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Interview #13: Cathay Bi's Bay Area Dumpling Community
Learn all about Dumpling Club—and its very delicious Lunar New Year plans—ahead.
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After over a decade spent working in the tech world, Cathay Bi started getting burnt out. So in 2019, she quit.
“I was going through a lot just personally around my identity, and where I wanted my career to go,” she says. “I started cooking a lot, just trying to get out of that 9-5 pattern of getting up at the same time every day and sitting in front of the computer.” A few weeks later, she confided in a friend that she wished for a frozen dumpling alternative to what was available at stores like Trader Joe’s and 99 Ranch Market. “My friend just said, ‘Well, then why don't you do it yourself?’” she says. “And I did.”
Today, Cathay’s six-person Dumpling Club team cranks out between three and four thousand dumplings per week for its popular dumpling subscription and meal kit service, through which members of the Bay Area community pick up ready-to-cook dumplings with oft-changing, locally sourced fillings like buttered egg and leek, chicken and roasted mushroom, and Sichuan tofu and green bean.
During our conversation, Cathay talked at length about her relationship to her grandfather, who taught her not only how to make dumplings at the age of nine, but how they could facilitate community connection. Growing up, “I knew dumplings to be something celebratory, something that brought a lot of people together,” she says.
Which is why, for Lunar New Year, Dumpling Club is offering at-home dumpling-making kits. “The main thing is understanding and appreciating how laborious it is—that's why you do it together, because you can function well as a team,” she says. “That sense of togetherness that making dumpling brings is really, really meaningful.”
Ahead, in Cathay’s words, learn more about the origins of Dumpling Club, the special dumpling they’ll be selling for Lunar New Year (it involves lobster and brown butter), and her grandfather’s extremely passionate food opinions.
Dumplings at the top of the food pyramid
“I’m Chinese. I was originally born in Hangzhou, and then I immigrated to the States when I was four and a half. I went back for the first time when I was nine and a half—I could barely speak any Chinese, but one of the ways that I really connected with my family back home was in the food that we ate together.
My grandfather, who's originally from Shandong, a region in China that's known for dumplings, was the one who gathered the family together to make dumplings during my summer when I was there. He only made one type, and that is pork and napa cabbage. You’d just get a plate full of steaming hot boiled dumplings, with a little bit of black vinegar with fresh garlic in it, and that's it.
I distinctly remember this conversation that we had. He had this hierarchy of food, and he said that dumplings were the top of the hierarchy. From that moment on, for the rest of my life, I knew that the best possible food you could have, the most love that you could give to your family, was going to be dumplings. And that's why you make them over the Lunar New Year, because it's the best food in the world.
That first time that we made dumplings together, when I was nine, I wasn't trusted to do basically anything. I wasn't allowed to roll out the wrappers, wasn't allowed to stuff the wrappers, wasn’t allowed to do the pleating. I was the cabbage chopper.
I was sitting on one of those little plastic stools in front of a big cutting board. They just handed me a cleaver, and said, ‘The cabbage needs to be chopped.’ I remember my wrist getting super sore, because the cleaver was so heavy. And I kept on asking, ‘Am I done?’ They'd look over, check, and say, ‘No, it's not small enough.’ And I'd keep mincing.
Fast forward to now, when we're in the kitchen and processing loads and loads of vegetables. There are some things that I will do by food processor and then some things I still insist we do by hand. Thankfully, cabbage is one of those things that we always, always food process.
I first started making dumplings on my own when I was in my 20s. I studied abroad in Austria, that's where I met my husband—he's Austrian. I would have a bunch of friends over and we'd make dumplings together. And I remember emailing my mom and asking her about the dumpling dough, and my mom just said, ‘It's just all-purpose flour and water. I'm not there to help you, so you're just going to have to go by feel.’ And for a long time I made dumplings like that.
The big change for me came when I had children. I have mixed-race children, they're half-Austrian, half-Chinese. They're growing up in the U.S., and I wanted to make sure that they experienced Chinese food on a regular basis. Dumplings, as you can see, are very special to me, and so I started making them.
I also quickly recognized them as the perfect food. They pack in a lot of vegetables, they freeze well, and then they'd be a quick meal in the middle of the week when I came home from a busy work day. The kids loved them—there’s a dipping sauce, and it’s the right shape for their hands. That's when I started experimenting with flavors because then I could put whatever I wanted them to eat in the dumpling.”
On early failure and lightbulb moments
“When I started out, I found 15 people who said that they would take a dumpling delivery from me once a week for four weeks. At the end of the month, my goal was to have a wholesale dumpling recipe that I would go sell. I did two flavors a week, which was insane—just a terrible idea. I did eight flavors in total, and they were supposed to vote at the end of it and tell me which one would become the recipe.
I have never experienced such complete failure as I have in that first week that I did Dumpling Club. I would run out of ingredients. I miscounted the dumplings. I had a freezer snafu. I basically didn’t finish on time. But everyone said that they were delicious, and that they would sign up for another four weeks if I would continue doing it. When I asked people to vote on the best one, they said, ‘Well, they're all pretty different, and they're all pretty great. What I really like is the fact that I didn't have to think about dinner on Tuesdays, because Tuesday is my dumping delivery.’
