In It to Lin It: Mei Lin Heads Back to L.A. after Top Chef Victory

The former Ink. sous chef, who triumphed by merging Asian and Mexican flavors, could see herself cooking at a casual neighborhood restaurant in L.A.

When you win Top Chef, like L.A.’s Mei Lin did this week, the offers start coming in from all over.

But L.A. can relax. Lin went to New York City for the viewing of the finale but is on her way back home today and might even go to Koreatown for a late-night meal of some tofu stew after she arrives. After all, it’s clear that somebody who wins a TV competition by cooking dishes like congee with carnitas has L.A. in her veins. She belongs here.

A lot of people might want to argue that New York is the center of the restaurant world, but it was 8 degrees and falling there this morning, and Lin has no plans to become an N.Y.C. chef.

“New York is way too cold, and the rent is way too high,” Lin says.

The goal for Lin, who recently left Ink. after working there for more than three years, is to become a chef de cuisine, perhaps at a refined but chill neighborhood restaurant in L.A. But she’s taking her time to figure it out. She’ll be doing pop-up dinners around the country with chef friends while she sorts out her next career move.

“I don’t want to jump into anything that quick,” Lin says. “I’m open to anything.”

She could see herself at a restaurant that serve small plates, “just your neighborhood restaurant where you want to go in and have a quick bite to eat.”

Lin believes that fine dining has its place, but she’s not one who likes to be at a restaurant for three hours.

“I just want to go in and have it nice and casual, and then go out later after the meal,” she says. “I don’t really wants to sit in a restaurant for a long amount of time, with the white tablecloths and being frou frou. There’s a time for that, but it’s not really the food I want to do.”

What Lin is saying, of course, is of-the-moment. It sounds a lot like how Quinn and Karen Hatfield are thinking at Odys & Penelope. It makes sense after L.A. saw a year where none of Patric Kuh’s Top 10 Best New Restaurants have white tablecloths. It makes sense in a city that values diversity and bold flavors of all kinds.

Besides feasting on tofu, Korean BBQ, bar food, and so much more in Koreatown, Lin is a frequent visitor to Thai Town. She’s also been inspired by many of L.A.’s star chefs, from Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo to Michael Cimarusti to Josiah Citrin. But, of course, working for Voltaggio, who himself won Top Chef, has influenced her the most.

Lin was part of Ink.’s opening team, where she started as a line cook and quickly found her way in the kitchen.

“I worked my way up to being sous chef within six months,” she says. “[Voltaggio] saw a little spark in me, a lot of passion in what I do. He worked with me, he yelled at me a lot. That only made me a stronger cook, a stronger chef, a stronger leader. The reason I am where I am today is because of him.”

Lin thinks of Voltaggio of a mentor, but it’s Voltaggio who playfully tweeted to ask if he could get a job working for her this week. It’s obviously a generous joke from a proud papa–but then again, this is L.A., where so much of the fun is flipping the script.