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Boston chef and restaurant owner Irene Li wins James Beard Award for leadership

Chef Irene Li, at Mei Mei Restaurant in Boston, in a file photo from 2018. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Chef Irene Li, at Mei Mei Restaurant in Boston, in a file photo from 2018. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

"Hope for the best, and prepare for the worst." That was a big part of the leadership approach that Boston chef and restaurant owner Irene Li said helped get her through all the twists and turns of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And that approach, along with Li's wider work in advocacy and the Boston food scene, caught the attention of the James Beard Foundation, which awards the so-called "Oscars of food."

On Wednesday, Li was named one of five recipients of this year's James Beard Leadership Awards, which recognize "the visionaries responsible for creating a healthier, safer, and more equitable, and sustainable food system," the foundation said in a press release. (Past recipients include former First Lady Michelle Obama and food journalist and author Michael Pollan.)

Li described the honor as "pretty surreal" — particularly against the backdrop of a public health crisis that has repeatedly upended both her restaurant, Mei Mei, and the lives of the staff members who keep it going.

The last two years have been "the most challenging and rewarding of my career," Li told WBUR.

"The right level of transparency and communication has been really important, especially when we're dealing with important matters like people's health and safety," Li said. "A lot of my job is not about leading in the active sense, but leading as someone who listens and takes as much feedback as possible."

Li said she was pleased to not only see the Beard Awards return after a two-year hiatus, but also that the list of 2022 recipients shows the foundation is "getting serious about representation and equity in the world of restaurants."

"In years past, it's been a little bit more homogenous, with white male chefs being very highly represented," Li said. "But this year, there are all kinds of restaurants on the list. I can't wait to go try some of them — many that I've never heard of before."

The food industry still has a long way to go in these areas, Li said, despite this year being "a great sign" that change is taking root.

At 31 years old, Li is the youngest person to win the Beard Award for leadership. She is also a six-time semifinalist for the foundation's Rising Star Chef award.

She earned recognition early in the pandemic when Mei Mei overhauled its business model in response to public health measures, like social distancing, which stifled the restaurant's operations. Mei Mei's brick-and-mortar location on Park Drive in Boston began filling up with groceries instead of hungry patrons, as Li began offering virtual dumpling-making classes and selling her wares at local farmers' markets.

The restaurant won praise for its transparency in March 2020 when Li publicly offered a peek into Mei Mei's finances.

Li has also worked at the intersection of food, equity and racial justice. Her work with CommonWealth Kitchen, for instance, helped support restaurant owners of color during the depths of the industry's COVID crisis. She also co-founded the organization Project Restore Us, which helped deliver food to families in communities hit hard by the pandemic. And she's a board member for the nonprofits Project Bread and The Food Project.

Among Li's latest ventures is a technology startup called Prepshift, which focuses on improving restaurant workplace culture.

On the business side, Li acknowledged she has navigated COVID from a privileged position, with more support and resources than some other restaurants. But she said the radically improvisational mindset the food industry adopted during the pandemic did do some good.

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"The creativity that we've seen during COVID, the grit, the willingness to just try anything — I feel like so much cool stuff came out of that," Li said. "And I'm just hoping that we don't lose that edge, even though COVID is receding and things are going back to 'normal.' "

Restaurants would do well to keep taking risks and "chase down ideas no matter how crazy they might feel," Li said.

As for the future of Boston's food industry? Li said she is optimistic about what's yet to come.

"There's still so much energy and so much ambition, and we have incredible new restaurants — and more diverse restaurants — opening all the time, in all of Boston's neighborhoods," she said.

That will soon include a new space of her own: Li said Mei Mei plans to open a dumpling factory with a storefront in South Boston later this year. Li called it yet another example of how COVID "pushed us to think about what else a restaurant can be."

"I'm really hopeful that the future in Boston is going to be a more delicious, more just, more diversity community of restaurants," Li said. "And I'm really excited to be a part of it."

Related:

Jack Mitchell Twitter Associate Producer
Jack Mitchell is an associate producer in WBUR's newsroom. He works across a wide spectrum of departments and shows — from the newscast unit, to WBUR.org, to Radio Boston.

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