If you manage to lift your nose from the aromatic steam of the food on your plate, you might catch sight of a fast-moving silhouette at the back of the Drunken Dumpling restaurant. When he isn’t in the kitchen, Yuan Lee is making pork filling in the basement or picking up deliveries outside. His smooth skin, young features and non-imposing presence could fool anyone into thinking that this is a man of gentleness and compromise. But Lee is on a mission.
Every morning at 10 a.m., the 31-year-old chef gets up in his apartment in Bushwick, puts on a black leather jacket and goes to his restaurant on 1st Avenue where he works until 10:30 p.m., not only to make dumplings, but to make a statement.
Lee opened his restaurant in August of 2016 and in the early days he rarely got more than four hours of sleep. But Lee says that he is now making profit and sees 40-minute lines outside his restaurant, which nets up to $3,500 per day.
This is not the future that Lee anticipated in 2001 when he moved from Beijing to New York with his now 63-year-old mother, Guan Qi Hui. Guan had always dreamed of moving to the U.S., and moved to New York with Lee and his father. However, his father didn’t enjoy the city life and moved back to China, where he spent his last days. Guan decided to stay and started working as a cook in Chinese restaurants.
Her son quickly made his way into the food world as well. At age 25, Lee enrolled in a restaurant management course at the International Culinary Center in Lower Manhattan. Lee then spent four years working in a Japanese restaurant. But after noticing New Yorkers’ growing appetite for dumplings, Lee chose to open his own place.
Lee believed that customers were often prejudiced in their attitude towards Chinese food, and wanted to change that. “When people go to a Japanese restaurant they expect high quality, but when they go to a Chinese place, they have low expectations – and I think that’s pretty stupid,” Lee says.
Lee’s own friends confirmed this observation. They once asked Lee to take them to a good Chinese restaurant and Lee chose a place in Chinatown. Although they all enjoyed the food, Lee remembers the lunch’s unpleasant ending when he saw the big “C” in the window. “My friends weren’t shocked but I felt shame and disappointment,” Lee recalls. But he wasn’t exactly surprised either. “Many Chinese people just come to New York to make money, and the entry bar for the food industry is very low – anyone can call themselves a chef,” Lee explains, “That’s why so many Chinese restaurants suck.”
Lee opened his own restaurant last summer, specializing in a food that is often misconceived as being greasy and cheap: the dumpling. He bought a small Haitian restaurant which he transformed to Drunken Dumpling. This cost him only $9,000, a great deal for opening a restaurant in Manhattan, Lee explains. Thanks to its location right by St. Marks Place, hungry young people quickly discovered the dumplings, which are prepared in the way Lee and his mother would always do for Chinese New Year.
Lee’s mother Guan, who goes by “Mama” amongst the staff members, feels strongly about the value of this Chinese specialty. Guan is a petite woman whose grey fuzzy hair sticks out from the sides of her cooking hat. She greets her customers with a wide smile despite lacking two front teeth. “This is an opportunity to make people understand that dumplings are not just something you eat daily, it’s something important,” Guan explains.
Traditionally, dumplings are only eaten during festivals and family gatherings in Northern China. “For foreigners, during New Year’s, the celebration is counting down, but for me making dumplings is a celebration,” Guan says.
In fact, the word “drunken” has a multifaceted meaning in Mandarin, also signifying an atmosphere or a mood in which life is at its most beautiful. “Like falling in love with someone for the first time,” Lee explains. “That’s what we want our customers to feel.” Customers are often surprised by the name, expecting there to be liquor-filled dumplings on the menu. However, Drunken Dumpling compensates for this with their XL Xiao Long Bao, a soup dumpling the size of an entire dumpling steamer which comes with a straw. This specialty is one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.
There are two other kinds of soup dumplings on the menu and six different types of “pot-stickers” (dumplings without soup), from chicken with cashew to shrimp with bacon and orange slices, for about $10 per plate of six pieces. The restaurant gets its meat from an organic farm in upstate New York and uses only the two best parts of the crabs (the legs and the claws), and doesn’t rely on any artificial colors or flavorings. Lee even adapted to his American clientele by adding meat into three varieties of soup dumplings and by offering a vegetarian option on the menu (both of which are not found in traditional Chinese cuisine).
Despite their success, Guan does not believe that Drunken Dumpling will transform New Yorkers’ opinions about dumplings. “People think Chinese food is good enough when they taste the salt and soy sauce that make the food more flavorful,” Guan explains, “What they have here is the real essence of the food, but most customers don’t get the difference. As long as the taste is good they are satisfied.”
Lee uses only 60 grams of salt for 30 pounds of meat, and chooses honey as the only sweetener in his dessert option (a fluffy red bean bun). However, he notices that even restaurants that use high quality products are adding more and more salt and sugar to their dishes. Lee considers this to be the result of the city’s eating habits. “People are used to cheap food, because they have no time to cook,” he says, “When you go to a high-end restaurant and notice the taste is more subtle, it’s not that the food is not flavorful, it’s that you eat too much salt.” Lee slams his half-empty cup on the café’s table, “And this hot chocolate is freaking sweet!”
Of course, salt, sugar and other flavor-enhancing additives represent a cheap option for restaurants. Lee explains that some of his customers are surprised they can differentiate between the pork and the crabmeat in his dumplings. “Sometimes there is no crab at all!” Lee says, describing the food served by his competitors, many of which offer plates of six dumplings for $4. “No wonder, one box of crab meat (about the size of two shoe boxes), costs $1,545. Quality food is fucking expensive.”
But using such high-quality products comes with a price (no pun intended). Lee gets regular complaints on Yelp about his prices. Kim Y. commented: “Priced at almost $2 a dumpling, you can easily find just as delicious soup dumplings in Chinatown,” while Quoc L. writes: “If I’m dropping $11 on a soup wrap, I kind of expect something… heavier.”
Lee doesn’t take this sort of criticism seriously. “The ignorance people have towards food is beyond imagination,” Lee says, “I have a great concept, great recipes and great ingredients. That’s why I’m not afraid to charge these high prices.” Lee, who believes he is charging too little for his food, hopes that people will come to understand the importance, and the cost of healthy food. “If more young people start caring about quality and less about consumption, the whole environment can be better,” Lee says, “Care should start with food.”
On a Thursday afternoon, Jing Liu decides to enter Drunken Dumpling for the first time, upon a friend’s recommendation. Just like Lee, the 22-year-old was raised in Beijing. Liu moved to New York to start her master’s degree in Journalism at NYU last summer. She orders two different types of dumplings: pork with bell peppers and shrimp with wood-ear mushrooms. While Liu waits, American country music plays in the background – a genre that Lee says captures the spirit of his spirit: simple, honest, enjoyable.
After a short while, a young Chinese woman brings two bamboo steamers to the table. By the time she’s put down all the plates, the dumpling sauce has already filled Liu’s nostrils with a familiar richness. When the waitress comes back a few minutes later to ask if everything is alright, Liu can only think of one Mandarin word: xian, signifying the pleasant texture and organic taste of a food. “This is exactly what it tastes like in China,” Liu says, her mouth full, “But the shrimp dumpling is even better than the one I had in China. I super love this one.”
Lee stops by on his way out of the restaurant asking Liu if she is satisfied with the meal. After receiving the response he was hoping for, an honest smile spreads on his face and he greets Liu in Mandarin before turning around. “Everyone needs a reason to get up in the morning,” Lee says, “I’m glad I found mine.”
Lee expects to find a new, bigger location on the Upper East Side with the hopes of opening a second restaurant in the beginning of the summer – and says he may even add a beer-filled dumpling to the menu.