Shi Mei will open Lenox Sophia, a modern American restaurant, in the old KO Catering & Pies space in South Boston (87 A Street) this fall. It’s what he would have named his toddler, had the tot been born a girl instead of a boy.
The South End native, 41, got his start working at Whole Foods as a financial analyst, then detoured to Johnson & Wales University for culinary school. From there, he ended up in northern California, eventually becoming a saucier at the acclaimed French Laundry. Back in Boston, he’s worked at Asta, Whaling in Oklahoma, and Buttonwood.
As for his own restaurant?
“I call it fine dining without the sticker shock,” he says.
What’s the first restaurant that you ever visited in Boston? Not so much in Boston, but I’d say Hilltop Steakhouse in Saugus. I think I was 14 at the time. My dad had just bought a car. We’d driven by many times, and I remember seeing that big old cactus that draws you in like a fly! I said, “Dad, let’s go here!” He said the line was too long — it used to wrap around the porch. One day he finally said, “Let’s go.” We waited for a solid hour and 20 minutes. We sat down and ate, and it was great. I remember having my own steak, my own potato, my own salad, and I could choose my dressing! It was so memorable because it was my own food, basically. This was back in 1991 or 1992.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? I want to say the imbalance in pay between back and front of the house. It’s disheartening when a server has a great night and says, “Oh, I made $500!” Then the dishwasher is working his ass off at $10 an hour. It’s disheartening for the back of the house people.
What other restaurants do you visit? In my free time, Peach Farm in Chinatown, S&I for Thai food, Matt Murphy’s for fish and chips, and Mul’s Diner for one pancake. I just love their pancakes.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants? I remember I used to help my mom in the kitchen cleaning vegetables, washing rice. One day when I was 12, she handed me a cleaver and asked me to debone a pork shoulder. My dad was in the restaurant business. He came home, and I told him I wanted to be a chef. He said, “Let’s start with being a dishwasher first.” He worked in Chinese-American suburban restaurants.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? This was in Venice, Italy. I remember my wife and I stopped in to grab dinner at 8 o’clock. They didn’t take reservations. We checked in with the host, and he was like, “You’ll be next.” Two other parties then came in and sat before us. Maybe because we didn’t speak Italian? I asked for a table, and he gave me the ugliest, most snide look I’ve ever gotten and said, “You don’t have to eat here if you don’t want to.” We went somewhere else. We went to the supermarket to get tuna salad. It was getting late.
How could the Boston food scene improve? That’s a good question. I would like to see more owner-operated restaurants as opposed to all these big chains opening. You get a sense when you walk in that they want you there, as opposed to wanting your money.
How has the restaurant scene changed since you first arrived in Boston? It’s become a lot more diverse. I remember Chinese-American and mom-and-pop Italian restaurants. And the South End is just a lot of empty nesters coming back into the city, that’s what I’ve noticed. Back when I grew up, my curfew was 9 p.m. The sun goes down, your butt is home. Now you see families with strollers, kids walking around. It’s so inviting now — and unaffordable at the same time.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Well-informed, skeptical, and, once you win them over, they’re really loyal.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? Taking a food picture before you even eat the food!
What type of restaurant is Boston missing? I lived in Texas for a couple years, so I’d say classic Texas pit barbecue. I know we have a lot of barbecue restaurants, but nobody does classic pit-style, low and slow.
What are you reading? Since I’m opening a restaurant, I’m reading “Setting the Table” by Danny Meyer and “Lessons in Service From Charlie Trotter.”
How’s your commute? It’s great. When the restaurant opens, I’ll [be] a mile away. I’ll bike or drive. I live in the South End.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? Bitter melon. Hate it. Ugh! Too bitter.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? Hamersley’s Bistro, when it used to be in the South End. It was my first prix-fixe meal.
Who was your most memorable customer? I signed up for a charity called City on a Hill. The Gilmartins won an auction. I cooked for them in Vermont, the warmest people I ever met. They offered to let me stay at their place, which was so nice. They opened their home to me, and I was there to cook them dinner. But they ended up cooking me food instead!
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? I would say a slice of cheese pizza from Santarpio’s in East Boston with a side of lamb skewers.