Part three of a three-part series by Emma James, a Mei Mei intern who spent a month interviewing our staff, guests and suppliers on our people, food & culture.
What’s a restaurant without food? More specifically, what is Mei Mei without responsibly-sourced, quality ingredients?
From the start, Mei Mei has prided itself on using better ingredients, not just in taste and in quality, but also in terms of food justice. Irene Li, co-founder and littlest mei mei of the restaurant explains that food justice “ties into environmental justice... people need access to fresh and nutritious food, and it has to do with urban planning, distribution, and the industrial food system.”
The restaurant works directly with local family farms and local food aggregators to get ingredients. When Mei Mei business manager Caden Salvata started in July 2012, Mei Mei worked with Farm Fresh Rhode Island, a non-profit “hub for local food.” Caden knew Farm Fresh from his co-op days in Providence - they were established then, and now they’re the biggest player in Boston. Since that food hub boomed, “all the big vendors, more traditional broadline distributors, have come on board and have forayed into the sustainable regional food industry,” some of which Mei Mei also works with, such as woman-owned food distributor Dole & Bailey.
But just because Mei Mei collaborates with food aggregators that promise smoother farm-to-table logistics than farmer’s markets, it’s still not easy. Food and Beverage Director Peter Schantz manages all Mei Mei food ordering for day-to-day restaurant needs as well as in-house and off-site events. Peter explains that “stuff grown in Massachusetts is a lot more expensive than stuff you can get from the broad range purveyors. It’s so much cheaper to grow things in Chile, Mexico and California and ship it wherever than it is to own enough land to produce a reasonable amount of vegetables in Massachusetts.” While other restaurants might pay less than fifty cents per pound of onions, Peter reports that Mei Mei is “paying anywhere from a dollar-forty to two dollars-fifty cents per pound,” a price that ensures reducing food waste is another part of the Mei Mei way: making the most of ingredients by, for example, using kale leaves in salads and saving the stems for pesto that goes on The Double Awesome sandwich.
Caroline Pam, co-owner of Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland, Massachusetts, a fifty-acre certified-organic vegetable farm she started with her husband in 2006, supplies Mei Mei with vegetables and Kitchen Garden’s famous sriracha through Market Mobile, a distribution system under Farm Fresh Rhode Island. Mei Mei first crossed their path back in 2012, when Irene drove out to pick up Mei Mei’s first order. Caroline has a “love of food and cooking” that led her to start a then-one-acre plot, which high-quality organic growing “evolved to meet growing demand from wholesale buyers”; Kitchen Garden is currently growing kale, head lettuce, radishes, turnips, carrots, beets, scallions, onions, cabbages, broccoli, brussels sprouts, eggplants, summer squash, cucumbers, Asian greens, tomatoes, tomatillos, and “a stupid amount, like 150 varieties, of peppers,” from which they make their famous sriracha that Mei Mei holds so dear, as well as salsas and soon, more food products that people “know that is grown and produced with care.” Caroline describes her and her husband as “passionate cooks [who] love working with people who are really interested in great food and a real diversity of culinary and global inspirations,” because “appreciating food of other cultures is the door to people connecting.” (Caroline had to get off the phone to continue bunching kale.)
"To have fresh and nutritious food to eat is definitely part of environmental justice, it has to do with urban planning, distribution, and the industrial food system." - Irene Li, CO-FOUNDER and OWNER of MEI MEI RESTAURANT
Our policy on meat is that it all must be “pasture-raised and regional,” which Peter explains means Mei Mei pays three to five times more than for conventional or even organic. Peter highlights that “organic” refers to responsible feed and medication for the animals, but does not necessarily mean responsible living conditions.
Heather Standford, owner of The Piggery, a 70-acre pig farm in Trumansburg, New York, supplies Mei Mei with our ham and bacon. Allandale Farm in Jamaica Plain sells Mei Mei vegetables wholesale, including scallions and peppers, and also hosts community dinners that Mei Mei has collaborated on, where Chelsea McNiff, one of Allandale’s two Farmstand Managers and their CSA Coordinator, says “guests get to enjoy some amazing food that Mei Mei uses our produce in.” Chelsea, who comes from a restaurant family, finds it “really impressive and admirable when chefs can create a menu that’s based on what’s available seasonally and when restaurants support local little farms like ours,” and she’s “so glad we can work as a team together.”
“Appreciating food of other cultures is the door to people connecting.” -Caroline Pam, Kitchen Garden Farm
But even though the food truck might be off the road for vending, Mei Mei is still on the move. While in the beginning, using only one aggregator, Mei Mei needed the flexibility of having four different, ever-changing menus, but, to Peter, the central question evolved towards “what choices do we make to be a consistent, growing-quality company that provides for our employees versus sticking to extremely strict moral guidelines of ‘only local, only seasonal?’” Now, as Mei Mei takes action towards making the food industry a better place, they decided to develop one, super awesome menu across all branches of the business. Simplifying allowed Mei Mei to make the best possible tasting dishes they can, and ensure that, with the use of their main aggregators, Farm Fresh Rhode Island and Dole & Bailey, as well as Hudson Valley Harvest and more, chefs never “86” (a restaurant term used for running out of an ingredient).
As we worked to condense our many dishes into one central Mei Mei menu, we had to make the best noms possible. Emily Ko, Mei Mei’s sous-chef for six years, found herself surprised with “how fulfilling it was to make fewer things but make them really carefully,” but knew the food “need[ed] to be very specific from the prep, sourcing, and pricepoint standpoint, and something you can serve at a restaurant that looks good.” Emily says she’s “really interested in the logistical, engineering challenge to figure out all of that,” because she “care[s] more about the quality than the fanciness of it.”
When unveiling the first version of the new menu, it was just that -- a first version. Logen Zimmerman, the operations manager for the School of Visual Arts at Boston University, is among Mei Mei’s most dedicated guests, so we knew he’d have good feedback to offer at a taste-testing session: he shared his love for the Beetnik, the Gabby, both types of fritters, the Javelin Fries, and shares that he “wants to try it all, but [he] wants to balance it and combo things.”
In choosing which beverages to sell, we consider with the same care. Our wines and teas are all local to New England, and we sell Spindrift Seltzer, a really cool brand that’s made in Boston and uses real ingredients, not just sneaky “natural flavors” that most seltzer brands legally don’t have to disclose -- “to that extent,” Irene said, “we identify with that mission a lot, which is, ‘the standards are low, you deserve better, here’s an alternative for you.’”
When your order’s up on the counter, you can get just a little taste of all this work that so many people put so much work into. And of course, when you’re done, what do we do with extra food, drink, or sauce? It’s simple -- we compost! The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the amount of uneaten food from homes and restaurants is valued at $390 per consumer, more than 30 percent of our country’s food supply; because Mei Mei Restaurant is just a stop in our big food system, it’s our duty to ensure the planet will be a growable, breathable, livable space for everyone.
"It's really impressive and admirable when restaurants support local little farms like ours." -Chelsea McNiff, Allandale Farm
If Emily hadn’t been here at the restaurant, she shared, she “would’ve heard someone like Irene’s food mission and been like, ‘that’s very cool, but I don’t know if it’ll work,’” and shared that “it’s heartening to know that [this work] is possible.”
Emma James, a Mei Mei blog contributor and student interested in journalism and environmental law and equity, recently graduated from Milton Academy in nearby Milton, Mass, and soon sets sail for Columbia University in NYC. Her favorite Mei Mei dishes are the Double Awesome (of course), the Beef and Brocc, the Roasted Honey Carrots, and the Black Bean Broccoli!