Back in 2015, Xinyi Lim was dragging her prepped vegetables in a cart through the New York snow when she thought: “My mum would kill me if she could see what I’m doing right now.”
At the time, she was working at El Rey, a California-style café on the Lower East Side. But its kitchen was tiny – so she had to prepare ingredients off-site, six blocks away. It meant wheeling her boxes of finished kale or pickled vegetables through the unforgiving winter weather. “You’d be pulling it and you’d be freezing,” she says. “Sometimes everything fell on the ground.”
Today, she’s the acclaimed head chef of Café Freda’s in Darlinghurst. But her experiences in New York, during her formative years, were perhaps an early sign that her journey wouldn’t necessarily be linear.
Things had been different a year earlier, when she was living in Sydney and working as lawyer, dealing with government contracts. It was a parent-pleasing job, which involved office hours and much time thinking about toll roads, hospitals and public-private partnerships.
It wasn’t exactly a career that quickened your heart rate or left you wired and joyous. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I did law,” Lim says. Laughing, she also admits it was “a very Asian daughter thing to do.”
Up until then, she’d ticked what seemed to be the right boxes. As a lawyer, she’d spent time at The Hague, taking part in trials involving war criminals. She’d lived in Beijing, as part of her double degree, where she majored in law and Chinese.
But as her legal career progressed, Lim felt stuck. She couldn’t imagine herself enduring, as she puts it, “however many days a week, wearing these clothes, being in this office.”
So around the age of 27, she took a year of leave from her job and headed to New York. “But I think my boss knew that I wasn’t going back.”
Lim landed her job at El Rey in May 2015 without much hospitality experience. She’d previously baked wedding cakes for friends and had worked at cafes as a kid. She’d grown up with visits from her Malaysian grandmother, who made her own fermented rice wine and wrapped glutinous rice in bamboo to create zongzi. “Every time I go to Malaysia, which is where my parents are from, there was always food. Everything was centred around food in some way.”
So even when her prepped ingredients fell into the bone-chilling New York snow – or it became apparent that she’d traded a respectable salary to essentially peel potatoes, Lim never regretted her career change.
“There was never a moment where I felt, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I have to go back to law.’”
While in New York, Lim ended up working at respected establishments (Marlow & Sons, Diner). She also spent her time off at the award-winning Blue Hill at Stone Barns, trailing its staff at the restaurant’s farm.
“I’d been on this little tour, where they’re foraging the sap from these trees that were on the property,” Lim says. She recalls learning about experiments where employees tried to cook with the ambient temperature generated by compost heaps. She was impressed by the multitudes of grains they were growing and the “really beautiful” vegetables they dealt with.
It was late 2019 and she was on track to get her green card and perhaps do a proper stint at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. There were plans to open a wine bar the following summer with a friend.
In February 2020, she flew to Sydney for her sister’s upcoming wedding. Lim arrived on the 29th, just before the hen’s party. “And then in the space of three weeks, everything just kind of changed.” The world locked down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Australia imposed a travel ban, which meant citizens needed special permission to leave the country.
Did Lim sense that any of this would happen when she departed New York for Australia?
“No, I had left everything there,” she says. “In my suitcase was three fancy dresses and my pyjamas.”
With Sydney in lockdown and Lim unable to return to New York, she started her Start the Spread project – sending people sourdough-starter kits in the mail, as a way to create community as the world went through its pandemic-baking phase. She was inspired by her friend’s Bread On Earth project in New York. After Yvonne C. Lam wrote about Start The Spread in Gourmet Traveller, Lim was inundated with hundreds of emails, requesting sourdough starter. Media coverage became overwhelming. Pedestrian spruiked the chef’s project as an exercise in scoring “free baggies of sourdough”. The chef thought: “Oh my god, this is completely the wrong angle. I’m not some drug dealer.”
“It definitely escalated to a point that I didn’t expect,” she says. It became a full-time job, just producing the sourdough starter: “not even making bread, just making the starter, drying it”.
Then there was the packaging, the label-making, the printing of the accompanying booklet, the responding to emails. She wasn’t even making money from the project.
At its peak, Lim sent out 700 sourdough-starter kits. Nowadays, the demand is less overwhelming,
“If I get a request, I send it out. Especially now that no one’s stuck at home and no one’s baking anymore. So everyone’s sourdough starter has died and the demand has fallen off dramatically.”
As lockdown progressed, she started her Family Meal project, where she’d cover a different cuisine each week (stir-frying potatoes for the Peruvian-Chinese menu’s lomo saltado perhaps, or baking boat-shaped khachapuri bread for her Georgian theme), donating $10 from each order to a different charity – often Indigenous organisations, such as the First Peoples Disability Network or the Literacy for Life Foundation, or relief for international plights (like the Californian wildfires or the Beirut explosion).
David Abram and Carla Uriarte, who were planning to open the revitalised Cafe Freda’s in Darlinghurst, heard about Lim via a mutual friend who’d racked up quite a few Family Meal orders. So, they asked her if she might be interested in becoming their head chef.
“We met up at the space,” she says. At the time, it was far from ready. They had just one conversation, before deciding to work together. “They’d never even tried my food. They’d never had Family Meal or anything.”
It was a vote of confidence for her food. “It was intuitive and it felt like we had the same vibe,” she says.
Cafe Freda’s opened at the start of 2021, with Lim’s border-crossing menu. It’s partly inspired by her globally curious Family Meal projects; she pairs pkhali from Georgia with Italian burrata, and serves beef rendang that originates from her Malaysian mother. Her eggplant toast is inspired by a Persian salad. Her Sri Lankan brinjal moju adds punch to Japanese onigiri, because the rice ball is “an easy-to-transport shape.”
The chef is also highlighting what she finds at local farms, such as the Japanese kabocha pumpkin from Moonacres: “The consistency of that is like chestnut,” she says.
At first, she was roasting it whole with spicy honey and almonds. Then she pureed it with burrata and dressed it in crispy-coriander oil and added fried curry leaves. Someone told her that when they ate it, “it was like walking through a farm”.
The chef also makes focaccia with the very sourdough starter that had generated all those headlines when she was sending versions of it in the mail. Its thriving nature, in a way, documents Lim’s unusual year – from stranded Sydneysider to head chef at Cafe Freda’s. It’s a sign of her commitment to the city, as she gave up her green card to stay here.
In the meantime, she’s bringing back Family Meal to highlight worthwhile causes (she recently staged an Indian COVID relief fundraiser at Cafe Freda’s, with a menu of red lentil dal, chana aloo masala and besan ladoo desserts).
Part of the appeal of being at Cafe Freda’s is its multifunctional, multidisciplinary status: It’s a stage for rotating exhibitions and for live gigs, too.
“I like that the food is alongside the music, is alongside the art,” she says. “I like that it’s part of a bigger thing.”
Lee Tran Lam is a writer, podcaster, and editor of New Voices on Food, a Diversity In Food Media anthology showcasing under-represented Australian talent. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Gourmet Traveller, and SBS Food. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.