BOSTON – By 12:20 on a recent Monday, all but six seats at Mei Mei are filled and a line is forming at the counter for the first lunch pop up of Congee & Me, the creation of 29-year-old Brookline native Arielle Chernin. Radiating warmth that can’t be taught in hospitality school — though she attended one of the best — Chernin greets everyone who enters as if they are longtime friends. In fact, she confides, roughly half the clientele are first-timers. But she wants to make sure everyone fully appreciates this ancient Chinese dish that she grew up eating. “This isn’t a new thing at all,” she says. “It’s actually a very, very old thing. But for someone who’s never had it before, it’s an opportunity to learn and expand your palate.”
A traditional Chinese rice porridge, congee has evolved over time and geographical boundaries. Today every Asian culture has its own version. In different countries it is served as street food, in breakfast buffets, and at home. “[It is] kind of like tofu,” Chernin explains. “It takes on the flavor of whatever you put into it.”
At Congee & Me, Chernin and chefs Wesley Barrington and Angeline Chiang often turn tradition on its side, taking favorite American dishes and turning them into congee dishes. Diners who may not be familiar with this comfort food from another culture can ease into it with offerings like “Everything Bagel" Congee, in which smoked tofu, Furikake, lazy egg, and scallion oil emulate a more familiar local staple; and “Bacon, Egg & Cheese" Congee, with pork belly, lazy egg, smoked gouda, and tomato oil, a clever variation on a theme. “Pumpkin Pie" Congee is a cold, sweet, seasonal version featuring Kabocha squash, seeds, cinnamon, and coconut yogurt. “The O.G." Congee, with shredded chicken, Maitake mushroom, and tea egg, is more simply traditional, and delicious.
Congee & Me is strongly influenced by Chernin’s upbringing in what she describes as a “multicultural household” with her Chinese mother, Caucasian father, and two siblings. “Everything had a mix of Asian and American flavors,” she says. “My mom would cook Chinese food and my dad would add ketchup or something. One of our biggest family traditions is congee.” Traditionally, after her mother made the rice porridge, Chernin and her younger brother and sister would “open up the refrigerator, take out pretty much everything that’s in there and put them in as toppings.” Congee with peanut butter, Swiss cheese, or Brie was not uncommon. “It was a running family joke,” she says. “Who’s gonna come up with the next weird topping? That’s actually good?”
The burgeoning food entrepreneur has wanted to own a restaurant since she was a little girl. During her four years at Brookline High School, Chernin was active in the student-run restaurant, which serves breakfast and lunch for faculty, and participated in the program’s mini-management course. Next she attended Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration.
After college she spent roughly eight years in California, first as a manager at Nancy Silverton’s renowned Mozza restaurants in Newport Beach and Los Angeles, then at Pizzeria Delfina in San Francisco. Toward the end of her three-and-a-half year tenure there, Chernin says, “I entered the management burnout phase.” She started to think about “new ways to exercise my brain and to still stay passionate and excited about what I was doing.” Still hoping to someday own a restaurant, she launched Congee & Me while working at Pizzeria Delfina.
“When I was missing home a lot, the idea of familial food was very important and relevant to me,” she says. “I wanted to educate people on what [congee] is, how to eat it, why you eat it, why it’s important. I wanted to integrate it for the modern diner.”
Chernin moved back to Brookline in February, intending to “continue this congee journey.” She reached out to Mei Mei co-owner Irene Li, and shared her congee vision. Li offered her a space to host Congee & Me during the restaurant’s off hours. “It was everything I’d been wanting and hoping for,” Chernin says, “a restaurant that shared similar values and similar concept.” A mutual acquaintance introduced her to Barrington, who is married to Chiang. At the time the two were living and working together in Connecticut but have since relocated to the Boston area. “They knew exactly what I was talking about,” Chernin says. “They’ve been meshing cultures for their whole relationship.”
Since May, Chernin has held four Congee & Me pop ups at Mei Mei. Both parents and her sister, a junior at Brookline High School, are usually on hand, often pitching in (her brother lives in California). All but the lunch pop up have been weekend-long breakfast events and on all but one day (BU move-in day) the restaurant has been full, often with return diners. In September Chernin began work as general manager at Craigie on Main in Cambridge. She says chef-owner Tony Maws has been very supportive of her congee business, even bringing his family to a breakfast pop up.
At Congee & Me Chernin says her ongoing challenge is balancing her desire to avoid offending traditionalists while appealing to more contemporary culinary sensibilities. “My grandmother is probably rolling over in her grave,” she says. “But this is definitely a way to honor this very traditional dish and add modern twists to it.”
You can find future Congee & Me events at facebook.com/congeeandmeboston/.
Andrea Pyenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.