Mei Lin trained under the likes of Wolfgang Puck and Michael Symon, but it was very first boss who influenced her the most: her father. She grew up working side-by-side with her dad at their family-owned restaurant in Michigan, where she first learned how to cook. Most recently, she was behind the stove at Michael Voltaggio’s ink., where she helped open the restaurant as a line cook, and worked her way up to sous chef. After being named a “Young Gun” by Eater in 2014, she went on to win season 12 of Top Chef, making a name for herself with technique-focused, Asian-inspired cuisine.
The chef talked to us about of 3-D food printing, the latest restaurant trend in Los Angeles, and how she balances urgency and patience in the kitchen.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the food world in the past 5 years?
Food trends come and go, but the single biggest change that I’ve seen is the technological aspect of food production. 3-D food printers, robots cooking and assembling. It’s wild.
What do you expect will be a big change coming for the food world in the next 10 years?
Sourcing food will continue to be as specific as the style of cuisine of the restaurant. Chefs will continue to localize food economies as certain areas of the world experience extreme climates and such. That, and the Terminator cooking you eggs.
Who or what has been the most important influence in your culinary career?
I am really lucky to have worked in the places I have worked. All of the chefs and restaurants I’ve been in have contributed to the chef I am today. I have taken something of value from everyone I’ve worked with.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in the kitchen?
The most important lesson I’ve learned in a kitchen is to work with a sense of urgency. There are so many things that go into running a restaurant, it’s very important to get things done in a timely manner and to be composed while doing so. Finding a balance between the urgency to complete tasks and the patience to manage them into fruition.
Tell us about how you got into cooking.
I was raised in a restaurant family. My mother and father still work nonstop in a traditional Chinese restaurant. I spent a large amount of my time with my grandparents. I didn’t even realize the exposure to work ethic and exotic ingredients until I was older. When you’re seven and working in a restaurant with your family, it’s normal. Only when I got older did I realize the head start it gave me.
If you could travel anywhere right now, where would you go?
I usually go where the food is, what’s grabbing my attention. I just got back from Japan and that was such an epic trip. So many different types of meals, but all of them so simple, elegant, and clean. I definitely want to go back and explore more of Japan!
What’s the most exciting thing in food that’s happening in your town right now?
The most exciting thing that’s happening In Los Angeles right now are the types of restaurants that are opening up. Super casual places you can walk in, eat and go out to a movie afterwards. L.A. has a very dressed down vibe and it’s exciting to have high caliber food in a comfortable setting.
Where do you get inspiration and ideas for new dishes?
I get inspiration from pretty much everywhere. All of the things that surround me, whether be it a color palette or an art piece at the local museum. I use the things that surround me on a daily basis to get inspired.
Describe your home kitchen. How is different from what people might expect?
My home kitchen is actually pretty small. I live in a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles, and things can get pretty tight. I have a lot of tools and just recently I purchased: a tool chest to organize all my knives and others small hand tools too. I am realizing I have more than I can fit. A lot of people have these preconceived notions that chefs all have these lavish kitchens but having a small kitchen actually deters me from wanting to cook in my own home!
What kitchen tool or piece of equipment do you use most often?
My biggest assets in the kitchen are my Vita-Prep and spoons. So many chefs rely on these and they should be a fixture in any kitchen, but for me they are crucial.