I’m Intoxicated by Ideology,
and the chefs at Drunken Dumpling have something to do with it.
By Stephen Troiano
In my experience, chefs have some of the loudest, but often silenced, personalities. Front of house workers (the hosts, bartenders and waiters) are the face of the restaurant where good manners and smiles are expected. They work for tips. If you ever venture to back of house, it’s Bizarro. A complete opposite of what the customer sees and expects from a restaurant. You’ll hear curse words on top of curse words, you’ll see playful, homo or heterosexual contact between co-workers and you’ll find some of the funniest but the most inappropriate jokes you’ll ever hear. When I sat down with Yuan Lee, chef at the East Village farm to table restaurant Drunken Dumpling, and introduced myself as a fellow back-of-house cook, he knew he could lift the charade and be himself.
Lee told me what all chefs typically think and say to each other, but will never say in front of a customer. “Food is not a toy,” referring to customers who play with their food for their Instagram. “People are poorly educated about food,” talking about the parasites of the food industry, Yelpers, who write as if they’re from Michelin. However, if there’s one thing that Mr. Lee told me that all chefs think, and should say more, it’s that, “We owe mother nature a favor by changing the way we eat.”
Yuan Lee, a Beijing native, and his mother, Quihui Guan, a New York Chinese restaurant veteran to the greatest power, opened Drunken Dumpling back in 2016 in order to do what they love while adhering to their own set of personal values. They both believe in quality produce & meat, locally grown and raised, no matter the cost, which is a rarity with most Chinese restaurants. “The model most Chinese restaurants follow, which has been the case for decades, is that cheaper is better.”
For example, Lee orders his pork from Flying Pigs Farm in Shushan, New York, a rural town north of Albany and close to the Vermont border. Flying Pigs raises over 1,000 pigs, 1,000 laying hens and 2,500 chickens on 150 acres of fields, forests & streams. All grass fed, all free range. When Flying Pigs raised the price of their pork to over $7 per pound, it didn’t matter to Lee. In his and his mother’s eyes, there’s nothing more important than real flavor in the meat they use without the need of adding extra salt, MSG or other flavors. The leanness and tenderness of the meat should speak for itself.
For their produce needs, Lee & Guan simply walk three avenues to the west and five blocks north to the Union Square Farmer’s Market, which features nothing but local farmers and food purveyors.
Drunken Dumpling offers a limited menu featuring three different styles of dumpling: xiao long bao (soup dumpling), jiaozi (pot stickers) & baozi (buns). They’re most famous for their XL Xaio Long Boa ($12), which is a single soup dumpling big enough to feed two. It takes about 30 minutes to prep each one, 20 minutes to steam and they make only twenty-five per day.
The most important part of the dumpling, like the crust is to pizza and rice is to sushi, is the dough. Lee & Guan don’t use yeast, relying on high gluten to give their dough the correct amount of strength and texture. Making their dough is about a 30 minute process from start to finish. Those who are too impatient for their dumplings are told to eat elsewhere, where a majority of dumpling houses buy their dough wholesale.
Lee told me a lot during my short visit. It was as if he was using me to vent his frustrations about food culture because I would somewhat know where he’s coming from. He admitted to me that he gave up his faith in organized religion and stopped going to church simply due to hypocrisy in food consumption. He discovered that his congregation was wasting food, so he left.
Drunken Dumpling plays by their own rules, catering to the preferences of only two people: a mother and her son. As much as it’s important where our food comes from, which Lee & Guan will defend to their deaths, it’s also about who our food comes from. The next time any one of us pays too much for a Raindrop Cake, a Black Tap milkshake or anything we read from an INSIDER Food listicle, let us think if this for profit or for people?