In honor of the Chinese New Year, a two-week celebration starting Jan. 23, MetroFocus talked dumplings with the unlikely duo behind the much-lauded, farm-to-table, country casual, neo-Chinese, destination restaurant RedFarm in Manhattan’s West Village.
Chef Joseph Ng hails from Hong Kong and is well on his way to being crowned the Dumpling King of New York City. Owner Eddie Schoenfeld is the Jewish New Yorker who’s made himself into an expert in Chinese food and filled happy local bellies with high-end versions of the stuff since the 1970s, of late at places like his nearby Chinatown Brasserie.
Swaddled in thick sweaters on a wintry afternoon as they showcased a series of accessible but elegant dishes before a recent pre-dinner rush, the two seemed to fight, to revere and to finish each other’s thoughts like brothers. (Renowned restaurateur Barry Wine, best known as the man behind the still very dearly departed Quilted Giraffe, joined Ng and Schoenfeld, but spent most of his time eating dumplings while nodding in silent agreement.)
The palm reader said my dumplings are my children.
Q: Will RedFarm be doing anything special for Chinese New Year?
Schoenfeld: We have a group of special dishes for the Chinese New Year: suckling pig, happy Buddha rolls (as they are called) and special pastries made from lotus root that are very fancy.
Q: Joe, you moved at age 11 from Hong Kong to Park Slope in Brooklyn. How did you celebrate Chinese New Year growing up?
Ng: Dried oysters! A whole chicken, boiled. A whole fish.
Schoenfeld: And when you serve these things whole, the wholeness symbolizes abundance.
Ng: Yes. And cellophane noodles. Steamed rice cakes. And for more sweetness, sweet rice cakes with coconut flour. Many different things.
Q: Who cooked for Chinese New Year?
Ng: My father’s mom and my father’s father. But when I was 17 I cooked my first New Year’s meal for the whole family.
Q: Is that like the rite-of-passage equivalent of cooking my first Thanksgiving meal for my parents?
Ng: And if you don’t cook it well, they talk about it all year.
Q: What do you eat to celebrate Chinese New Year nowadays?
Ng: It’s the only day all year that I eat all vegetarian. And most of my family does too.
Q: Why and what do you eat?
Ng: Because that way you start the year like Buddha, with no meat. So we eat black mushrooms. And bamboo pith.
Schoenfeld: Bamboo pith is like the spongy inside of a young bamboo plant.
Q: Like the marrow of the bamboo?
Ng: Also something called a potato mushroom. It’s a very starchy winter vegetable only available about two weeks each year, right about the time of Chinese New Year in January or February. It’s not local so we ship it in from Florida.
Q: With all that diversity, how did dumplings become what one eats for Chinese New Year in New York?
Ng: People celebrate by eating different things depending on what part of China they are from and where they live. And New Yorkers like dumplings!
Schoenfeld: And also of course the dumplings people eat and how they make them differs too. Joe is Cantonese, from Hong Kong. Soup dumplings, one of our specialties, are from Shanghai.
Ng: And older generations of Chinese here eat more traditional things for New Year’s, but younger people now do all sorts of different things — like a huge pot with 18 different kinds of food in small portions, each separated out and representing something different.
Schoenfeld: People eat things that are symbols of unity, wealth and prosperity because the food items resemble or sound like the words for those things. For example, one kind of dumpling is considered lucky because of its historical resemblance to the silver and gold ingots in Chinese currency. So the dumplings symbolize a prosperous future.
Q: Ok, let’s dish on dumplings. Where do you go to eat dumplings other than your own?
Q: Anywhere in particular?
Ng: Everywhere. And always somewhere different.
Q: What makes a good dumpling?
Ng: The dumpling skin has to be thin. It’s about the texture. It can’t be too gummy or too doughy or too soft. A lot of places have bad dumplings. Most people like to precook them. And it’s just not right.
Schoenfeld: The skin has to have a little chew. You can’t leave it steaming for too long or the water and the steam will triple the size.
Ng: Yes. And they have to be juicy.
Schoenfeld: See how our shrimp dumpling has almost a crunch to it? (Munching ensues around the table.) That’s what Joe is trying to achieve. A tautness. A sense of the dumpling being full. See, here are our fabulous dumplings with black Périgord truffles from France.
Q: Oh my God.
(Quiet chewing. Also, some moaning.)
Schoenfeld: And Joe makes a thousand different kinds of dumplings! Look at these ones shaped like little pigs, these are going to be a new dessert, with black sesame and a raspberry sauce.
Q: Are these a form of art to you?
Ng: Yes. The palm reader says too many dumplings, so no kids. My dumplings are my children.
MetroFocus Editor in Chief Laura van Straaten ate many dumplings at RedFarm while conducting this interview, which has been edited and condensed.