"With patience and persistence, anything is possible."
No, that's not a motivational quote from Goop or Geri Halliwell's Instagram, but a Chinese idiom quoted in London chef Andrew Wong's new book, named after his restaurant: A Wong.
I'm visiting before service to learn a few tips on how to make dumplings ahead of Chinese New Year. Traditionally prepared at home on the day, before being eaten at around midnight, dumplings are at the centre of the Chinese New Year's Eve feast.
A Wong opened at the end of 2012 and quickly earned critical acclaim for its innovative approach to Chinese cooking—adapting traditional recipes and bringing them up to date (so, no gloopy sauces) while highlighting the variety and complexity of Chinese food which, as Wong points out "until eight or nine years ago, was [in the UK] all specifically from one particular area in China."
His connection to the restaurant stretches back to the 80s, when it was run by his parents and called Kym's after Wong's paternal grandmother. The "A" in the restaurant's name today refers to his parents, Albert and Annie).
A Wong: The Cookbook came out last year and—like the dishes on the menu at the restaurant—is a wide-ranging exploration of Chinese food, from dim sum to steamed Shaanxi Province noodles and Peking duck. Unlike much modern recipe writing, Wong's focus isn't speed or ease. Fancy making that duck? Clear two days in your diary. "The odds are strongly against you if you attempt this at home," Wong writes reassuringly in the introduction.
It's not that everything is painstaking or intimidating (though some of it is, a little), it's just that the recipes are the opposite of the, "Oh this old thing? I just bunged it in the pan" school of cooking that makes us all think we're instantaneous chefs. Wong seems to recognise that, often, to cook something well, you need both practice and skill. It also sets out to debunk the stereotype that Chinese food is simple or unrefined—something that Wong is understandably passionate about.
"I think the general understanding of Chinese food is that it's deskilled and very easy when it's really not," he says. "People think you throw [things] in a wok and bosh, it's ready."
That's not to say that Wong doesn't make concessions to the home cook. At the restaurant, his Shanghai dumplings (minced pork and rich broth held in an impossibly light, perfectly pleated—a lucky 18 folds per dumpling—pastry casing) are served with little pickled tapioca pearls on top and injected with ginger vinegar. The way to eat them without losing that sweet, sweet broth is to nibble the top where the pleats join up and slurp the hot liquid, before dispatching the rest of the dumpling down the hatch. It's a pretty perfect mouthful.
But is the thought of injecting the dumplings was too much for people to handle?
"I didn't really want to encourage people to go into the pharmacy and ask for a hypodermic needle," Wong laughs. "Although apparently they'll give you one for free because they're trying to stop needle sharing. I've been paying a lot of money for hypodermic needles and now I realise they're free. If you're eating them at home, you can control your own level of vinegar anyway [by dipping]."
Although he was born into the business ("Me and my sister grew up in the restaurant—as soon as we were old enough to hold plates, we were working"), Wong didn't plan to follow the culinary path and studied social anthropology at LSE before switching to train as a chef.
So, what changed his mind?
"It's one those things: you kind of fall into what you do. You end up finding a passion for what you end up finding a passion for, you know?" he says. "The circumstances were strange but I ended up coming into the restaurant when my father passed away—and then I really enjoyed it. And I don't do things by halves. When I do them, I do them properly. Almost 15 years later, I'm still in the kitchen, every single service."
Before opening A Wong, the chef travelled around China, learning different cooking styles and techniques.
"People often think that Chinese food is one single thing but actually it's massively diverse: 1.7 billion people, 14 different countries that border China. It's crazy to think it's anything but hugely varied from region to region," he explains. "If you talk to a Chinese chef and asks him what he does, he would never say, 'I'm a Chinese chef,' he would say: 'I'm a chef of [for example] Cantonese or Northern Chinese cuisine."
But back to the big burning questions. Dumplings (specifically the jiaozi variety) are believed to bring good fortune, as they look like gold ingots. I've never seen a gold ingot but y'know, why not?
So, the more dumplings you eat on Chinese New Year, the more prosperous I'll be?
"Probably," says Wong. "I mean, put it this way: it's a Chinese tradition that you never finish your plate. [If you do], it means your host hasn't fed you properly. So more is generally better as a rule of thumb."
My sentiment exactly. How many dumplings is a good number to eat? Asking for a friend.
"Eight or nine are always lucky numbers," he says. "And that would definitely fill you up."
It's time to get into the A Wong kitchen and see how it's done. Everyone's revving up for lunchtime service and trays are being filled with bright red balls that will, on frying, blossom into scallop puffs. Wong's station is at the front looking out on to the street (and the Sainsbury's supermarket opposite). He's making har gao: prawn dumplings with clear pastry.
Unlike potstickers, which require a thicker skin and can be made with ready-made wrappers, har gao call for pastry "as thin as tracing paper. You wouldn't be able to manufacture that."
Wong cuts a round off a long sausage of dough, then uses a hefty cleaver to press it down on to the wooden chopping board, pushing and dragging it until it's stretched out into a perfect circle. It's the kind of thing that looks easy but, predictably, turns out to be really bloody hard. I have a go: the cleaver is slippery but my dumpling consumption last year must have been high because not only do I not maim myself, but I later win £6.20 on the EuroMillions. Result.
A teaspoonful of prawn filling and you fold over the pastry to make a semi-circle, pinch together then pleat (13 this time), and finally, steam.
Creating those perfect pleats requires a dexterity but, as Wong cheerfully tells me, pleating is just decorative.
"As long as you wrap the thing and make it watertight then it doesn't really matter what shape you make it," he says. "Enjoy the process. Enjoy monotony! It's a skill that you can take away with you forever, if you wish to use it."
All photos by Liz Seabrook.
This previously appeared on MUNCHIES in February 6, 2016.