by Heather Sperling
Anita Lo has two Chinese women in her basement. They’re listening to salsa music and smiling, and they make over 1,000 dumplings a day.
Rickshaw, the dumpling bar on a busy commercial block of 23rd street in East Chelsea where Lo is chef/partner, is a happy medium between Momofuku and the street-side ramen joints that inspired it. It’s true quick serve – you order at the cashiers then pick up your dumplings through a window – but with a serious gastronomic twist. Six varieties of savory dumplings use ingredients like fresh Thai basil, Hudson Valley duck, and seasonal greens (pea shoots last summer, mustard greens right now), and are paired with a dipping sauce and a soup or salad. The mise en place at the finishing counter includes fresh mint, scallions, bean sprouts, fried shallots, strips of nori and julienned carrots. It’s about as cheffy as quick serve can get.
The expansion story we’re accustomed to is that of Thomas Keller, who moved from fine dining to a more casual concept to quick serve – but Lo’s is a bit different. The chef never considered quick serve until she was approached at her 40 seat fine dining restaurant (Anissa in New York’s West Village) by Kenny Lao, an eager business school student with a dumpling-centric dream; when they crossed paths two years later he still had the dream – and the money to back it.
Had Lo not hooked up with Lao, she would have taken the more traditional step, which she’s doing now with Bar Q, a 120-seat Asian barbecue concept opening in the West Village this year. But the timing seemed right, so she jumped at the opportunity to do another project that would scratch a creative itch without demanding too much time (or a search for investors). Lao had the basic dumpling + salad concept worked out, and he had the money; Lo fleshed out the menu, developed the recipes, and trained the original staff (sometimes with the use of a Mandarin translator. No small feat, needless to say).
On making the jump from fine dining to quick serve, Lo says: “It was difficult. Really difficult, actually.” She was used to working with culinary school grads who were passionate about their craft; she had to teach some of the Rickshaw staff the concept of using cups and ounces. But the subject matter, at least, wasn’t a stretch. One of the standby dishes at Anissa is a foie gras soup dumpling filled with foie gras mousse and a star anise and cinnamon scented consommé, topped with a sliver of seared foie gras and a dark soy reduction. “Granted, it’s foie gras,” says Lo, “but it’s still a dumpling.”
Heather Sperling: When did you begin cooking?
Anita Lo: I went to culinary school the summer after my junior year in college – 1987. I grew up in Michigan, and my family was very into food. My father was from Shanghai but he died when I was three – apparently he was a great cook though. My mother was Chinese but from Malaysia – the crossroads of Asia, where there are lots of culinary cultures. And I had ethnic nannies; one was Hungarian, so I had a lot of goulash, and her best friend was Mexican, so we had that as well.
HS: You worked at Bouley and then went to culinary school at Ritz Escoffier in Paris – what prompted that decision?
AL: I wanted to go back to France. I had only had a few weeklong courses. I may have been wrong, but at the time I felt like I wanted to have a diploma.
HS: You’ve worked all over – which have been the most important experiences for you? Do you have someone you’d consider a mentor?
AL: It’s all been important. If anybody, I’d say David Waltuck was a mentor – he’s helped me. I opened a small restaurant like he did. My business partner worked at Chanterelle as well – they helped us when we were starting out.
HS: When did you open your first restaurant? How did you know you were ready to own and not just work for someone else?
AL: I’ve always taken a lot of risks. I opened Anissa in 2000. I’d had a series of executive chef jobs and had opened Mirezi right before that – it was the only next step I could take. You could wait around forever for someone to open your ideal restaurant…but eventually you just got to make it happen for yourself.
HS: What was the deal? How’d you get the money? Do you have partners?
AL: Jennifer [Scism] and I are business partners – she does front of the house, and we own it 50-50. It was a low-budget restaurant in the scheme of things – we opened for $400,000. We took our life savings and invested it, and my mother helped us with the rest. It was all about having full creative control.
HS: How about Rickshaw? Why quick serve instead of a more casual dining concept, or another fine dining?
AL: I had wanted to open something with someone else – I didn’t think I had the time to do it all on my own. I never imagined it as this – as quick serve – but this one fell in my lap. After reading the business plan, it seemed exciting, and the cuisine is very easy for me to do. Pan-asian, dumplings – it makes sense because at Anissa one of our signature dishes is a dumpling. Granted, it’s foie gras, but it’s still a dumpling.
HS: How long has Rickshaw been open? Where did the concept come from?
AL: This location has been open 3 years. Our second location, on 8th Street between University and Broadway, opened this past year. This was not my concept – Kenny Lao conceived of it a good seven years ago. He had worked for Michael Bonadies and Drew Nieporent, and then decided to go to business school. He came to me as a student and said let’s do this – before he had put anything on paper. I told him to come back when he had something more concrete…two years later I ran into him at The Spotted Pig. He was still looking, and told him I was interested. I never would have considered doing quick serve if not for Kenny coming to me.
HS: How did you design the menu – dumplings paired with salad or soup – what inspired this?
AL: It’s not traditional – Kenny grew up in Northern California and he always had dumplings with a big salad, so he wanted to keep that concept. I came up with the noodle part, because I thought it would make it more balanced. The pairing instinct comes from fine dining – I wanted to keep mixing it up, so we paired everything – dumplings with sauce, with salad, with dressing, and with soup.
HS: Where did the Bar Q concept come from?
