2022 Leadership Award Winner Irene Li
Co-founder of Mei Mei and PrepshiftRebecca Treon
June 02, 2022
The James Beard Foundation’s Leadership Awards spotlight the important and complex realms of sustainability, food justice, and public health. They raise awareness of these timely issues by celebrating the visionaries responsible for creating a healthier, safer, and more equitable and sustainable food system. Below, Rebecca Treon spoke with 2022 James Beard Leadership Award honoree Irene Li about how she is investing in her community and her staff.
Amid a wildly fluctuating restaurant industry over the past few years, Irene Li has shown her resilience by responding to her community’s immediate needs, while holding true to her values.
Li is most notably known for her Boston-based restaurant Mei Mei—that she started as a food truck in 2011 with her brother Andrew and sister Margaret, before moving to a permanent brick and mortar space in 2013. Committed to sustainable and ethical sourcing, Li procured almost 70-percent of Mei Mei’s produce, plus regional pasture-raised meat, from local farms in New England.
Just as Li was getting ready to scale up in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic slammed the restaurant industry and Mei Mei, like so many restaurants, had to pivot. To survive, Li increased production of their most popular menu item: dumplings. Serving both traditional and non-traditional flavors (think savory lemongrass pork and pie filled bite-sized treats), Li began to teach virtual dumpling-making classes to supplement the new business direction.
But even in the midst of a chaotic, shifting industry, Li found ways to give back. In 2020, she established Project Restore Us with restaurateurs Lily Huang and Tracy Chang—a nonprofit that utilizes the restaurant supply chain to distribute food to immigrant and working-class families in need. Within the first two months, the organization delivered 50 tons of food, and today, continues to provide culturally appropriate food to communities in the Boston area. In addition to this work, Li serves on the board of local anti-hunger and food access-focused nonprofits Haley House, Lovin’ Spoonfuls, and Project Bread.
“This work is really about addressing hunger and food insecurity, while looking at the root [and] structural causes for it,” says Li. “There’s a lot of opportunity for the restaurant and food industry to be more deeply engaged with food justice issues, without having to donate huge amounts of money or time. The food movement is moving out of the way for the food justice movement, and I would like to see chefs make themselves relevant to both.”
Li’s passion for the food industry goes beyond what’s on the plate and extends to the well-being of workers. During the pandemic, Li realized that, for many, restaurant work was a dead-end job with little long-term investment from either employers or staff. To address this issue, Li engaged her team in “open book management", a type of business model that empowers workers by providing them with training and decision-making power across all aspects of the restaurant.
“It’s not necessarily second nature for restaurant operators to invest in the long-term training and career success of their employees. But I looked around and realized they don’t have health insurance, they don’t have retirement, and I’m doing them a huge disservice. How can I push the status quo forward?” said Li.
This work led to the creation of Prepshift, a digital training tool made for restaurant owners to onboard, orient, and invest in staff, with a goal of building culture and reducing turnover. In this way, Li hopes this tool can help train and build up the next generation of industry workers for the better.
“We wanted to empower our staff to have a stake in improving the big picture,” said Li.
Rebecca Treon is a Denver-based freelance food and travel writer whose work has taken her around the globe. Her work has appeared in publications like BBC Travel, Hemispheres, Huff Post, and Tasting Table. Follow her on Instagram at @RebeccaTreon.