Dim Sum America

by Caroline Hatchett
Antoinette Bruno
April 2014

Dim Sum Set-up Considerations

  • Cart Cost: Can you afford custom or Chinatown cheap?
  • Square footage: Do you have the space for wide aisles and cart storage?
  • Table: Will you have to rip out awkward-to-maneuver-around banquettes for more tables?
  • Price Point: How will you balance labor costs and remain true to the spirit of cheap and fun dim sum?
  • Personality: Are you an introvert? (If so, keep your kitchen in the back or choose a different concept.)

How to Build Dim Sum Dishes à la State Bird Provisions

  • Seat tables in two- and four-tops and serve dishes that can easily be divided by the number of people at each table. Odd numbers are annoying.
  • Make dishes sharable. Diners should be able to run a spoon through a dish and get a little bit of everything or stab the dish, drag it through a sauce, and pop it into their mouths (a.k.a the stab and drag rule).
  • Subtlety doesn’t work for small plates. Build dishes on the four flavor principles of salt, acid, fat, and texture.

“Dim sum cuisine—essentially stuffed dumplings in more varieties than Howard Johnson’s had ice cream—has become trendy,” wrote Leslie Gourse in a 1988 Chicago Tribune article. HoJo reference aside, Ms. Gourse’s late eighties observation is truer than ever, but the dim sum that has risen to prominence in 2014 is an unabashedly Americanized, chef-driven mode of service and fun. The current craze was arguably born at San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions in late 2011 and reached the height of consumer culture with the announcement last month that Giada De Laurentiis will host a dim sum brunch in her forthcoming Las Vegas restaurant.

Dim sum’s American journey from traditional tea and dumplings to full-on Food Network-Vegas fanfare began with the arrival of Cantonese immigrants to California during the mid-19th century Gold Rush. In the 1870s, immigrants fled persecution on the West Coast for New York’s Chinatown. By the late 1950s, The New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne began describing dim sum as open-faced, steamed dumplings. By 1962, he celebrated Chinatown’s weekend tea lunches, for which, “There is no menu, no ordering. Both Chinese and non-Chinese are served the same kickshaws.” The next year, Manhattan ladies could attend dim sum cooking classes in the home of Author Grace Chu.

Then the flood gates opened. Chinatown’s human and restaurant population exploded in 1965 after the federal government eased immigration restrictions on Chinese citizens, and two decades later dim sum had not only made it to the middle of the country, it had officially become a national trend.

The Church Key- Los Angeles, CA

American Chefs Get Rolling
Natural-born trendsetter, David Burke (father of the cheesecake pop and pastrami salmon) introduced dim sum carts at Chicago’s Park Avenue Café in 1995 for the rollicking, $22.50, all-you-can-eat American Dim Sum Brunch. “It was the number one brunch in Chicago. We did 350 people every Sunday,” says Burke, whose kitchen sent out pancakes, eggs, and other brunch staples, along with classic American dishes and a few token Asian bites. He brought the concept to his New York Park Avenue Café, and after going on hiatus for a few years, reintroduced the brunch in 2008 at David Burke’s Primehouse in Chicago.

In the early days of Burke’s dim sum brunch, a certain garde manger named Stuart Brioza worked several of the weekend shifts. “It was a combination of buffet and gueridon [service] with eggs Benedict,” says Brioza. “Cooks ran it. There were a slew of dishes that were predetermined—pastrami salmon and the egg cart. For the rest, the chefs got to play.”

Brioza pocketed that experience, along with his wife, business partner, and pastry chef Nicole Krasinski, and went on to cook at Harlan Peterson’s Tapawingo in Michigan and Rubicon in San Francisco. After leaving Rubicon, the couple took a break from restaurants, catered parties, and began to form a vision of life and work after fine-dining. “The ongoing questions for us, for cooks, is ‘what is it that we want.’ As chefs, it came back to freedom and flexibility. At the time, we didn’t know what that meant,” says Brioza.

Brioza and Krasinski recognized the seeds of that freedom and flexibility in roving walk-around dinners they catered. Guests wanted something casual but substantial, and the couple prepared 15 or so one- to four-bite hors d’oeuvres and enlisted a sommelier friend to walk around and pour wine. “We started having a blast with it. It was exactly what we were talking about,” says Brioza, whose walk-around parties would eventually turn into the concept for State Bird Provisions.

Brioza and Krasinski started investigating small plate traditions from across the globe—Spanish tapas, Italian cicchetteria, French gueridon, Japanese izakaya, and Chinese dim sum, the last of which Brioza grew up eating during his Bay Area youth. They ultimately borrowed a little bit from each, applied their combined years devoted to the craft of cooking, and opened State Bird Provisions on New Year’s Eve 2011. Brioza and Krasinski didn’t want to call their service dim sum. “When Nicole and I first opened, we called it trays and carts. It just became like dim sum,” he says. The nation’s chefs took notice.

