Chef Thomas Chen
Thomas Chen has a quail in his fridge. It’s been there for two days, literally chilling, as part of a recipe test for a new appetizer at his East Village restaurant, Tuome. Most days, the 33-year-old chef, a tall, commanding presence in his home and work kitchens, drives the 45 minutes from his townhouse in suburban Flushing to his 48-seat restaurant on East Fifth Street. But, par for the course in Manhattan, the restaurant’s kitchen is too small for efficient recipe testing, especially while Chen’s staff preps for dinner service.
Enter: Chen’s Queens dream kitchen, a good hike (or short ride) from the Flushing–Main Street stop on the 7 train. The open kitchen, which he renovated with his wife as part of a year-long project in 2017, fits at least four adults. Sun leaks through the windows onto marble countertops and the sounds of birds chirping outside on a spring day are only drowned out by the overhead vent when Chen starts pan-frying handmade dumplings (stuffed with a proprietary mix of ground pork, shrimp and pea shoots) he constructed at the counter facing his dining area just minutes ago.
“Growing up in Queens and living here, I like to get my inspiration from the Chinese restaurants in the heart of Flushing—I like to incorporate all the different flavors in my style of cooking,” Chen says.
Chen’s parents immigrated to New York City from Hong Kong, opening a Chinese-American takeout restaurant in Westchester to provide for their family. But they weren’t passionate about serving food. At home, however, Chen’s mother enjoyed cooking, and Chen observed her in the kitchen, learning recipes she brought over from China. As a lifelong New Yorker, Chen developed an affinity for both the Chinese-American dishes served at his parents’ restaurant and more authentic fare from their homeland, like dumplings and chicken feet.
“Dumplings are something I grew up eating,” Chen says, “something that my mom and I always made together—it was always fun, but took a long time. But you can put them in the freezer and eat them whenever you want.”
Now, he makes hundreds of dumplings at a time (usually alone, though sometimes with his mom, who now lives on Long Island with his dad), instinctively swiping the thin wrapper with a finger dipped in water, dropping a mound of meat mix in the center and folding the dumpling in half with a meticulously detailed, fan-like fold.
“The more dumplings I made, the faster I got at it,” Chen says of his advanced dumpling prowess. He doesn’t listen to podcasts or music or catch up on TV while he makes his to-be-frozen stock of dumplings—it’s purely meditative. A lot of 200 should last him two months, though they never do—a dumpling-loving 2-year-old daughter and his wife ensure that. Chen’s dumpling recipe strays from his mom’s but is still reminiscent in flavor, texture and shape.
“There’s no special way to make a dumpling mixture, it’s whatever you feel is the best flavor,” Chen says as he turns his attention back to the dumplings searing on his stove.
“This part can be dangerous,” Chen says, scooting his small nonstick skillet across the burner, adding a small cup of water to the already crackling pan. A burst of steam shoots up and he covers the pan with a glass lid, stepping away from the heat. He has that chef quality, more comfortable talking about food and technique than himself, though his story comes with its own inherent danger—defying his parents and becoming a chef.
Knowing the difficulties of the industry, Chen’s parents did not want him to pursue restaurants or cooking. He attended college, became an accountant and within a few years of working the repetitive nine-to-five corporate lifestyle, found himself bored and uninspired. He didn’t like pages full of numbers. He did like cooking, which he’d grown up doing for his two younger siblings when his parents worked late.
“I loved cooking, but never thought it would be a career for me,” Chen says. “But I realized how miserable I was and I wanted a change.” Despite his parents’ protests, he enrolled in The French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) and landed roles cooking at Eleven Madison Park and Jean Georges.
“[Working in restaurants] wasn’t something that my parents really loved doing,” Chen says. “So when they knew I was transitioning into cooking, they hated it. They didn’t want me to pursue my dreams.” Still, in 2014, Chen opened his first restaurant, Tuome, pronounced like Tommy, or Tow-me, if you have a Hong Kong accent, an ode to the nickname his family called him growing up. Occasionally, his parents come in from Long Island to dine at the critically acclaimed (two stars from the New York Times, Michelin-recommended) restaurant. “They’ve accepted my career change, but would probably still prefer if I stayed in accounting,” Chen says. Neither of his siblings work in the industry: “Probably for the better, because they can’t cook,” he jokes.
Tuome’s menu melds American and Chinese flavors, with dishes like fried chicken on brioche, fluke crudo in coconut vinaigrette and the “Pig Out,” an Instagram-famous crispy pork dish served with sumptuous peanut noodles. Dumplings, which are more of a home-cooked treat for Chen and his family, rarely make an appearance on Tuome’s menu; they’re time-consuming to create and often take a dedicated dumpling prep person to ensure they’re made properly and promptly.
Like many restaurant chefs, Chen rarely cooks at home, but still, he is a dumpling enthusiast. On Sundays, he and his family go for dim sum at Grand, where he orders dumplings off the carts and enjoys more traditional delicacies, like fried and braised chicken feet, mysteriously dyed red and austensibly too gelatinous and unique in texture for his own restaurant. “I tried serving it to the people in my kitchen, and even though I thought it was really good—no,” he laughs. “I grew up eating a lot of stuff that I didn’t know what it was, but I still like it.”
His daughter, with whom Chen only makes cookies, so far, is slowly developing a palate for his cooking and should she too one day want to go into restaurants, Chen attests, “I would be supportive of her decision and encourage her to pursue a career that she has a passion for.”
To finish off his dumplings, Chen swirls Lee Kum Kee sweet soy sauce and Sichuan King hot oil (he keeps Lao Gan Ma Fried Chili in Oil in his fridge for special occasions) together on a plate, lifting the freshly fried dumplings out of the pan and into the sauce, where, steaming in their own juices, the crisp-bottomed dumplings, just minutes ago flat wrappers and a lump of meat, are ready to eat. And they are, like Chen’s light-filled kitchen, perfect.
How to Grocery Shop Like Thomas Chen
Chen often enjoys meals at Jongro BBQ, and grabs the wontons in hot chili at the famed White Bear. He grocery shops at nearby GW Supermarket, where he can stock up on Chinese and American ingredients all in one place. In his pristine kitchen Chen stocks the essentials for a quick but satisfying meal—various chili oils (“it’s just so good”), Chinese vinegar and soy sauces of varying intensity. “You’d be surprised at how many types of soy sauce there are, and the different types of flavors that can develop from different sauces,” Chen says.
Thomas Chen | @tuomechen
Tuome | @tuomenyc
International Culinary Center | @iccedu
Eleven Madison Park | @elevenmadisonpark
Jean Georges | @chefjgv
Lee Kum Kee | @leekumkee
Lao Gan Ma Fried Chili in Oil
Jongro BBQ | @jongrobbq_flushing