Mei Chin grew up in Connecticut, came of age in New York City, and currently resides in Dublin with her husband, Tommy. Her food writing has appeared in Saveur, The New York Times, Gourmet, Lucky Peach and Vogue, and she has taught at Yale University. She is co-host of Spice Bags, a podcast that explores Irish food issues through an expatriate lens.
Yes, especially on my mother's side of the family. My grandfather was an architect, but he was also a passionate, over-the-top Chinese chef (crab-roe wontons would've been typical). When the family moved to Richmond, Virginia - my mother was 10 - he declared that he most wanted to eat what he himself could not cook. So he ate fried chicken steak and Jell-O on his lunch break, and his children taught themselves Western (ie US and European) cuisine.
My mother and aunts worshipped Julia Child and Craig Claiborne, and my uncle made croissants. These days, my brother and cousins all cook. I need to give a shout-out to my dad, too, who was an excellent Chinese cook and worked in kitchens. My dad's problem was that he was also thrifty. He'd make fried rice from three-week-old leftovers and the scummy fish that we had pulled out of our local pond. Yet, because he had wonderful knife skills, it would look like a spectacular banquet offering. Even now, I have Chinese food PTSD because of my dad. Because he didn't make Western food, Western food, for me, is safe.
What's your most vivid food memory from childhood?
My first memory ever was a meat pie I ate in Scotland when I was four years old. It was piping hot with a crumbling sandy crust.
What was the first thing you learned to cook?
Marcella Hazan's roast chicken with lemon (super easy, you just salt it and pop the lemon in) and Maida Heatter's sponge cake. I was eight and my little brother was reading the recipes out loud. When my mother came home from work, we had used all the bowls for the sponge cake and we were standing on a chair peering into a chicken with a flashlight because I was sure we hadn't got the giblets out.
Did you always know that you wanted to work in food?
God, no. Part of it is the Asian mindset. In our family, food was a joy, and Asians don't choose professions that give joy. Food is fun, and hence a hobby.
Who has been the biggest influence on the way that you cook?
Definitely my youngest aunt, Sho, who made cooking fresh and easy. She was an architect who worked from 6am to 6pm, and would still have dinner on the table at 8pm without breaking a sweat. Her cooking was comfort food with tricks: dashi in her scrambled eggs and fried chicken; tuna tartare with orange peel and sesame oil; a simple tofu scramble with oyster sauce. She was the goddess of potato gratin and Caesar salad. She was fundamental to my food writing because she taught me that behind each dish, there were stories, people, and places.
What's your signature dish?
Meatballs and their variations. Big Italian-American meatballs, veal and ricotta ones, small, spicy chicken pecorino ones, deep-fried Chinese pork and ginger ones, tofu and bacon fritters, aubergine polpette.
Is there any ingredient that you hate?
Is there anything that you love to eat that you'd prefer your friends didn't know about?
Bread with cheese zapped in the microwave.
Is there anything that you won't/don't eat for ethical reasons?
Sometimes I try to give up octopus and pork, because they are smart creatures. I fail.
What's the strangest thing you've ever eaten?
Turtle. Not because turtle is strange, but because I was eight and my dad told me it was chicken in the shape of a turtle.
What's your guilty (food) pleasure?
Chicken McNuggets. Fake Mexican El Paso tacos with crunchy taco shells, beef, iceberg lettuce and cheese. Tater Tots. Beef lo-mein noodles from a suburban Chinese takeaway. Italian-American red-sauce places with red check tablecloths and too much cheese. Great pizza.
What kitchen gadget could you not live without and what's the most overrated?
I can't live without scissors, chopsticks (for turning bacon) and the microwave. Overrated: a mandoline.
What current cooking trend do you dislike the most?
Too many cooking videos! Also sourdough and fermentation. They're great, but stop talking about it. Plus, I've never been a fan of turning Asian ingredients into something they are not: 'tofu mayonnaise, seaweed spaghetti pomodoro'.
What's your desert island cookbook?
Julia Child & Company, the super-cheesy companion book to her 1980s television show. I read that book a lot as a child. If I'm stranded on a strip of sand with nothing but a coconut tree, I'd like to dream about a "Picnic… suitable for a Rolls-Royce" (pâté-en-croûte, fish terrine, gazpacho salad, cookies).
What three things do you always keep in your fridge?
Cheese, butter, yuba (dried soybean skin).
What's your go-to store-cupboard meal?
Linguine with anchovies, garlic and tomatoes.
What was the last great meal that you ate?
Either Barabba in Copenhagen or the omakase at Kusakabe in San Francisco.
What's your favourite restaurant in the world?
Nopalito (upscale Mexican) because it makes me so happy. When my little brother picks me up at the San Francisco airport, he takes me straight there.
What chef do you admire the most?
Anita Lo (previously chef at NYC Annisa and author of Solo). A phenomenal chef, but also someone with moral integrity, intellect, kindness and humour.
Do you eat breakfast?
Yes. Usually the leftovers from the night before. Cold pizza is best.
What are you having for dinner tonight?
Maybe pasta and anchovies.
And what will you drink with that?