Here Come the Carts
Brioza has lost count of the chef-driven dim sum concepts that have launched in the last three years, notably The Church Key in Los Angeles, Gunshow in Atlanta, Má Pêche in New York City, and Umai Mi in San Antonio. Even Burke is getting back into the game, reintroducing his American Dim Sum Brunch at David Burke Kitchen in the Archer Hotel in fall 2014. This June, Giada will introduce the world to its (presumably) first Italian dim sum brunch.

“It’s mind blowing,” says Jason Dady, chef and owner of Umai Mi. “Why didn’t chefs think of it sooner?”

Dim sum is perched in the sweet spot of modern American dining. It marks the convergence of several currents: the now-ubiquitous small plate; dining out as entertainment; the return of tableside service (see The NoMad, El Celler de Can Roca, Carbone, etc.); and a generation that craves surprises and doesn’t know how not to share food. Throw in that now factor—the Instagram-able moment of a cart filled with kung pao bacon rolling by—and you have dim sum domination.

“It’s a bit like a circus, in the best way possible. There’s so much going on. You’re constantly entertained,” says Devon Espinosa, beverage director at The Church Key and master of multiple cocktail cart concepts that run alongside Chef Steven Fretz’s savory carts.

See It. Smell It. Sell It.
For dim sum meals, diners merely have to walk into a restaurant, sit down, and snag a dish in less time than it takes to decide between the kale salad or slow-poached farm egg on a printed menu. “The carts sell themselves,” says Espinosa. “It’s nice to not wait for a server. You see carts, and you can eat instantly.”

Dady runs dim sum during his peak services on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday brunch, and his carts peddle a combination of on-menu items and nightly specials. “People spend a lot more than they think. They’re impulse buyers. You might be full, but you might grab one more $5 plate,” he says.

Instant gratification and easy sales form the foundation of the freedom and flexibility Brioza and Krasinski sought when they first opened State Bird Provisions. The kitchen crew there works with a core group of recipes, adapting them seasonally and changing three to four dishes a week, much like they would for a restaurant with traditional service. But the format also let’s them tap into small quantities and fleeting flavors. When local anchovy season hits, they run with it. They can use an entire king salmon, making tartare or brining and smoking the sides. If there are only six of a given dish, servers take it to their favorite tables and sell them all—in a matter of minutes.

When Brioza and Krasinski decided to move a popular pork belly dish from passed trays onto the printed menu, its sales floundered. “By 9pm, we had sold only three from the menu. We said, ‘Fuck it. Let’s make six and send them out.’ And we sold six in less than three minutes.”

Staffing Up
But there’s more to service than selling. “We did [this style of service] to be closer to our guests. There’s more interaction. It takes a lot. It appears to be easier, but it’s not,” says Brioza. “You’re constantly engaging. There’s a sense of entertainment, but you still have to cook—to work and think like a chef. I’ve never been more exhausted at the end of every day.”

Work for dim sum starts early with heavy pre-service prep and assembly. Espinosa has a devoted “bar chef” who juices, batches, and preps full time to ready his cocktail carts. And once service kicks off, it’s a high energy affair. Servers take on tableside duties, help stock carts, and turn tables (Burke’s team could do 15 courses in an hour). In Brioza’s case, cooks help sell and deliver food and even recommend wines. Roles mix and mingle, as do tips. Pooling is the standard. State Bird even tips out its cooks. “I wanted everyone to win, not just front of the house, not just restaurant,” says Brioza.

To help stave off some of the madness at his dim sum brunches, Burke’s team pre-sets tables with napkins and vases filled with forks and chopsticks. “Get the mentality of a 15-course tasting menu out of your mind and think about eating at an Asian restaurant, where they bring you plate after plate. It’s annoying at brunch to have waiters hovering. Make it down and dirty. Load up the table with napkins, silverware, and plates. That’s the whole idea,” says Burke.

Whatever the vibe—intimate, down and dirty, or downtown L.A. circus—the power of dim sum in chef-driven dining rooms is undeniable. “We’re not kitschy. We put an emphasis on hospitable service and food that’s delicious,” says Brioza. “I don’t know if I would ever do it again. There’s something special about State Bird Provisions.” And there’s something special about the way dim sum has caught the nation’s attention, building momentum, meeting a wider audience, and ultimately giving chefs a new way to capture the freedom and flexiblity (and fun) they crave.