Travel changes people. It’s a beautiful thing. A new place can center you, give you a new perspective, or be a big step in following your dreams of culinary greatness and becoming the winner of Top Chef.
At least that’s what travel did for Mei Lin, reigning Top Chef Champ and (we’re very proud to say) EF Ultimate Break (EFUB) alum. In the midst of coordinating pop-up dinners and planning her next jaunt out of the country, Mei was awesome enough to talk to us about her favorite memory of traveling with Ultimate Break, her drool-inducing Instagram feed, and her travel advice.
EFUB: Congrats on winning Top Chef!!! You were right in our backyard during the competition here in Boston! Had you ever been to Boston before Top Chef? What’d you think?
Mei: NO! I’d never been to Boston before, but I think Boston is a super cool town, and of course there’s a lot of things you can do there!
EFUB: Now that you’re a Top Chef winner, will it ever be possible for you to just make a grilled cheese again?
Mei: [laughing] It’s really funny that you say that…of course it’s possible for me to make a grilled cheese. A lot of us chefs eat junk food, and after a long day, you don’t exactly want to come home and cook an extravagant meal. I usually eat some instant ramen with whatever I have left in the fridge.
EFUB: What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten (not ramen, we’re assuming…)?
Mei: The best meal I’ve eaten, hmm…I think the latest best meal I’ve had was in San Francisco at Benu. It has 3 Michelin stars, and I absolutely love what Corey Lee, the chef/owner, is doing there. A lot of the dishes are so reminiscent of my childhood that it just pulls at the heartstrings. His 16-course tasting menu is one of my top five favorite meals.
EFUB: What would you say is the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Mei: I’m not sure…I grew up in a Chinese household, and I’ve eaten a lot of “weird things”: jellyfish, sea cucumber…I guess some people would view those things as being weird.
EFUB: We are very proud to say that in the long list of accolades you’ve accumulated, Ultimate Break alum is on there! How did you decide on the Spain, France, & Italy trip?
Mei: Thank you! It was my goal before I turned 25 to go to Europe. I decided on Spain, France, & Italy because I always wanted to go to all of those countries and just explore. And Ultimate Break was the best way to do that, especially with the option to stay after. And it just so happened that my roommate at the time wanted to go, so we just booked it!
EFUB: Do you still keep in touch with people who were on your trip with you?
Mei: Yes, I talk to a lot of the people from my Ultimate Break trip! We all stay in contact via Facebook and Instagram. On the trip, a bunch of us sat on the Spanish Steps and drank bottles of wine and watched the sunset. It was real bonding moment for us.
EFUB: What do they think of you crushing it on Top Chef?
Mei: A lot of my friends that traveled Europe with me rooted for me throughout the entire season of Top Chef—it was really awesome to see them posting on my wall via Facebook!
EFUB: Any parallel between Top Chef and Ultimate Break?
Mei: Being on Top Chef and doing Ultimate Break is sort of similar in terms of making friends. You’re in close quarters together for a decent amount of time, so you can’t help but make friends.
EFUB: You’ve said if you could live anywhere, it’d be Paris. Did your love affair with the city start when you were there with Ultimate Break?
Mei: Yes, my love affair with Paris happened when I was on my Ultimate Break trip. It was my first time there. Paris is such an amazing city with so much to do and, most importantly, a LOT of amazing food everywhere. Whether it was pastries, street food, bistros…my mouth was always watering! I also did a stay behind to stage at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon. Staging is an unpaid internship when a cook or chef works briefly—for free—in another chef’s kitchen to learn and be exposed to new techniques and cuisines. It’s from the French word “stagiaire” that means “trainee, apprentice, or intern.”
EFUB: We love your instagram (@meilin21)! It reads like a travel journal (filled with food porn, of course). We even saw a #tbt Eiffel Tower pic from your Ultimate Break trip! Would it be wrong for us to say that travel is your second love—second only to chefery, of course?
Mei: Of course! I absolutely love traveling. Traveling and cooking, for me, go hand in hand; without traveling to different places, you don’t get to experience the food of other cultures! You get inspired in the way that you cook. It hands down is the best experience, being able to travel and try different foods. Unexplainable. For me, traveling to a different country and learning everything I can about their cuisine will only make me a better and more well-rounded chef.
EFUB: You’ve said that the best advice you got before competing in Top Chef was to “Do what you know. Don’t do what you don’t know how to do. Take risks but not dumb risks.” Do you think that advice should stay in the kitchen or do you think it extends to other parts of life (like travel)?
Mei: I think that for me it only applied on Top Chef. For traveling, I think that you should take risks and go to a foreign country and just get lost! Wandering around a city and getting lost is the best way to see it.
EFUB: What’s next on your travel bucket list?
Mei: I’m actually planning a few international trips. I definitely want to go to Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam just to name a few! So let’s hope I have time to get all of them in!
Check out the trip that helped Mei Lin onto the road to Top Chef fame and have your own life-changing adventure on our Spain, France, & Italy trip.