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Where in the World Is Mei Lin?

The winner of Top Chef Season 12 is picking her own path

Chef Mei Lin in Los Angeles, California.
Mei Lin
Dylan + Jeni
Farley Elliott is the Senior Editor at Eater LA and the author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks. He covers restaurants in every form, from breaking news to the culture, people, and history that surrounds LA's dining landscape.

It’s not easy to catch up with Mei Lin, the popular former ink. sous chef, 2014 Eater Young Gun, and winner of season 12 of cooking competition show Top Chef. Her Instagram account is littered with travel receipts, from dinner in Houston at Justin Yu’s soon-to-reconcept restaurant Oxheart to the snowy side of things way up in Telluride. So what exactly is Lin up to?

That’s a good question, and requires one of those unsatisfying gray-area answers. On the one hand, Lin is busier than ever. She’s been hitting the event circuit hard since January 2015, dropping in at festivals and with friends for nearly 18 full months. “I’ve got even more events coming up,” Lin says with a laugh during a phone call this week. She’s been back in Los Angeles for less than a full day, and is already staring down the barrel of a busy summer social calendar.

The amount of exposure a Top Chef winner gets immediately after taking home top honors is intense. There are book deal requests, private cooking offers, and the usual media deluge centered around the same primary question: When is your new restaurant opening?

Mei Lin

Instead of locking into a lease and immediately concepting her next endeavor, Lin has spent time along the beaches of Hawaii, toured the smokier, meatier side of Portland, and considered the betel leaf during a meal in New York City — often just weeks (or days) apart. “I draw a lot of inspiration from seeing my chef friends,” Lin says.

And there are the pop-ups, of course. Lin has been keeping a steady localized presence at a few different spaces around town, including West LA strip mall upstart Kato. Chef/owner Jon Yao has become a friend, and the pair staged a well-received $88.88 dinner under the name Money Cat in December. An even more recent congee pop-up almost drew a line down the block, and even more are slated for April and beyond. Folks still want to know what’s up with Mei Lin.

“I’m just really trying to focus on traveling before I open my restaurant,” she says. “Once I get a space, that’s it. I won’t be able to go anywhere.”

She is actively shopping for addresses, but the Los Angeles real estate market is a fickle beast for burgeoning restaurateurs. The economics of opening up a 45 to 70 seat restaurant are already tough, but adding in a prolonged build-out, lots of key money just to take control of the property you want, and skyrocketing rent is enough to break even the most seasoned culinary vet. But Lin knows her space will come, and in the meantime she’s happy to continue to use the road as inspiration.

Oh, and plus there’s all that stuff with Oprah.

Over the past year, Lin actually stepped in as a private chef for Oprah on occasion, working big seasonal meals for her family and friends. The two became close, with Lin contributing a couple of recipes to Oprah’s cookbook, which debuted in January.

In just the past calendar year, social media will tell you that Mei Lin has been doing everything and nothing all at once — and the future looks like much the same. It’s an interesting position to be in, particularly for someone like Lin who continues to receive a fair amount of media coverage and fan fawning. But not having definitive answers on the when and where of her next personal restaurant project certainly does not mean the wheels aren’t turning. You get the sense with Lin that under the surface there’s a lot more grinding and thinking and pushing than what you see on Instagram.

Sure, it looks like fun to spend your time eating through the full meat sampler from Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, but the truth is Mei Lin is as hard at work as ever. So where in the world is Mei Lin? Right where she needs to be.

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