Stories / Impact, Events

Making Room for All the Voices

How Boston’s Raising the Bar event speaks to the future of the city’s restaurant scene

Irene Li

March 03, 2020

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Irene Li and Asha Dirshe of Mei Mei photo by Melissa Ostrow/Mel O Photo
Irene Li and Asha Dirshe of Mei Mei (photo: Melissa Ostrow/Mel O Photo)

In our ongoing op-ed series, we’re featuring voices from the culinary community and their personal positions on the food-system issues they’re most passionate about.  

Our latest piece comes from Irene Li, chef and owner of Mei Mei in Boston. Below, Li shares on her recent experience helping to curate the lineup for our recent Raising the Bar cocktail party, and why she was motivated to shine a spotlight on culinary professionals who may not always get to be center stage.

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Great food and drink tells stories that feel both highly personal and universally human. On February 6, an unprecedentedly diverse roster of chefs and mixologists convened at the Boston Public Market for the James Beard Foundation’s Taste America presented by Capital One event, Raising the Bar. The participants and their stories traced across the globe, from the Philippines to Venezuela to Nigeria and Dorchester, Massachusetts.

Love us or hate us, everyone knows that Boston is a proud city, and at Raising the Bar, I felt that pride acutely. The thing is, I usually don’t. I love my hometown more than ever, and yet I’m constantly aware of its areas for improvement, especially with regards to racial and economic equity.

Our public schools are growing more segregated, and research shows that income inequality circumscribes not just where we live, but also “where [we] shop, eat, and spend free time.And while the racial and gender wage gap is frequently cited, study results on the wealth gap are much more sobering: white households in Boston have a median net worth of $247,500, while African-American households in Boston have a median net worth of just $8. That’s not a typo; it’s the product of a long history of anti-Black racism.

I know we like to think of restaurants as meritocratic melting pots where anyone from any country can work their way to the top, but Boston’s restaurant scene reflects these broader social issues. The Mei Mei team’s analysis of Boston Magazine’s most recent “Best Restaurants in Boston” list revealed that out of over 100 chefs and owners, only one is Black. Women and other people of color are similarly underrepresented. Black licensees represent a negligible number of the city’s 1,110 total license holders. Most of our best restaurants are primarily white spaces where diners of color are likely to be “the only one.” In a Spotlight series focused on racism in Boston, the Boston Globe reports that “there are only a small number of restaurants in which black diners report that they can dependably find other black people…the downtown dining and social scene does not reflect the city’s full diversity.”

When I was invited to help craft the roster for Raising the Bar, I thought about how to make room for the people, the foods, and the stories that exist in our city, whether they’re visible to the general, restaurant-going public or not. I put together my dream roster of chefs and mixologists from a variety of backgrounds, cooking in different styles and at different price points—and much to my pleasure, everyone we invited (who was available that night) said yes.

Chef Josue Louis of Bistro du Midi (photo: Melissa Ostrow/Mel O Photo)
Chef Josue Louis of Bistro du Midi (photo: Melissa Ostrow/Mel O Photo)

There is a special tension when people like us, people who are sometimes or often “the only ones,” are invited into mainstream spaces bearing a name as revered as the Beard Foundation’s. As chef Josue Louis of Bistro du Midi remarked, “we all understand the significant challenges that arise when one stands alone in an otherwise homogeneous space.” Trying to create a diverse space means that some of the previously unrepresented people invited will bear the burden of being the “first” or the “only.” It is an honor, yes, but not always an easy or comfortable one. At Raising the Bar, instead of standing alone, we were able to be together. There was no “only” chef of color. There was no “only” queer person, no “only” woman, no “only” immigrant. In fact, one Black attendee remarked that it felt like “an awesome high school reunion.” And that’s why I felt so proud.

I’m proud that our chefs and mixologists showed up, represented themselves and told their stories, and I’m proud that our city came out in incredible numbers to support them. Chef Ellie Tiglao from tanám put it best: it was “a huge moment for the future of food in Boston.” Raising the Bar signified what the future of restaurants in Boston could be: how diverse, how special, how authentically personal. I hope that our attendees will now be better able to imagine that future, and to fight for it alongside us.

See where else we're traveling during our Taste America by Capital One tour.

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Irene Li is the chef and owner of Mei Mei Restaurant in Boston, a multiple James Beard Award semifinalist, and the food and culture columnist at WBUR's The ARTery. Follow her on instagram @ireneshiangli.