail order. (A presence in retail stores is in the works.)
The operation will soon move to a larger space in South Boston, which will also serve meals on a limited basis. “It’s a way for us to still be involved in food,” she says, “but without all of the complexity of a restaurant.”
Mei Mei has continued to offer its popular dumpling-making classes, both for corporate clients and for the public. They were taught online during the shutdown, and in-person sessions have resumed. “The virtual classes were huge during COVID,” Li notes, “and the revenue really helped us get through the pandemic.”
The Beard Leadership Award came, in part, in recognition of Li’s efforts to improve working conditions in kitchens and dining rooms, as well as her several philanthropic projects. Currently, her main focus is Prepshift, a tech start-up she co-founded that aims to streamline onboarding and orientation for culinary workers.
“It’s focused on helping owners and operators make sure their staff have everything they need to be successful—from the compliance stuff that’s normally found in a handbook to ‘Which door should I enter on my first day?’ to ‘Is there somewhere I can park my car?’” Li explains.
“In restaurants, all too often you’re expected to learn by osmosis, which is not a real training strategy,” she continues. “So the goal is to increase both job performance and quality—and my conviction is that it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game between owners and workers. If the right structures are in place, everybody can win.”
Li also helped found the nonprofit Project Restore Us, which provides affordable and culturally appropriate groceries to Boston residents living in “food deserts”—neighborhoods without accessible markets.
She served on the board of CommonWealth Kitchen, which supports food entrepreneurs from underserved groups, and helped launch its Restaurant Resiliency Initiative, which coached independent owners on navigating the pandemic, including how to apply for federal and state grants.
“I’m an Ivy League-educated young person—and even for me, forms from the Small Business Administration are impossible to get through,” she says. “Trying to put resources in the places where they’re needed most was really rewarding.”
Food: A family passion
While Li never planned on a culinary career, she notes that food was very much at the center of life for her Chinese-American clan as she was growing up. “I think every family gathering was about, ‘What are we eating for dinner?’” she recalls. “And at every dinner, it was like, ‘What are we eating tomorrow for dinner?’”
As an undergrad with her own apartment downtown, Li made weekly trips to the Ithaca Farmers Market as a way to decompress. “Lots of people go there just to eat, and that was definitely me at first,” she says. “But once you get past the cider donuts and breakfast burritos, there’s all this produce and meat and lots of really interesting people.”
Along with her brother and sister, Li launched the original Mei Mei food truck during a leave of absence from Cornell she took after their father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. (Li, who’d handled the culinary side of the operation, eventually bought her siblings out of the business.)
On top of the Beard rising star nods, Li’s creative cuisine made her a “30 Under 30” honoree by both Forbes and Zagat.
In 2019, she and her siblings published a cookbook, Double Awesome Chinese Food: Irresistible and Totally Achievable Recipes from Our Chinese-American Kitchen, which landed on year’s-best lists by NPR and the Boston Globe.
“What I love about cooking is the way that a meal can be transformative—how food can surprise us, can comfort us,” Li observes. “Seeing the way that people respond to food you’ve cooked—to me, that’s the most magical part.”