Every time I attempt to make dumplings — generally an annual occurrence around the Lunar New Year — I assume that I will get the hang of it by at least the tenth one. Unfortunately, that is never the case. I either put in too much filling or too little, and the crimps always seem to defy my fingers. And yet, they are always delicious. This year, doubly so, which I entirely benefit to my supplier and instructor: the Boston restaurant Myers + Chang.
While “fusion” might be a forbidden word in the food business, Myers + Chang erases any bad preconceptions with its expert blend of Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisines. Helmed by Joanne Chang, a renowned chef who won a James Beard award for her bakery Flour, and her husband Christopher Myers, the eponymous restaurant offers innovative spins on staples, such as wild boar dan dan noodles topped with black garlic chorizo.
Myers + Chang is one of my last vivid dining experiences from before Covid, when I braved a frigid December night to venture to Boston’s South End and sample their tea-smoked pork spare ribs and spicy Taiwanese fried chicken.
A year later, I was craving their food, so I looked up how they were faring during the pandemic. Despite the level of skill and precision to her food, Joanne Chang is a proponent of accessible cooking. She even authored a recipe book called “Myers + Chang at Home.” It was not surprising, then, when I found out that the restaurant had begun offering “take-and-make” kits along with their usual to-go fare. Hence, the dumplings.
“It is just another way to connect with our guests,” Chang told me over the phone. With dining largely off the table, restaurants have been trying to adapt with new business models. For Myers + Chang, it was not even that much of a pivot. In normal conditions, they get much of the prep work done ahead of time, such as blanching the noodles and making the sauces. “In terms of building the kits, it is not hard for us because it is what we already do,” she said.
For customers, though, the kits offer a completely new experience for dining out. You still get James Beard-quality food, but you participate in the process. It brings in a level of collaboration, and strangely enough, intimacy in an age of plexiglass dividers and social distancing. Even if you are just putting the finishing touches on dishes — something that a first-day line cook might be trusted with — you are part of the team.
This was true for most of the take-and-make dishes I ordered from Myers + Chang. For the papaya slaw, I just had to add the shredded cabbage and mint to the funky, spicy, umami-packed marinated papaya. For the hot and sour soup, the hardest technique was boiling the pre-mixed liquid and adding it to a bowl of raw beaten eggs.
Still, it felt different than your average takeout experience. The packaging came with detailed descriptions; the plastic containers in varied sizes made me feel like a professional chef who had meticulously laid out their mise en place.
The only outlier, of course, was the dumplings (the cornmeal lime cookie mix from their sister bakery Flour also proved to be a challenge, mostly because I mixed up the containers). Unlike the other dishes, whose instructions could fit on a small printing label, the dumplings were accompanied by a laundry list of tasks: wetting the wrappings around the edge, spooning in the filling, crimping from halfway down one side, and then repeating on the other side, and somehow eventually ending up in the middle.
I consider myself a fairly competent home chef. Even after consulting a number of Youtube tutorials, my attempts were a far cry from competent. I excelled more at the complicated cooking approach, which entailed searing the dumplings in a frying pan and adding consecutive doses of sizzling water to steam them in such a way that they did not stick or burn.
Fortunately, what Chang said about the hard work already being done was true. With their perfect wrappers and premade filling, the dumplings were difficult to truly mess up. My finished products may not have been the prettiest to look at, but if you closed your eyes it did not matter: the outside was both chewy and crispy, the inside plump and juicy, the black pepper scallion sauce piquant and tangy.
I asked Chang if she worried that diners might be let down by their own inadequacies in the kitchen and unable to replicate the perfection of the dumplings you are served in-person. She admitted that home chefs may not have access to the kitchen equipment that brings restaurant dining to the next level — woks and high-heat ranges and the such — but it is not what Myers + Chang is trying to achieve with the take-and-make kits.
“There is an element of excitement and fun in eating something that you made yourself,” she told me. “Even though it might not be exactly what we do in the restaurant, it might actually taste better.”
I did not necessarily agree with that point and can attest that the ones served fresh at Myers + Chang are much better, but I understood her point. They even sell frozen dumplings, which make it much easier for customers to skip the trickier assembly steps. Even so, the vast majority opt for the take-and-make kits — not just for the novelty, but because of the need for experiences that have otherwise been absent from our lives. She said when Myers + Chang first had the idea to sell dumpling kits, they expected to sell one or two. The first day they were available, they sold ten.
Myers + Chang is not the only restaurant to be offering take-and-make kits. In New York, the three Michelin starred Eleven Madison Park has offered two meal kits, each a facsimile of their most legendary dishes: the honey lavender roasted duck ($475, with optional add-ons of truffles and caviar that can push the total cost to $1,400) and the more reasonably priced foie-gras-stuffed chicken (a mere $275).
Of course, there is no way that a home cook could replicate the processes that occur in a kitchen such as Eleven Madison Park. Like the dumplings, though, it is a way for the restaurant to remove some of the barrier between diner and chef. If we can no longer have the experience of sitting in a restaurant and being served food, we can at least recreate part of it at our own houses.
Just getting takeout is not enough. When you transfer pre-made food from a plastic container to a plate, you strip away the magic of why we go to restaurants in the first place. Chang said that dining is about so much more than food — it is about connection. It is where we meet up with friends and family to celebrate birthdays, or commiserate after a tough day at work, or just catch up. “People underestimate how important restaurants and bakeries like ours are to the fabric of the community,” she told me.
With the take-home kits, we can regain part of the social nature of restaurants by working together to make our food. In my case, I made them with my mom (who one-upped me with her dumpling skills). It is a welcome change of pace from doing the entire cooking process by yourself — finding a recipe, buying all the individual ingredients, doing endless dishes — and allows you to try out food you might otherwise never have cooked.
Myers + Chang probably will not be hiring me anytime soon to make dumplings. Still, the experience almost made me feel like I was back in a restaurant, with an added dose of accomplishment.
I asked Chang if she thought the kits were successful, despite the challenges of the pandemic. “We have achieved what we are trying to do,” she told me. “Making people a little bit happier with some great food.”