How Din Tai Fung’s soup dumplings conquer the world, folded 18 times and weighing 21 grams at a time

I’m standing outside a Din Tai Fung in a Taipei mall, watching a team of seven masked chefs in stiff white coats behind a glass panel – kneading, filling, weighing, dusting and folding under fluorescent lights.

Kan Kuang-Ming, chef at Din Tai Fung Taiwan, stands in the middle, head bowed and shoulders hunched, crumbling dumplings. With his left hand he takes the dough and filling in his hand and with his right he makes a series of deft pinching movements to form a perfect swirl. I count how long it takes him to fold a dumpling: eight seconds.

The Art of Cooking: Culinary training at Din Tai Fung lasts 12 weeks, but it can take several months to a year to get up to speed. Every Din Tai Fung in the US has a dumpling trainer.

(Yasara Gunawardena / For The Times)

“When you look outside through the glass, it looks straightforward,” he tells me. “But when you try it yourself, you realize how difficult it is.” Kan has been with Din Tai Fung for 21 years. “I started when I was 18,” he says.

Din Tai Fung has been making consistently popular soup dumplings for more than 50 years. With 170 locations in over a dozen countries, the Taiwanese chain boasts long daily lines and attracts customers mesmerized by the glass-enclosed kitchen where packages of dough and meat are carefully formed and assembled in real time.

Thanks to the efforts of the next generation of the founding family, the chain is conquering more and more of America.

Since its North American debut in California over two decades ago, the restaurant chain has focused exclusively on the West Coast. Last month, Din Tai Fung in Glendale moved from Americana to Brand to the gallery, a behemoth with an area of ​​11,443 square meters. A downtown Disney location is planned for sometime next year, and the company notably did so recently signed a 15-year lease to open in New Yorkwhich will be the first East Coast location in its portfolio.

Each Din Tai Fung restaurant produces an average of 10,000 dumplings per day. It is an operation that requires the labor of around 30 chefs on rotation, all of whom must master the art of perfect folding. It’s this attention to detail that has made Din Tai Fung one of the most successful dumpling chains in the world.

Next Generation Din Tai Fung: Brothers Aaron and Albert Yang are third generation customers of the growing restaurant chain. “We had credit cards floating around when we could barely see over the counter,” Aaron says.

(Yasara Gunawardena / For The Times)

Kan says it took him three months to learn how to properly fold a soup dumpling that met the requirements.

It took brothers Aaron and Albert Yang twice as long to get it right. “It took us at least six months to a year to perfect the craft and finally be able to make some dumplings that could be sold,” says Albert.

Aaron and Albert are Din Tai Fung’s third generation customers. Both are vice presidents of Din Tai Fung USA and are tasked with overseeing the Taiwanese dumpling chain’s presence in the American market. “The more famous and busy the places are, the more we can share our food and our culture,” says Albert.

At Din Tai Fung, each dumpling must meet a precise standard: 18 folds, 21 grams per piece. An experienced cook should be able to fold an average of eight dumplings in a minute.

(Yasara Gunawardena / For The Times)

Xiao Long Bao, or soup dumplings, comes from the greater Shanghai region of China and, according to Chinese tradition, was invented sometime between the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s a bundle of gently seasoned pork and broth, reflecting the light and delicate sensibilities of the region’s cuisine. But despite being a specialty of eastern China, it wasn’t until the introduction of Din Tai Fung that it became a global phenomenon.

With its paper-thin skin and a sticky mixture of ground pork and gelatinized broth, the soup dumpling is one of the most difficult dumplings to make. Roll out a skin that is too thin or pinch an incomplete edge to allow the broth to pass through. Too thick and the dumpling loses all of its charm. To hold the filling, the center of the skin needs to be a few hairs thicker than the edges. And at Din Tai Fung, each dumpling must meet a precise standard: 18 folds, 21 grams per piece. An experienced cook should be able to fold an average of eight dumplings in a minute.

