The ultimate pandemic silver lining plays out in a quaint family kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Amid pots and pans, spices, flowers and ceiling-hung utensils stands Limin Mo – the star of the family cooking show Mother Zen Chef. She is about to go live on Facebook and her daughter Crystyl Mo is ready behind the camera, assisted by son Lisan Mo who will also be handling the lights. Mother Zen’s 8-year old granddaughter Phoenix is anxiously waiting to do the on-camera tasting of her grandma’s dishes. The ingredients for today’s dish; crêpes with an Asian twist, were carefully prepped by the entire family, including Limin’s husband, Dan Lenke.
Shanghai resident Crystyl came to see her family in Massachusetts in the spring of 2020. What was supposed to be a 3-day visit for Crystyl and her daughter Phoenix has, so far, turned into a 17-month stay under her parents’ roof, separated from her husband back in Shanghai. “China closed its borders to foreign passport holders so Phoenix and I are unable to return home ,” says Crystyl, who is ethnically half Chinese but was born in the US.
The situation is distressing to say the least. But, as a trained life coach and public speaker, Crystyl knew she had to think of ways to make the most of their unexpected situation. So, she came up with a family passion project. “My brother Lisan and I had often talked about ways to share our mother’s exceptional cooking skills as well as her larger-than-life personality, so why not a cooking show?” she says.
Capturing the spirit
The daughter of one of the first female journalists in China, Limin had to flee Shanghai in 1952 with her mother and two siblings. She made it to the U.S. in the 1960s and later wrote about those tumultuous early years, including her father’s 1950 execution by the Communist party in her memoir “Spirit Bridges”.
Limin is an amalgamation of the arts. She holds a degree in performing arts as well as in creative writing. As a visual artist, she works with myriad techniques from oil painting and printmaking to drawing and ceramic sculpting. When asked about her relationship with China today, Limin says: ”I’m still deeply connected to Chinese culture and history – but I embrace universality in my creative work”. Limin still reads Chinese blogs, novels and cookbooks. Asian ingredients and methods inspire many of her original recipes.
When presented with her children’s idea for a cooking show, Limin, an artist always trying to challenge herself, was sceptical at first. “Cooking is easy for me,” she said, “and is not spiritually difficult”. But Crystyl and Lisan insisted. “We cannot write or paint with our mother but cooking is a collaborative art that the whole family can create together,” says Crystyl.
Limin has since realised that the three-generation collaboration allows her to have fun with her family while sharing her recipes and cooking philosophy with others. “Cooking doesn’t have to be a boring chore – it can be an adventure,” says Limin. She loves to experiment and invent new dishes with courage that gives her permission to make a mess. “We tend to think that courage is big and heroic but it can be small – like putting curry powder in a dish where you have never put it before,” she says.
Sometimes the experimenting goes well and sometimes it doesn’t. But Limin and Crystyl agree that it is important to also share the kitchen disasters. “Mother Zen Chef is not food porn,” says Crystyl. “It is about sharing the creative spirit of my mom”. A sterile TV kitchen with a polished stainless steel counter would never have captured Limin’s spirit. She feels at home in her bohemian kitchen and, as one fan of the show commented during a Facebook Live: “I love that, rather than minimalism, this kitchen screams maximalism”.
That fan was 2017 Asia’s Best Female Chef, May Chow, who is behind Hong Kong’s hugely popular “Little Bao”. Chow says that what draws her to Mother Zen Chef is partly the hippy, fun loving character of Mother Zen, partly the highly original Asian influences in her everyday comfort food. Examples of dishes featured on the show are French-Asian galette, ooey-gooey mochi cupcakes, tea-infused sauces and Chinese whole steamed fish. Furthermore, Limin is a big fan of sourdough. She bakes bread and uses sourdough discard in other dishes like perfect sourdough waffles and sourdough vegetarian pot pie.
It takes a village
Mother Zen Chef livestreams on Facebook every Monday evening at 8 pm Eastern Time. The episodes are also posted to YouTube and the show keeps not only the Mo family but also friends and neighbours busy. As director and producer of Mother Zen Chef, Crystyl spends around 30-40 hours per week on her family passion project. Her tasks include show story creation, food shopping, food prepping, set building, promotion, editing, newsletter writing “and cleaning, endless cleaning”. Lisan assists her in everything and is also responsible for cameras and lights. His looks have earned him the nickname “Cambridge Keanu” and he is especially popular with the female audience for his role as on-camera taste tester.
The Mother Zen Chef YouTube videos are sweetened by the voice of 8-year-old Phoenix who is the show’s official voice-over artist. Phoenix is also an on-camera taste-tester and always gives her honest opinion. No show is complete without a serious promoter and Limin’s husband Dan wastes no chance to talk about Mother Zen Chef. “The other day he was on the phone with a woman from Amazon customer service in the Philippines and he even managed to make that conversation about our show – so now she’s a follower and fan,” says Crystyl and smiles.
The Mother Zen team relies on a number of volunteers and have had an overwhelming response from people around them. Tenants who are living in the Mo home have stepped in – as has Limin’s older grandchild Callie Mo who is now a production assistant. Family friend Xiaoda Lin who is an experienced Michelin chef, currently studying at The Culinary Institute of America, also helps with shopping and prepping and is a frequent guest chef on Mother Zen Chef.
Crystyl is currently busy working on ways to make Mother Zen Chef financially sustainable. “We use only beautiful, organic ingredients and we hope to be able to upgrade our livestream equipment, reach more people and hopefully compensate our amazing volunteers,” she says.
As mother and daughter Limin and Crystyl reflect upon the past 14 months of living and working together, Limin says that she is thrilled that the project is running so smoothly. “I am completely disorganized whereas Crystyl takes after my mother – she is organized, methodical and never gives up,” she says. The pair have realized that they complement each other thanks to their different skill sets and personalities.
“My mother is a warrior!” says Crystyl. “She is so grounded and sane despite everything she has been through and working with her is like working with a very powerful source”. In her capacity as Academy Chair of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, Crystyl would normally be flying all over the world to taste the cuisine of the most renowned chefs. But, having spent over a year eating her mom’s home cooking, she says she is happier than ever with the cuisine on her table and convinced that Mother Zen is a genius chef up with the best in the world!
When Crystyl eventually goes back to China, her brother Lisan will take over as producer and Crystyl will continue as director-at-large. They have also thought of broadening the concept in order to make the show even more interactive – for example by adding poetry reading by Limin.
“I’m thrilled that creating and sharing the Mother Zen Chef show became our family’s way of coming together and not just surviving, but thriving through the pandemic year,” says Crystyl.