By April Fulton || Portraits by Misha Gravenor
When you walk into the kitchen at Nightshade, chef Mei Lin’s jade-and-white jewel box of a restaurant in Los Angeles, there’s not a shiso leaf out of place. Sculptural bowls are lined up on the spotless white service counter, waiting to be filled with the chef’s take on congee, the Asian rice porridge. Sous chefs are chopping greens neatly and putting them in orderly bins. Pans sizzle, and splatter gets wiped up quickly. Everyone seems to be preparing for dinner service with minimal fuss, and that’s how Mei Lin likes it.
“I’ve never gotten the reputation that I was emotional by any means,” says Lin, 34, a daughter of Chinese immigrants who owned their own restaurant in Detroit. She dropped out of college to attend culinary school against her parents’ wishes, and worked her way up in the food world under the tutelage of Wolfgang Puck, Marcus Samuelsson, and others. “In and out of the kitchen, I’m sort of a hard ass,” she says.
That may be why she won Top Chef in 2014. On the show, she says, her strategy was to keep her head down and stick with what she knew how to make. And among the dishes she made, a strawberry lime curd with toasted yogurt and milk crumble was the dessert judge Tom Colicchio called the best in Top Chef history. It helped her clinch the win.
Lin took her time after the show, cooking with friends for three years and learning new skills before opening her own place. “I needed to grow,” she says.
She is even more experimental at Nightshade than she was on Top Chef. The restaurant opened in January 2019 in an industrial building in LA’s hip Arts District. Her focus on detail and her no-drama mantra is evident in everything from the dinnerware to the arrangement of the microgreens on the scallop crudo. While nothing looks over-the-top, the unexpectedly bold flavors of what she calls comfort food hit you like a sucker punch.
A lasagna is made from spicy ma po tofu. An almond sorbet is served with bowl-shaped mandarin ice on top that almost burns your tongue. And the sunchokes are kissed with an unexpected mole made from a fruit she likes so much she had one tattooed on her arm—a strawberry.
Lin spent time learning sous vide techniques as a sous chef at Los Angeles restaurant Ink, the signature kitchen of fellow Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio. Among her favorite dishes to make under vacuum? Short ribs and custard. “They turn out with an amazing texture,” she says. She also loves to use sous vide to cook octopus, a protein that can otherwise turn tough and overcooked when cooked using conventional approaches.
What’s next for Mei Lin? She’s thinking about opening a fast casual spot someday, but she’s in no rush to step away from her duties at Nightshade. “I want to give all that I have to this for now,” she says.
Food and interior photos courtesy Wonho Frank Lee. This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of Sous-Vide magazine.