The Mei Mei team — first with their truck and now with their eight-month-old restaurant, too — have made the responsible sourcing and use of meat a top priority, from building close, transparent relationships with their farmers to using meat as an embellishment rather than the main bulk of a dish. It can be an uphill battle in a society where many diners feel cheated if their plate isn't covered with meat, but the Mei Mei concept continues to evolve towards that goal.
For The Five Days of Meat, here's Irene Li and Max Hull on how they see the role of meat changing, why a little Portlandia-style questioning isn't necessarily a bad thing, and more.
Although you've played with some really creative meat-focused dishes in the past, it's not uncommon to find non-meat ingredients as the stars in your dishes nowadays. How have your feelings on meat's role changed?
Max Hull: Everybody loves meat, especially now that there are, like, whole cults around specific things — like the whole bacon situation, for better or worse. I think that at least for me, I just cooked so much meat — it's great, it's delicious, there's no denying that — but it has such a huge cost, not only monetarily but potentially environmentally. Even worse, depending on your perspective — after awhile, it just gets boring. There's only so much steak you can eat before you think, "The last 15 bites I've had all tasted the same. Delicious, sure, but I'm ready for something else."
With that in mind, I think that meat can be used as either just another component in a more complex dish, rounding out the profiles of that dish — or as a seasoning. Charcuterie especially lends itself to that with its deep, rich flavor. In a vegetable dish, you can have basically as many different vegetables as you want, as long as it's not confused, and that makes for a much more interesting eating experience. Meat can really help a dish like that become more whole and more enjoyable, but it doesn't really work in the reverse. You can cram 10 different animals on a plate, but they'll all just suffer for it.
Similarly, meat that is well-raised and with a lot of care is more delicious and a lot more expensive — rightly so — so it lends itself to smaller portions where you can really enjoy all of the care that was spent raising the animal and hopefully preparing the meat itself.
Irene Li: I think a lot of diners still are not happy unless they are eating a lot of meat, and I definitely feel that way sometimes. Especially when we first opened the truck, we got a lot of questions: "What's your meat option?" or "Where's the chicken?" A lot of people just want to eat a lunch or a sandwich that is stuffed with meat, and I like that as much as the next person, but we really have tried to find ways to focus on different, lighter flavors that are more exciting and that you want to eat more of.
When our review came out in the Globe, it said something like, "Mei Mei is a cheery place that excels at large-format meat dishes," and we thought that that was a huge compliment, but we also kind of wanted to push past that and cook food that was more interesting to us. So while that was very flattering, it also reminded us the reason we do this is to support good meat and responsible eating of meat, and a lot of that has to do with serving less of it and hoping that the food is good enough that customers aren't going to be pissed off that they're not eating eight ounces of whatever.
A good example is the chicken dish that we used to serve, the five spheres chicken, which was basically a half chicken rolled up and served up with a bunch of different things. That was an expensive dish, and it was a fair amount of meat — although I'm sure not enough for some people — and that came off the menu as soon as the chickens that we were buying, which were pasture-raised in Massachusetts, became unavailable. Now the chickens are back, but instead of bringing that dish back, we have a Thai-based green curry on the menu that features some gorgeous vegetables like local green cherry tomatoes, little turnips, summer peas, and pieces of chicken. The chicken and everything else in it tastes so good, and to me, that dish represented some small amount of growth for us in terms of light, veggie-focused food.
There are a lot of words having to do with sourcing that have become kind of meaningless buzzwords. What are the things to look out for when trying to source meat responsibly?
IL: Organic, humanely raised, pasture-raised — those are definitely all buzzwords that signify a lot of practices and ideals that are not carefully regulated or monitored, so I think all of those labels are not really a substitute for knowing your farmer or your distributor and feeling like you trust them and share their values. One reason that we focus on pasture-raised — beyond the fact that we just think that it's healthier for everyone if animals live outside, and we think they taste better that way too — but we also have found that the kinds of farmers who take the care and the time and the space to raise their animals outside typically share all those other values that come in that set, like slow food and caring for the Earth and soil.
There are a lot of ways that restaurant owners or chefs can signify the quality of their food through things other than the food, like the kind of service or the wine list or the decor. But I think that at some point the diner and/or the chef is overlooking some very basic principles about where food comes from and how food should be produced, and I do feel often that diners are not interested anymore in hearing about that, and that's something that makes me really sad. I think it's because there's so much noise out there about what's right and what's wrong, and so we have always just tried to be really clear about what it is that we do and to kind of let that speak for itself.
We've been to other restaurants and been in other kitchens and tried to introduce chefs to some of the purveyors that we work with, and some of them really care and are interested, and some of them, not so much, so we have learned a lot about what the industry standards are. We wish there were more transparency all around the food system, in retail, in restaurants. If diners had all of that information, and it were clear, then I think that that would give us a lot to go on as a food culture, to making better choices.
What questions could diners ask at restaurants...without becoming a Portlandia episode?
