The James Beard Foundation chose a Boston chef for a leadership award this year even though the pandemic forced her Park Drive restaurant to close.
Chef Irene Li never reopened the business, but she turned that traumatic moment in her career – the closure of Mei Mei – into an opportunity to better serve her community.
"There are lots of bittersweet feelings about closing the restaurant," Li said, "but I think that what we've done is more sustainable for the long term. Not just from a business perspective, but also for all the incredible people who work here and really make Mei Mei what it is."
Li's pivot from pandemic stress to business sustainability transformed her Boston restaurant space into a commercial kitchen for creating about 6,000 dumplings per week. They're sold at Farmer's Market and on the Mei Mei website. She also teaches dumpling-making classes.
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While the new business model was standing up, Li defaulted to helping her community through the COVID-19 pandemic. With Project Restore Us, she purchased what she calls "culturally appropriate groceries" at wholesale prices and repackaged them to distribute to families in need. There was a similar project to help restaurants get paid for feeding frontline healthcare workers.
Meanwhile, Commonwealth Kitchen's Restaurant Resiliency Initiative brought together a business support group for people of color who own Boston-area restaurants.
Margaret Pimentel is part of the Resiliency Group and gives a lot of the credit for her business' expansion to Irene Li.
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"As a small business vendor, especially minority business vendors, we find ourselves almost alone in what we're doing," Pimentel said. "What she identified as a need was the fact that we needed to become a village."
While the pandemic took her restaurant, it did not take away Li's passion for food service. She just had to refine what food service means.
"I'm not a bystander. If we have resources, I'm always going to try to figure out how to share them," Li said.