And that made a light bulb go off in my head. And so now our business is really focused around helping families in our community answer the question of, ‘What's for dinner tonight?’ Which is, for a lot of people, such a horrible question to deal with every single day.
We switched over to a subscription model, and we also started doing meal kits, with freshly made sides to go with the dumplings. That's probably right now about 30-40% of our business. Once every other week we have a public sale and we sell a la carte packs of dumplings, scallion pancakes, spring rolls, baos, and sauces, and people can pick them up.
We are changing our menu all the time. That is something that I wanted, and something that I learned other people wanted as well. There's a lot that goes into that to maintain the right inventory and constantly source something that's local and fresh and seasonal.
We don't work the weekends, except for major holidays, which we've only done like once or twice. And saying no to a lot of that is harder than you might imagine. People have a lot of demands. They're used to being able to order food and come pick it up on a Saturday and a Sunday. And I just say, ‘No, we just don't do that. If you want to eat our food, you're going to pick it up on a Tuesday night or on Wednesday during the day. Or come during your lunch hour and come pick it up.’
Those seem like such small mundane choices, but they are the choices that take up a lot of my brain power in trying to make things as sustainable as possible for the team. And we pick and choose our trade-offs. One of the trade-offs that we had decided fairly early on was to use a pre-made wrappers, so we could focus on some of these other things. And different companies will just have different trade-offs, like how you fold the dumpling.
Then there's what kind of ingredients are you putting into it—pork and cabbage is something that's really easy to manage making in mass quantities. Then when you get into some of the other flavors that we make, like sweet potato and shiitake, where you've got to peel the sweet potato, shred the sweet potato, steam it, and squeeze the water out.
It was this process I had to go through to really understand that there were only these three factors, and so I could only squeeze one of three things: I could squeeze my employees’ pay, or I could squeeze my rent and put my employees in a shittier kitchen, or I could squeeze the cost of the ingredients that I put in. And it's just such a shit hand you're dealt with when you're trying to build something good. I don't know that I've mastered it, but I've spent a lot of time talking about it. And I think that my community appreciates the amount of time and energy we put into trying to do the right thing by all parties involved.”
How Dumpling Club does R&D
“A lot of flavors started out with me personally saying, ‘Wouldn't this be cool as a dumpling flavor?’ Or I would serve chicken curry at home to my family and then decide that maybe that would make a good flavor. Or I'd go to a restaurant and I'd try a dish, and I think, wow, these flavors would work really well in a dumpling.
A lot of our inspiration comes from these family meals that we cook together at lunch. One of my cooks is from the same region of China that I'm from, but she studied in Korea. And so she brings these Korean-influenced dishes to family meal. And then one of my other cooks is Cantonese. And then another one of my cooks is Burmese.
And so people are just bringing in a lot of amazing flavors and amazing concepts. Two of them own the culinary R&D process. They'll take some inspiration from me, from the rest of the team, from recipes that they've been seeing, and they'll make proposals for what we're going to do over the next six months or so.
We recipe-test about six weeks out from when we're going to deliver, because there are so many factors. First, we need to get the base ingredients down. What's the protein? What's the vegetable? What's going to be seasonal? What's available? What's going to be good quality? And then it's about measurements. We'll tweak things, and say, ‘Oh, maybe that one needs a little bit more acid. Maybe it needs a bit more fat.’ So there's all of that just around the base recipe development.
And there is what we would call the process development. For example, when we started doing baos, we needed a new process for how long we rest the dough in between each stage of the process. Does the dough keep well overnight? Do we proof it once versus twice? Does it freeze well?
Then it goes into the packaging stage where we figure out, how are we going to box it up? How are we going to deliver it to customers? And then the final stage is coming up with cooking instructions, because all of our stuff is delivered raw. It's quite a process.”
Celebrating Lunar New Year as a community
“For Lunar New Year, we have one special dumpling flavor that we're doing: a brown butter, lobster, and shrimp dumpling. The main motivation for that is to do something a little bit luxurious, and also to do something that's related to seafood, since seafood is something special that you get to have at Lunar New Year, as opposed to other times of the year.
And then we're doing a Lunar New Year cooking starter kit with a series of recipes to help compliment it. I really want people to make dumplings. It's such a special tradition around this time of year, and we can make it a lot easier for people by making the filling already. If you have really young children, they can do the part where they wet their finger and then put water around the wrapper, and the older children can help with the folding.
It's really about being mindful about where your food comes from, and how it gets made, and what that mindfulness brings to your daily life. And just taking a moment out of your busy day in order to participate in the process of actually making the food that goes onto your table. That was the experience that I had growing up with my grandfather—it was deeply meaningful to me, and was something I associated with my culture, my roots, and I think for many people that is also true.
I've been thinking a lot about what Dumpling Club is, and how to describe that more succinctly. It was really interesting to me, when I asked my community what they think Dumpling Club is, that like 99% of the responses all said, ‘It's a community.’ And that was deeply, deeply gratifying and just very humbling to see that. And I think that that's what I would want people to walk away with, because we aren't a restaurant, but then we also aren't retail. I love that people think of it as more than just a team of people who're making frozen dumplings.”
The above interview was condensed and edited. Interview subjects are paid an honorarium for taking the time to share their knowledge and experience.