IL: [Laughs.] Yeah, we're already a Portlandia episode, I think…
MH: Yeah, it is a thin line that you walk, getting the information that you feel you need as a diner and becoming an insufferable yuppie jerk.
IL: We feel that way sometimes at the farmers' market. Farmers work hard; we don't want to grill them about their practices, about what they think is right or wrong. I think that makes it the responsibility of the restaurant owner to put that information out there. Having a restaurant and offering hospitality is all about making the guest comfortable and feeling like they're being taken care of. We post all that information on the chalkboard in our restaurant, and it's also on the backs of all of our menus. We don't want you to have to ask any questions that you don't want to ask. We want that information to be there for you. You don't have to make any assumptions about it, or you don't have to put that piece of steak in your mouth and hope that it was raised a certain way.
On the other hand, the Portlandia sketch — yeah, that stuff is ridiculous, but the flipside of that is that ndustrial animal farming is as ridiculous...and it's horrible, and it's real. How chickens are raised...the flipside is equally bad, if not way worse. Chickens in particular are a really incredible example of what industrial farming is like. We've read about practices with debeaking, sexing the chickens, grinding up all the male ones, chickens flocking onto a wall to commit suicide in huge groups. It's crazy. It feels funny to watch that skit, and at the same time there's a lot of either not knowing what happens in industrial farming or just not wanting to think about it.
MH: In a perfect world, diners should feel comfortable asking any question about where the food that they are going to be paying for is coming from, especially because food in particular is such an intimate thing, right? It becomes a piece of you. You should not be shy about making sure you are getting what it is you feel you want or need. I know that there can sometimes be something of an adversarial relationship between the kitchen and the diner, especially with very specific or esoteric dietary needs, but at the end of the day any restaurant that is worth the business that it's getting should be happy to provide that information and frankly proud and heartened that people are asking for it.
What other restaurant owners in Boston are doing a really good job in this vein, in your opinion?
IL: One person whom we really admire is Chris Cronin from the Washington Square Tavern. Not only is he doing a ton of crazy stuff, like insane periods of dry-aging and lots of other things that are kind of unusual, but I think he sort of taught himself, and relative to a lot of chefs who are using techniques like that, he is kind of toiling away in some level of obscurity — and I think he kind of likes it that way. They're not a restaurant like ours where we are all over social media promoting every single farm we work with; I think he is just doing it because he thinks it's cool, and he knows it's the right thing, and that's really, really inspiring to us. Any given day, we'll go in there for a drink or a charcuterie platter, and he'll tell us about the four or five whole animals or portions of animals that he has in his walk-in, and you don't really see that in most restaurants.
MH: I don't have a particularly intimate knowledge about the entire sourcing practices of other restaurants, but a lot of the people that we know and consider friends in the industry — everybody's trying. All of the big names that you hear, Jamie Bissonnette and all those guys, they get the best quality product that they can, and I think that that's where the bottom line is for the overwhelming majority of chefs. The morality of the situation is one thing, but when you're trying to put out the best product that you can, it comes down to deliciousness. Very often those two things line up, but depending on what kind of food you're trying to do, there's only so far you can go with the whole local or pasture-raised or whatever thing.
On the spectrum, there are people like Cuisine en Locale — their practices are essentially unimpeachable, which is great — and then I think everybody falls as high on that spectrum as they can given their situation. For us, we have made it a priority to focus on what we think is doing the right thing, and as a result, our menu can be...
IL: Kinda weird.
MH: Maybe we only have two kinds of protein on the menu at a given time, or maybe it takes us six months before we put seafood on the menu. That is the cost for us, and I think it's worth it, but other people's priorities are different, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's just a value judgment.
IL: That's one reason why we have worked hard to meet people and promote the farms we work with. I think that a lot of people source in an average manner because they don't think that there are better options, and I'm sure that five years ago, ten years ago, there weren't, but I think that the food and farming scene in New England is getting closer and closer to the point where the region can really be supporting itself in terms of food. We do think a lot at Mei Mei about supporting the growth of infrastructure. That's why we talk about slaughterhouses and food hubs; businesses like that make what we do possible, so when we start working with a new farmer or a new distributor, we always want to know what we can do for them and how they can grow and how we can make all of that stuff available to more chefs.
One other thing — I was thinking back to last summer when we took a crew of our staff up to Pete and Jen's Backyard Birds in Concord. We helped them process and slaughter chickens for a day, and I really recommend that experience to anyone who wants to be thoughtful about what they eat and where it comes from. The bottom line for me, after a day there covered in chicken guts and being sweaty and all that, was that producing food takes a lot of work, and you're not just paying for the product. You're paying for all of the things that go into creating good food, all of the workers, all of the infrastructure, the mobile processing unit, the big spinning thing that takes the feathers off the chickens. Even knowing what we know from being passionate about this and having read books and blogs, the hands-on experience of getting a little taste of what doing that commercially is actually like was a really crazy awesome experience for us.
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