Dumpling Dreams
Interview with Marja of the Kitchen Club by Gretchen VanEsselstyn:

The Kitchen Club is a bright, sunny spot on Prince Street in New York's SoHo, a convivial room where regulars meet to dine on fine cuisine, delight in the gorgeous décor, and bask in the glow of their favorite chef-owner-host, the scintillating Marja.
Marja, a native of the Netherlands, has brought Japanese and European cuisines together, wedding her convictions about using fresh seasonal produce with a keen sense of her customers' food interests and desires. An oddity among modern chefs, Marja does most of the cooking herself, allowing her to exercise control over the quality and consistency of her products, and this hands-on approach is evident in every aspect of The Kitchen Club. How is it possible for one person to run the business of a restaurant and still find time to cook? "I am like my dog, a terrier," Marja told me. "I am very tenacious. Running a business as a woman - I can do that because I am multifaceted and I like the challenge."

Marja concluded our interview by quoting the Dalai Lama, saying, "It is not the food, but the bringing of the food." This piece of her personal philosophy echoes from her care in selecting ingredients, her determination when fine-tuning recipes and her skill at creating a beautiful place in which to partake of her delicious food. And did I mention the dumplings?

GV: Could you tell me something about the origin and history of Kitchen Club?
M: Well, our dumpling was conceived in the original Kitchen Club which was located at 500 East 11th Street and I used to have dinners once or twice a week, prix fixe for 40 dollars a person. I served the hors d'oeuvres and a glass of champagne and people brought their own wine, and I had one menu for everyone. We'd have anywhere from 14-20 people for dinner. I also did a lot of catering and private parties, but it didn't really make for a restaurant. At some point, the East Village wasn't developing any further, and I started looking for another space, and this one came up. It wasn't the neighborhood that it is now, it was a very unwanted, quiet, neighborhoody neighborhood. There was a cohesive group of people here that provided a network. They lived here - they weren't yuppies, they weren't transients - they were leftovers from the old Italian neighborhood, or they were artists who lived here because it was so protecting. In 1990, when I came here, people were surprised that I would open up something here, particularly a white-tablecloth restaurant. It's much more upscale now than when I first opened up because I've had a chance to develop the room and the atmosphere. I've done awnings and had windows opened up to the sidewalk, so it really looks like a ritzy little place now. When I first opened it, people had no idea what I was doing, but I've become a sort of neighborhood local restaurant.

GV: Your mushroom dumplings were called "perfect" in Zagat's. How do you feel about that?
M: The mushroom dumplings have been worked on since 1986 and that's when I started developing them as an ingredient in my menu to include people who are not meat eaters without having to make some kind of dorky vegetarian dish. It would have to be tasty and not have any connotations that people would have anything against it except if you can't eat mushrooms. They started as a ravioli at first: flat, lying as a little triangle on the plate with a red pepper sauce and that was my first thought. Then, as I was already involved in cooking Japanese food and eating a lot of Japanese food, being married to a Japanese man, and having been there, I realized that the Japanese have a dumpling called gyoza which is made with pork and garlic and cabbage, depending on the chef who's making them, and I thought maybe I can use that idea, and that's how they turned from ravioli to dumplings.

GV: What form does it take - is it like a gyoza, where it's flat on the bottom, and is seared and then steamed?
M: Yes, exactly. When the restaurant opened, the mushroom dumplings were on the menu, and within a short time, I couldn't take them off, because they were so popular.
Those dumplings have spurred on another group of members of the dumpling family to satisfy different tastes. People who like to have something that's meat can have the duck and ginger dumplings, made in a different shape with a different wrapper, and the shrimp and spinach dumplings, which are made for people who are into crustaceans, obviously, and we also have the salmon tartare dumpling which is very popular. I'm working on one or two other dumplings, including an apple with chocolate dumpling with a wasabi-green tea sauce and a tofu and hijiki dumpling.
We have a lunch now that's based on dumplings. I find that people are very relieved that they don't have to order something heavy and that are many people who say they want sandwiches. And because I'm in a neighborhood where there are quite a few restaurants, I am willing to lose those people for lunch.

GV: As I've been researching this article, I've been trying to figure out what it is that's so appealing about dumplings.
M: Well, one of the things that is appealing is that you get a taste of something as if it were on a spoon, so you can kind of grab one bite and put it in your mouth, almost as if it were a crostini, but with crostini there's a bit more interference - you can pop it in your mouth, but you have to chew it, while with a dumpling, because it's a very thin skin, the opening up of the ingredients develops right on the front of your palate and on the roof of your mouth so you get a lot of flavor in the packaging, in one bite, and that's appealing to a lot of people.

GV: I think they're fun too - sort of the element of surprise.
M: Yes, and it's sort of a cultural trip too. You can make it spicy … I mean, I haven't bothered to do too outrageous, say Mexican or Mediterranean because I want to stick to the semi-classic mixture I'm making of Japanese and European food.

GV: The European food on your menu, what are some of the influences you have there?
M: I try to make food that's French classically based, like the mushroom medley has a sauce that's made with a reduction, which usually has a French background. In the wintertime, for example, for the main courses we have scalloped potatoes, which are French, and other things - blanquette de veau, though lately I've been making things that are lighter. At the beginning I used to make boeuf flamande, which is a Flemish beef stew, and now that customers tend to look for healthier food (or claim they do) I'm looking for food that is a bit more straightforward, and less "worked" and let the ingredients speak more for themselves and I don't know whether that is true in Europe now because I'm not cooking there, but I find that a lot of people respond very well to it. For example, I have a marinated tuna that is grilled very quickly and comes with a very simple wasabi cream and some green tea soba noodles - instead of having sautéed greens in the summertime you have a salad, with some hijiki in it for a little Asian flair. So it's not too overworked.

GV: It seems like you have a real seasonal influence.
M: Yes - in the wintertime I serve rice and potatoes, and in the summertime I serve soba noodles - different kinds, like green tea, brown, or sometimes somen noodles, which is a thicker type that absorbs sauce well.

GV: So what's coming up for summer?
M: Well, we're working on our tenth anniversary and getting together our mailing list for that. For summer we do a lot of grilling, a lot of fish, at least four different kinds of fish every day. We make our homemade ginger pickles, which are very good in the summertime. Recently we've started serving swordfish again. Some people have trepidation about serving swordfish, but we haven't found any resistance from our customers. We marinate it in mustard sauce, which tenderizes it a bit, and it's simple and delicious. Our tuna is a sushi grade that we marinade in sesame oil, mirin, soy, spices and garlic, served rare, with a wasabi cream. We also have a blackfish from Montauk with a compound of wasabi tobiko butter and a Spanish mackerel that is marinated in miso, which is a housewife dish in Japan. Another thing I find about cooking that's on my mind is what Mother cooks, what she finds in the market.