AL: I’ve been thinking about that for at least six years. I’ve always loved barbecue. My mother went to school in Tennessee, and I’ve always noticed the parallels between southern cuisine and Chinese cuisine. So it seemed natural.
HS: What’s the investor/owner structure like? How did you find your investors?
AL: In general, investors come to me. In this case it’s a couple who live in my neighborhood – they had their eye out for locations and real estate for a while. I had wanted to do this restaurant with Jennifer, but she wasn’t as into it as I was, so she’s not involved. So it’s just me and one investor.
HS: Who is running the kitchen at Anissa? How do you split your time between the 3 restaurants?
AL: Rickshaw is really like a consultancy. I am a partner here and every once in a while I’ve got meetings and little projects, but for the most part I just try to check in twice a week at each store.
I have a great sous at Anissa – Danny Wang – he’s been with me forever. He’s only 22 or 23, and he started with me at 18, before he could even have drink after his shift. He has no menu control though. I’m still very much running the show – I’m there on the line most nights. I’m going to be at the new place almost every night until it gets off the ground.
Rickshaw I can do during the day. It’s a formula and the recipes are standardized.
HS: Was it difficult to make that jump? To standardize everything?
AL: Yes, it was difficult. Really difficult, actually. I was used to working with culinary grads, and the people here are great, but not at that level. So I’ve written all the recipes to be weighed out – it’s all a formula. The cook time is exact. Everything is written out in the manual, from the brands of the ingredients to the exact timing.
But it was hard – I had to learn to understand the way it worked. When I first opened I thought “oh my god, what have I done – how am I going to get this consistent?” I was training people here that didn’t speak English – they spoke Mandarin, and had no concept of cups or ounces. I had to teach them all of that through a translator.
HS: What’s made in house?
AL: We have a recipe for the wrappers that we send out to Brooklyn – then we assemble the dumplings in house. There’s a production kitchen downstairs. The 8th Street location makes all the sauces, and here we make all the dumplings and all the broths.
HS: How do you integrate seasonality into the concept?
AL: We have a seasonal vegetable dumpling. When you get Chinese veggie dumplings, the vegetables are unrecognizable. I wanted to have a recognizable vegetable in there. We also have a seasonal drink – right now we have Meyer lemonade, and in the summer we’ll go to watermelon juice.
HS: How much business do you do? What’s your clientele like? How many covers?
AL: We do $6000 days here at Rickshaw. At Anissa we have a very eclectic clientele – they come from all over. It’s 45 seats. In the holiday season our covers were in the 60s in the week and the 80s in the weekend, but right now it’s pretty up and down. Right after New Years it slows down.
We want the same eclectic crowd for Bar Q. We get young people at Anissa, but I would image that bar Q will be even younger. It will have around 100, 120 seats. It’s coming along – putting in floors, need to re-do façade, starting to hire the top positions.
HS: How do you inspire yet retain your employees?
AL: Kenny hires the management here – I’m really the culinary consultant. But it’s one of the hardest things. Here I can’t imagine I have any influence in that regard – I really just pop in and say hi. At Anissa it’s a very small, tight kitchen. It’s far from perfect, but I do try to be as fair as possible. I try to manage their expectations and be as honest and direct with them as possible. I don’t yell. I’m not a plate thrower. I try to listen as much as I can and say that my door is always open. And then I tell them what I expect of them up front.
HS: What is your customer service philosophy? Philosophy on food & dining?
AL: I want to have friendly, personalized service. The staff should believe in what they’re doing, and that should spill over to the customers. I cook staff meal every Friday, and I try to make delicious things for them – I love cooking staff meal. I won’t let any part of any animal go to waste. I’m also a big proponent of multiculturalism. Both of those come out in staff meal, so I suppose they are my food philosophies – multiculturalism and no waste.
HS: What are some of your favorite restaurants around the city?
AL: I love Alex Raj’s new restaurant – Quinto Pino. I love A Voce, Jewel Bako, Degustation, and of course I’m a David Chang fan.
HS: What’s your 5 year plan? I hear you want to expand the Bar Q concept and create a line of marketable products – bbq sauces, marinades. Any other dining concepts?
AL: One day I want to do bbq sauce – but one thing at a time! I just want to open first. And then I’m going to think about what’s next.
I always have a lot of restaurant concepts up my sleeve…I love opening restaurants. Rickshaw has a lot of investors – the Bar Q investor is the greatest investor that has happened. Hopefully I will make them more money; it would be great to do more stuff with them.
HS: Are there any opportunities you’ve passed on that you regret?
AL: Food Network called me when I was in the throes of opening Anissa to do Melting Pot – a series of shows about hyphenated Americans showing their cuisine. But I couldn’t, I flat out said no. But I think that sort of thing is great for one’s career.
HS: What are your top three tips for chefs looking to expand:
AL: 1) You have to make sure that your home base is covered. You need really strong people that can continue your vision.
2) Know what kind of time you have. For a while I thought I had to expand with some other company, and that was the first thing I did. But I wanted to do my own concept. I could have tried to get another restaurant group, but my path was to go with what fell in my lap – I get a lot more ownership that way. But I also get a lot more headaches.
3) I’ve been approached by a lot of people offering money…but you can tell who’s really going to give you money at the need of the day. You can feel it – you can tell how serious they really are. If they’re searching for real estate for you, that’s a good sign.
13 Barrow St
New York, NY 10014
Rickshaw Dumpling Bar
61 West 23rd Street
New York, NY
53 East 8th Street
New York, NY
308 Bleecker Street
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