The space doesn’t have to be large, and the chef/creator need not come from afar to become a Best Neighborhood Restaurant as named by Boston Magazine. Chef Shi Mei, 44, came to Boston from China at age four, lived in the South End throughout his childhood, and lives there now with his wife and young son. A Boston Latin School and UMass/Amherst graduate his concept for Lennox Sophia is altogether different than other fine restaurants lining South Boston streets, and at 87 A St., just a three-minute walk from Broadway Station, it is surely one of the smallest. Seating for twenty and a limited five course only, pre fixe menu, one entrée for the omnivores and one for the vegetarians, this confident and committed chef sets the tone.
“I always helped my mom cook and I knew I had a knack” he said. “My father was a cook, but he was not in favor of this at all. For that generation, they worked so you would be a doctor, lawyer, or work in an office. Restaurant work wasn’t glorified the way it is now. Now, you’re a rock star, but that not how it was. I worked when I was sixteen during Christmas break with my father as a dishwasher. It was an eye opener, but it did help prepare me for the whole system,” he said.
Even working in over one hundred degrees plus days without air conditioning in Quinzani’s Bakery, another early job, led him where he knew he wanted to be, though he went on to major in economics, a field he says helps in many ways. “Numbers come naturally,” he said as an off-hand remark, and so does his dedication to every aspect of cooking.
Shi Mei worked in local restaurants and then continued his work in California in such places as the French Laundry, then ran a restaurant in Texas, then back to California to Jackson Family Wines to learn even more. He is both studious, exacting, and flexible in the way his chosen business demands.
“We opened in January, the dead of winter, and you just do not know. There was a power surge, and it took forever to get parts for the heating system,” he said and looked as if he could list a number of other challenges, but instead, in his own careful way, focuses on what he loves.
“I like to support local farmers as much as possible. And, with a limited menu, I don’t have to take any short-cuts, and people don’t have to worry about so many choices, he said. “You just do not know what will happen, and you have to be ready for anything but prepare carefully, and the deal with spontaneous issues. It is really the fun of it,” he said it what could be considered the most nerve-wracking aspect of the cooking life. Lennox Sophia also has to manage as a BYOB operation without a liquor license in contrast to other nearby places. The well documented challenges of hiring have also plagued Mei, but he, again is on task. “We reached out to everyone, and have who we need now,” he said.
He cooks in the small, exquisitely clean appearing open kitchen with a staff of four, and at least at this point, does not seem to be hungering for bigger. “It’s important to get through the first year and see where we are in the industry. I think it is going well. Any feedback is useful because it helps us get better,” he said.
So, just over the bridge from his parents who toiled to provide for him, a sister and brother, now stands this proud chef with an ease for cooking, managing, thinking, and planning. He is committed to Boston and looking to give back to the welcome South Boston has offered him at a daunting time.
Shi Mei’s mother worked in a factory in South Boston just moments from where her son is quickly making a name for himself, and theirs is yet another story of a coming of age for a place and family, “My Dad is Ok with it now and my mom is very supportive. She sees that I enjoy it,” he said. Lennox Sophia a tiny gem in a place of head spinning growth, and Boston raised and educated Shi Mei has found a place close to home to do what he has long loved.
(Carol Masshardt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)