Q&A: Helen You on Her Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook
Helen You is the imaginative owner and chef behind Dumpling Galaxy and its predecessor, Tianjin Dumpling House, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this January. She just published her first cookbook, The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook, chock full of instructions for how to recreate the dumplings on which You has built her cooking empire.
She literally never stops working—she dreams of dumplings—making them at home and working up new doughy inventions every single day. Luckily, we got her to slow down long enough to talk with us at Dumpling Galaxy recently. She dished on where she sources her super fresh (and sometimes zany) ingredients, her childhood in Tianjin and why she’s an absolute Flushing loyalist.
What was your trajectory from Tianjin to Tianjin Dumpling House?
I came to the United States in 1989 to attend college. After I graduated, I worked for a few corporations, but I always wanted to do dumplings. I have the passion, I have that kind of urge to work for myself—to serve dumplings to people. I was quite confident that people would like my dumplings because I know how good they are. So in 2007, I finally decided to quit my job and set up a small shop in Golden Shopping Mall in Flushing. I said, why can't I just set up a shop to make dumplings? There were not so many dumpling places, especially not good ones in Flushing at that time.
Can you tell me a little bit more about where you grew up?
I grew up in Tianjin in China. My father was in labor camp near the Yangtze River. My mom lost her job; she couldn't raise me alone, so we moved to her mother, my grandma, and we lived together near the Yangtze River. It's the Hubei province. That region was closer to my father's labor camp. When I was 12 years old, I started to visit him. That would take me 20 hours or so to get to his labor camp.
Twenty. Yeah, I would take the train, then boat, then bicycle.
And you would bring him dumplings there?
I always bring some dumplings for my father. It was what he was really looking forward to every time, a family connection. It's the big support for my father.
Are there one or two dumplings that you consider your signature style?
The pork and chive dumpling. It’s the first dumpling I learned how to make with my mom and grandma. It's the dumpling I made and took to visit my father who was in the labor camp, and it's the dumpling I can never get tired of it. I can boil it or I can pan fry it, or I can steam it. I love to eat pork and chive all the time. This type of dumpling is what I first started feeding my children. The pork soup dumpling is my second favorite.
Do you consider yourself an artist as well as a cook because you're constantly creating?
In a way, yes. I would like to show you something. This is my restaurant's menu. I designed this. I designed the restaurant as well. Every piece of art, it has meaning to me. When you open from here [opens the menu] it's like an ancient Chinese dumpling house. Go inside the house, walk inside the galaxy of dumplings—all the dumpling choices. I never stop thinking to create new dumplings. Everything [here] is just so meaningful to me.
You designed the whole restaurant. What is the inspiration behind some of the decor?
The logo on the ceiling is a pair of dumplings, and on the front wall that logo also is a pair of dumplings. That one with the frame on the middle is the symbol of a fortune, or the door of mysteries. When you open that door you walk into the dumpling galaxy—you have all the choices of dumplings! Fascinating, all the varieties, endless combinations, endless possibilities. Don't get me talking about dumplings because I could go on and on forever.
You're constantly creating in and out of the kitchen. What inspires you?
I started with the Tianjin Dumpling House, selling three types of dumplings. From three types of dumplings to grow up to 100 choices; I have to say, I owe it all to my customers. Most customers at Tianjin Dumpling House, they're Chinese. They know dumplings. They like dumplings. They give me advice and suggestions. They're always asking me to do different types of dumplings for them. So I listen; I follow their advice. My customers inspire me so much.
Why did you write The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook?
The publisher came to me with the idea. I never thought to dream of a cookbook with daily busy activities, but they encouraged me. This cookbook is to demystify how easy the dumpling can be made. It’s not as hard as you may have thought. The thing here is to let people know: if I can do it, you can do it.
Where do you source your ingredients?
On Main St. in Flushing, there are more than 10 different Chinese supermarkets. I can get any fresh produce and meat I like. So I never worry about where to get ingredients to make my dumplings. The one I go to everyday is Chung Fat Supermarket, right across the street from Dumpling Galaxy. From seafood to meat to produce to dry spices, I get everything from there. I like to support them and let them get my business. We support each other so we can grow together as a community. When we unite together and help each other, we can grow together.
What are some of the challenges you've faced as an entrepreneur and as a self-trained chef?
It's a [largely] Chinese community, so competition is tough. The most challenging thing is getting the right people to work with. They need a lot of training, and after they become experienced they might open their own business or be taken away by other businesses, so it's hard to keep people for a long time.
What is your advice to young women entrepreneurs or aspiring chefs?
As a woman, learn to be independent. Do not rely on anybody. And have a good skill regardless of what you do. Keep trying and hard work will put your dream through.