Taste Bud Profile
You may know Chef Mei Lin from her Top Chef victory, or her delicious Umamei XO sauces, or from the drool-inducing crispy-chicken pics from Daybird in LA—but I was thrilled in this conversation to hear more about how these delicious culinary adventures all started for her. Chef Mei grew up in and around restaurants, naturally curious about foods and exploring new ingredients with her grandparents and friends. Deciding to be a chef was about realizing what made her happy, and recognizing that those early experiences had in many ways shaped her life.
Mei Lin: I grew up around food. My parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents all worked in and owned restaurants. My family all lived on the same street, so while my parents and aunts and uncles were working 6 days a week, my grandparents really raised us at home. My grandfather used to take us to the market, and I think that’s what made me really love grocery shopping. To this day, I’m still amazed by walking through aisles seeing all the colors, smelling everything. I remember asking my grandfather questions in the market, and he always had an explanation. I grabbed what I thought was a banana, and he corrected me: it was a plantain. I didn’t really understand the difference, because I had no context for a thing that looked like a banana not being a banana. When we got home, he prepared it by frying it, smashing it, frying it again, and then scrambling eggs and adding the plantain pieces. I thought it was crazy that he was putting banana in egg! But then I ate it and realized it was so savory, so unexpected, and then I understood that it was not, in fact, a banana. I don’t think I understood when he was explaining it, but I did understand when he showed me.
I spent a lot of time in our family restaurants. When I was 9 or 10 years old, I started going to work with my dad every Saturday. We’d leave the house in the morning, and he’d start his prep work in the kitchen while I helped the servers with their side work. I filled ramekins with plum sauce and soy sauce, peeled pea pods, cleaned vegetables, all sorts of little jobs till service started. Then I’d help my aunt pack to-go orders. I really enjoyed it. My parents worked so much, so even though I didn’t really spend the time 1 one 1 with my dad, I still appreciated the time we had together. The drive to and from the restaurant was just us in the car for 20 minutes, and I got to be at his place of work and see him in his element.
Growing up in an Asian household, the idea was always that the kids would work in medicine, or law, or anything other than the restaurant industry. My parents said that the hours were grueling, the environment wasn’t always the best, and that it was just a hard and stressful lifestyle. They didn’t want that for their child. So I went to college, but it wasn’t until my second year that I realized I wasn’t happy. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. One of my friends said to me, “why don’t you enroll in culinary school? You love cooking. You love everything to do with food. You could be a chef!” And honestly, because of my background, I had never even really considered it. So I enrolled in culinary school and the rest is history.
I grew up in Dearborn, MI, which has a pretty significant Middle Eastern population. Trying foods that I wouldn’t get in my own house was a big part of my childhood, and I think carried in to my life today. Since my parents were so busy, I’d often go to friends’ homes after school, and their moms or grandmas would be cooking something. I got really immersed in Lebanese home cooking that way. I ate chicken shawarma sandwiches and stuff like that all the time, but I can remember the first time I tried really good hummus, and also kibbeh. I thought it was the strangest thing and I couldn’t make myself try it at first—but I did, and I was just mesmerized. It was so delicious, and the flavor profiles and textures were so far away from what I was used to at home. I feel like because of those early experiences, I live the Taste Bud pledge on a daily basis. One of the things I really miss right now is being able to travel—that’s where so much of my inspiration comes from. Being able to try new foods and really immerse myself in another culture is so important to me. So that idea of trying something twice, and not judging before tasting—that’s something I try to live every day!
I think learning to appreciate food is so important. It’s not available to everyone everywhere all the time. Learning to appreciate that idea, appreciate the things we have and the food in front of you is so important to understand value in life.
There’s so much waste that happens both at home and in the industry, so learning early how to make more sustainable choices and limit waste is so crucial. All of this starts at home. Kids remember things from early on, so simply instilling good habits early like recycling and reusing things means that it’s likely that those habits will stick with them their whole lives. And I think that keeping them involved in the process means they’re more likely to remember and make good decisions for themselves too. I’m always excited when kids come in to my restaurant and eat everything. I think that stems from the home too—for both the parent and the kid, it makes such a huge difference to just be open to trying everything from an early age.