When you think of Detroit, I’m sure one (or all) of these come to mind; Blue-collar, 8 Mile, Henry Ford & GM. Motown oldies. Eminem. Maybe Kid Rock? But how about a female Chinese chef? What most don’t know about the city I grew up in is its deep cultural melting pot and the results from that kind of diversity. And Mei Lin is certainly a by-product from this environment.
Even though growing up in Detroit city’s prominent multicultural population, the Asian community is scarce. As a young girl, I did get bullied and picked on, but I never let it have an effect on me. Neither did Mei. The most difficult part was relating to the other kids, especially during the stages of adolescence. Just think about the difference in each other’s lunch-boxes, let alone a new and unfamiliar culture. And then coming from very typical standard Asian traditions, our parents strongly urged us to go to school to become a successful doctor or lawyer, where the idea of social conformity was the last thing we wanted to do. The Motor City gives you an edge, a sort of inner intensity that’s been mentally building up through the years. Survival of the fittest, if you will. You’ll definitely develop a backbone. The 313 made us want to get out and see the rest of the world.
The winner of “Top Chef” Season 12, Mei grew working alongside her family-owned-and-operated restaurant (Kong Kow) outside of Detroit. Surprisingly enough, she didn’t want to become a chef until later, while in college. Initially going into pre-nursing, that pursuit came to a screeching halt when she saw the sight of actual human blood. Afterward, she enrolled in the culinary arts program at Schoolcraft College. Since then she has worked for some of the most respected chefs in the industry. Michael Symon (Roast), Marcus Samuelsson (C-House) and Eric Klein (Spago) are just to name a few. After spending time in Chicago and Las Vegas, she relocated to West Hollywood and joined Michael Voltaggio's opening team at ink. in Los Angeles, where she climbed the ranks to become his sous chef in three years. Ambitious, to say at the very least.
What rose her to stardom was her victory on “Top Chef”. And what’s even better? She had no intentions of even going on the show. If it weren’t for her friends, she may have never done it. And the best part of the whole experience was not just the knowledge gained and lessons learned - it was all about the camaraderie amongst the other contestants on the show. While watching her during the entire season, the competition was fierce but what was even more palpable was their mutual respect and trust towards one another. Mei has several tattoos, even a little piggy to commemorate their win during the restaurant episode, where she and a few other chefs created Four Pigs. Her most recent addition is a vibrant strawberry on her back arm, also in celebration to her final dish on the show, which in my opinion, sealed her fate.
Through the twenty-some odd years I’ve known Mei, she has continued to be such an inspiration. She is subtle, resilient and a force to be reckoned with. The ultimate badass. Her background is clear in her dishes, and her personality never fails to shine through in her flavors and plating. One of the finest artists in the kitchen, in my eyes, it never was an easy ride for the now-acclaimed chef. You should see all her ‘battle’ scars! During her downtime, when she’s not gallivanting around the world cooking and creating incredible dishes and meals, you can find her at a local L.A eatery or in the comfort of her own home, with a bowl of hot ramen or her favorite go-to comfort food, Hunan chicken. Unless she wants to amp up the wow-factor, she’ll slow cook you one of the best prime rib of your life. That is, if you can wait for nearly six hours.
For more info on Mei, go to her website.
Photos by © Suzanne Spiegoski