About Time: You Met John and Yee Li, Co-Founders of Dumpling ShackBy Alicia Grimshaw
Founded by husband and wife team, John and Yee Li, Dumpling Shack started from John’s desire to eat his favourite dumplings from Hong Kong, particularly inspired by a restaurant called Cheung Hing Kee. Within the Dumpling Shack family there are three brands – Dumpling Shack, Fen Noodles, and Sichuan Fry – each with their own identity, but a strong synergy and in conversation with each other. Next month, the duo will open Sichuan Fry in Hackney. We chatted to John and Yee about expanding their restaurant portfolio, returning to East London and their favourite picks from the menu:
If people aren’t familiar with Dumpling Shack Group, what can they expect and where can they find you?
Yee and I started Dumpling Shack back in 2014 within The School Yard Market by London Fields. Since our market stall beginnings, we’ve grown to include three different brands in the Group; Dumpling Shack, Fen Noodles and Sichuan Fry. We swapped London Fields for Old Spitalfields Market in 2017 and that’s where you will find Dumpling Shack and Fen Noodles. Dumpling Shack is known for our shengjianboa (pan-fried soup dumplings) and Fen Noodles for our dan dan noodles. We also have a branch of these two in South Quay, just outside of Canary Wharf. And now, our newest location will be back to our roots in London Fields, which will house our flagship Sichuan Fry kitchen, plus another Dumpling Shack kitchen under one roof.
Tell us about Sichuan Fry and what we should be ordering:
Sichuan Fry started in 2020 when Dumpling Shack was trading at the start of the pandemic. We were a lot less busy which gave us time to play around and experiment in the kitchen and Sichuan flavours have always been something we wanted to explore. We loved the idea of doing a Sichuan version of a Nashville hot chicken, so we did a test kitchen trial with the public, and the feedback was hugely encouraging. Enough so for us to feel confident that we could create a brand out of this concept.
Sichuan Fry today will be all about our fried chicken sandwiches; the chicken is brined overnight and then coated in our signature spiced batter and coated in a sauce made from our house-made mala chilli oil. This is sandwiched between a soft, toasted potato bun. We’ll also be making our own ‘shake shake fries’ with various different seasonings including seaweed powder, salt and pepper, salted egg and chilli.
Why did you pick Hackney for the new opening of Sichuan Fry?
Hackney has always been the spiritual home of the business and when this site on Westgate Street became available it seemed ideal because of its location and size which is big enough to house a Sichuan Fry and Dumpling Shack kitchen.
What’s your favourite item from the menu?
Any of the fried chicken sandwiches, but if we were forced to choose, then probably The Sichuan Classic, as it’s the sandwich that spearheaded the concept and what most fans will be familiar with from the 2020 queues in Old Spitalfields Market. It’s spiced with Sichuan peppercorns, chilli and coated in a sauce made from doubanjiang, then topped with pickles using Dumpling Shack’s smacked cucumber marinade.
Photo credit: Mike Tsang
What is it about Sichuan flavours that really excites you?
It’s the combinations of chilli spice, sweet, salty, umami and the use of peppercorns that creates this addictive quality that leaves you wanting more.
What have been your biggest learnings throughout your journey from street food stall to running a restaurant group?
Slow and steady; take your time to test recipes, and take your time to grow the business. If your passion is food and you want to make a career out of it, you’ll most likely be doing it for decades so there really isn’t a need to rush any decision-making. Be prepared to say no more than you’ll say yes. There will be many false dawns presented to you.
What does the British-Chinese identity mean to you today and how do you feel it’s expanding socially, culturally, and through food?
It has changed greatly since my youth. It’s become far more diverse. When I was a child, the British-Chinese identity was largely dominated by the Cantonese-speaking people due to the Britain and Hong Kong links. This was seen in the language, the arts, and the food. Now there is far more variety as China has grown into a global superpower. Chinatown used to be a place surrounded by restaurants serving Cantonese roast meats and dim sum, now you can find Sichuan cuisine, Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles, hot pots, and that’s only just a few different types. The language that now dominates the streets of Chinatown is Mandarin.
What’s the future plans for the Dumpling Shack Group? Will your daughter inherit the business?
Consolidate, it’s not a very sexy answer but the fact is that we’re heading into a lot of unknowns. We haven’t felt the impact of the energy price rises yet, but it’s coming and it will create a lot of pain unless there is some sort of state intervention. If I’m bold and foolish to look beyond that, then we want to expand to West London, cities outside of London, our own food hall and eventually go international. Will my daughter inherit the business? If I still have it and she wants it and she’s shown she cares about the business, yeah why not?!
Where are your favourite restaurants in London?
Goodman, Sabor, Imperial Treasure, Smokestak, Arome Bakery (strictly not a restaurant, but let me have this one), Hide, Koya, Detroit Pizza, Barbary and Quality Chop House.
For more information on Dumpling Shack Group, see here.