How Dumplings Became a Lifeline for These L.A. Chefs
There was a moment, chef Brandon Kida admits, when it was nice to finally have some "free time with absolutely no responsibility." It was the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, and Kida had been busy running buzzy restaurants, including Hinoki & The Bird in Century City. He was very close to opening "a California take on an izakaya" in Hollywood. Then everything just stopped.
After some respite and reflection, Kida knew he had to start pinching gyoza.
"I kind of fall back on childhood comforts," said Kida, a Japanese-American chef who grew up in L.A.'s Koreatown. "When things are going bad, people love comfort food. My comfort food was gyoza, dumplings. I remember sitting at the dinner table with my mom, and she would just show me how to make handmade gyoza: how to make the filling, how to fold the dumplings, how to cook the dumplings."
So suddenly, this past April, a chef who had been cooking for CAA agents and Hollywood superstars at his glamorous Century City restaurant was staying up well past midnight rolling dumplings at home. At first, Kida and his wife, Rachel, delivered gyoza to friends in exchange for donations. Then they went public as Go Go Gyoza, and the demand was so substantial that Kida hired some of his former employees and moved the operation to Hinoki & The Bird.
"As a chef, you have to stay strong," Kida said. "I don't think you have a choice. Either you buck up and are decisive, or you don't and you let a lot of people down. I had numerous employees that needed to get to work. I needed to do something that could bring in income for them and myself."
Go Go Gyoza has since made tens of thousands of frozen dumplings, most of which are stuffed with Kida's Kurobuta pork, chicken, or tofu-and-vegetable fillings. Kida is now selling close to 100 dozen cook-at-home dumplings each week between takeout and delivery orders around L.A. and Orange County.
"Our delivery radius is like 50 miles," Kida said. "I'll take on as much work as I need to, as long as we get income."
Go Go Gyoza has collaborated with L.A. chefs who have created limited-time-only dumplings, with some proceeds from these special gyoza going to charities including No Us With You, which feeds undocumented restaurant workers. Kida says that getting prominent chefs like Mei Lin, Neal Fraser, Jon Yao, and Tal Ronnen involved has often been as easy as sending a single DM, and he's loved seeing how dumplings can showcase a wide array of flavors. Lin, for example, made truffle cheeseburger gyoza while Ronnen made a vegan option with kabocha squash, scallions, and chili ponzu. Kida's own gyoza riffs have included turkey-and-sage Thanksgiving dumplings that came with shiitake mushroom gravy and cranberry dipping sauce.
"I've touched more people, I think, with this dumpling business than I have with all the fine dining I've ever done," said Kida, who previously ran the kitchen at Asiate in New York after cooking at Lutèce. "Let me tell you, it's a lot more gratifying to do food that touches the masses."
Dumplings have become a lifeline for many talented L.A. chefs during the pandemic. RiceBox's Leo and Lydia Lee, true mom-and-pop operators who had their first child in May, have been delivering handmade shrimp dumplings, cheese-filled char siu baos, and Cantonese barbecue all over Los Angeles and Orange County. Dumpling Monster, which offers nationwide shipping via Goldbelly, has allowed chef Perry Cheung to keep his staff and even pay them occasional overtime as they make chicken-and-chive dumplings, spicy pork wontons, and vegan buns.
"There's a lot of labor that goes into dumplings," said Cheung, who keeps things efficient by buying ingredients like chicken that he can use at both Dumpling Monster and sister restaurant Phorage. "Profit is out the window this year, but the key thing was to keep jobs and keep the business running. I don't mind losing money on a day or two as long as [employees] can maintain their finances for another day or two."
Fortunately, dumplings are generating enough revenue for Cheung to keep the lights on.
It's a similar story for Shirley Chung at Ms. Chi. "Without Goldbelly, there's no way I can stay open," Chung said. "That's how I pay my rent."
On Mondays and Tuesdays when Ms. Chi is closed the kitchen staff is there folding dumplings for Goldbelly orders. A front-of-the-house employee packs boxes filled with wontons and jumbo cheeseburger potstickers. And Chung just added frozen dumplings to her take-out menu.
Chung's Goldbelly items also include orange chicken meal kits, tea-smoked duck, scallion pancakes, and Taiwanese pork chops, but dumplings have been about two-thirds of the orders. During the busy holiday gifting season, Ms. Chi's mail-order business has been averaging close to 150 orders overall a week.
And Miami chef Richard Hales, who had been scoping out L.A. locations for his West Coast expansion before the pandemic hit, has started selling smoked pork-cheek dumplings along with his Society BBQ brisket and beef ribs on Goldbelly. He's planning to launch nationwide shipping of dishes from Blackbrick, his popular Chinese restaurant, soon.
It's clearly time for chefs to bet bigger on comfort food.
Last week, Kida launched Go Go Bird, which offers Japanese fried chicken and sides like mashed potatoes with curry gravy. Cheung, who's been hosting Ryan Ososky's DTown Pizzeria pop-up at the West Hollywood Phorage, has been selling tacos on Tuesdays and has his eye on future pop-ups.
"One takeaway from this is that everyone needs to try different things," Cheung said.
Chung, meanwhile, has a mochi-donut delivery spinoff called Mo-Chi Donuts, and she's working on mala fried chicken.
"We're surviving right now," she said. "I spend five percent of my day being depressed and 95 percent being like, 'Wake up, let's continue to push and find new ways to make this work.'"
In the early days of the pandemic, Chung wasn't sure if she would even reopen Ms. Chi. But she's since renewed her lease for five more years and has been telling chef friends that her Culver City restaurant is a place where they can test new ideas. Why not do multiple things in one space if there's demand?
Kida is thinking along the same lines. He would love Go Go Gyoza and Go Go Bird to continue as virtual restaurants. The idea of having one concept in one space seems so 2019. Go Go Gyoza, for example, is bringing in people who would have never gone to Hinoki & The Bird.
"It gives you the ability to tie together many things," Kida said. "It's not just one restaurant with one identity. It can be a number of different identities. I think after this pandemic, you're going to realize as a chef and as a restaurateur that you have to bring in a number of different revenue streams. You have to be open-minded and be able to roll with it."