Patrons of the tiny Brookline restaurant Mei Mei know to expect the freshest of healthy, ethically-sourced ingredients and creatively adventurous — not to mention extremely tasty — preparations. But Mei Mei, owned by chef Irene Li with her sister Mei and brother Andrew, also has garnered a reputation for its major commitment to reducing food waste.
The Lis’ latest initiative, the website Food Waste Feast (foodwastefeast.com), takes that commitment to a new level by helping home cooks think outside the box in using food that might normally hit the trash can. It includes a wide range of tips, lots of intriguing recipes, and articles like “5 Ways to Use Overripe Bananas,” featuring some new ideas on a familiar subject. (Try the pancakes made with just eggs and bananas!) It’s also very family-friendly, keeping in mind enticing ways to prepare foods for picky young eaters.
We recently caught up with Mei, who lives in Atlanta and wrote the restaurant’s first cookbook (coming out in 2019), and Irene, who is a four-time “James Beard Rising Star Chef” semifinalist and an “Under 30 Honoree” of Zagat and Forbes 30.
Q. I read that on average Americans throw away 20 pounds of food per month. Was that part of the inspiration for Food Waste Feast?
Mei: Yes. As restaurant owners, we understand how much food is being wasted across the food industry. It’s bad for our bottom line and a huge environmental issue. And as people who love to cook at home, we hate to see food wasted. It’s like throwing money in the trash, money that could be spent on something else. About 43 percent of food wasted is in homes.
Irene: And childhood hunger is a tremendous problem in our highly developed country, more pervasive than people know, and it’s heartbreaking. That’s not exactly what Food Waste Feast is about, but it’s connected. It’s not just about saving money but instilling an ethic in people and giving them ways to feel proud of what they cook and what they can save and not waste.
Q. How do you recommend people navigate your website to “cook creatively . . . and stop throwing out perfectly good food”?
Mei: Several ways. You can search by ingredient. If you have a lot of kale or leftover parsley and don’t know what to do, you can search by that and find out you can make herb oil or pesto. We encourage you not just to cook based on dishes you have in mind but look at the food you have and think what that can make. We have a bunch of “hero” recipes (because they help “rescue” food) based on what you have in the fridge. You can make fried rice, frittata, bread pudding, and rescue everything in your crisper drawer rather than throwing it out. Toss in cheese, meat. . . . The creative decisions are based on what you have, so you don’t have to go buy another ingredient and only use one tablespoon.
Q. In the long run, what do you hope to accomplish with this?
Mei: Our goal is to be a resource for people who have a desire to save money, help the environment, cook more creatively, help end hunger, support small farmers. . . . People just need some ideas. They can create meals out of what feels like nothing with just a little knowledge, like you can perk up wilted lettuce in an ice bath and cut the eyes off potatoes and sell-by dates are just suggestions.
Irene: Everything we do is informed by a love of fresh products and experimentation as home cooks. We don’t really follow recipes that carefully. It’s important for us to empower people to have confidence to do that, too, to use black beans instead of chick peas or collards instead of lettuce. If people waste less food, they might be more willing to spring for higher quality ingredients — organic tomatoes or local Brussels sprouts. There’s also an emotional component. We come from a Chinese family where frugality is important. There’s shame for a lot of people in throwing things out. There’s something very empowering about unpacking a fridge and making a meal that feels like a success. We want to bring that feeling to people.
Q. You’ve gotten some positive feedback through your Instagram account as well.
Mei: It’s a great place to have conversations about what others are doing and see their dishes. Sometimes it just takes seeing a photo to adapt a dish to whatever you have. Yesterday I put up a post about frozen fruit in smoothies, and someone wrote back about using frozen green grapes to chill wine. I love that.
Q. What are some easy habits people can adopt right away to reduce food waste in their own kitchens?
Mei: I have a bag in the freezer where I put all my veggie scraps, from mushroom stems to corn cobs and carrot peels, anything you’d normally throw out. When the bag is full, I simmer it into stock. It’s basically free. Restaurants have an “eat me first” box of things that should be cooked before anything else. You can do that at home. Put ingredients nearing the end of life at eye level. It keeps stuff from getting lost at the back of the crisper drawer. You can roast vegetables — tomatoes that are not pristine for salads or potatoes that are slightly soft — cooking makes them last a little longer. Do a Sunday roast and you have vegetables all week for omelets or quesadillas.
Irene: I like to grocery shop more often and buy fewer items. It’s a great way to manage inventory in your home fridge. And I recommend labeling things with a Sharpie and tape to remind you when you opened something. It makes it harder to ignore.
Q. What are your current favorite Food Waste Feast meals at home?
Mei: I keep puff pastry in the freezer and put in anything I have in the fridge. I make a lot of green sauces using up herbs and leaves with olive oil and lemon juice. Pour that over, pile on leftover bacon and sausage bits, cheese, and it looks amazing. It’s so simple and can take anything you have.
Irene: I really love soup. My immersion blender is my best friend. You can puree away a lot of imperfections. Soup can be cooked or raw, it’s easy to eat, very seasonal, you can get beautiful colors, and it’s very satisfying to eat all week.
Q. How can parents cultivate this ethic in children?
Mei: I try to involve my 3-year-old daughter in picking out and using fruits and vegetables. She loves to make smoothies, putting them in the blender with fruits, yogurt, a little juice. And I refuse to listen if she doesn’t like something. If she doesn’t like raw carrot today, she might like it cooked tomorrow. I just keep exposing her to different foods.
Irene: It’s really about enthusiasm and ingraining it in family life.