“A dumpling cook needs a lot of patience,” says Kan. “You have to fail about 1,400 times before you can make something beautiful.”

The company was founded by Aaron and Albert’s grandfather, Yang Bing-Yi, a Chinese immigrant who moved to Taiwan in his 20s during the Chinese Civil War in 1927. Originally a nondescript cooking oil shop in Taipei, the shop was converted into a restaurant when Yang hired a Shanghai-born chef and began selling soup dumplings.

Din Tai Fung Restaurant officially opened in 1972 and eventually attracted the attention of international food critics and chefs. who raved about it “flavorful fillings and light, thin dough.” In 1995, the elder Yang retired and his children took over the management.

Aaron and Albert were introduced to the ins and outs of the family business at a young age. Although they grew up in Los Angeles, they often visited Taiwan and vacationed at their grandfather’s restaurant. The cooks picked the swans out of the dough for them and threw them around the city. “We were just little babies and they drove us around on their motorcycles,” Albert remembers.

When their father, Frank Yang, opened the first American Din Tai Fung in Arcadia in 2000, the brothers were given a little more responsibility.

Each Din Tai Fung produces an average of 10,000 dumplings per day, with around 30 chefs rotating.

(Yasara Gunawardena / For The Times)

“[My father] I saw a Din Tai Fung in the US using the trademark without our permission,” says Aaron. “It kind of inspired him to open his own Din Tai Fung here and just show people what the real product looks like.”

It was a moment Instant hit.

“We had credit cards floating around when we could barely see over the counter,” Aaron says. In seventh grade, they learned how to fold dumplings themselves.

Eventually, both Yang brothers earned degrees in hotel administration from Cornell University and are now spearheading the outposts of the multi-million dollar dumping empire in America. Aaron focuses on business development and Albert focuses on food and operations.

“Our personalities are a little different, but it’s good for the company because we simply divide the tasks,” says Albert.

Like the Yangs, I grew up in Arcadia. I vividly remember the daily queues that formed outside that first Din Tai Fung. Located in a narrow shopping center with a long green awning and the words “Din Tai Fung Dumpling House” in bold, forest green font, it was the city’s most popular attraction for more than a decade.

Frank Yang opened the first American Din Tai Fung in Arcadia in 2000. Last month, the company opened an 11,443-square-foot restaurant in Glendale.

(Yasara Gunawardena / For The Times)

It was always difficult to get a spot, so on weekdays my mother would call ahead and order take-out dumplings for my brother and I to enjoy as an after-school snack.

The wait was particularly long on weekends, with people from all over the Los Angeles area making the trip just for the paper-thin dumplings.

“There’s something to be said about how universally popular it is with people of all cultures and ethnic backgrounds,” says Aaron.

The Glendale location, which opened 13 years after the Arcadia location, was founded when the Yang brothers were in college. “My dad opened another location after he knew his kids were going to major in hotel management,” Aaron says. “It gave him the confidence to know that the next generation will eventually be ready to take the reins.”

Since then, the Yang brothers have made some improvements, such as introducing an online waiting list and reservation system, modernizing a training manual, and providing above-average wages for their employees.

“Our entry-level hourly positions start at $20 per hour and managers start at $100,000 per year,” says Albert. And while aspiring din tai fung chefs in Taiwan learn the trade by shadowing a chef, new dumpling masters in the United States take part in a training program instead.

“Our current training program is 12 weeks, although it still takes six months and up to a year to get up to speed,” says Albert. “Every single one of our restaurants across the United States has a dumpling training manager, and that manager is solely dedicated to training the team and ensuring the quality and consistency behind the 18 folds, ensuring each dumpling weighs 21 grams.”

Half a century after its debut, the Yangs say what makes them special is keeping the food consistent and traditional.

“I remember someone coming to my dad and asking him why we weren’t making a cheeseburger soup dumpling,” Aaron says. “But that would change the essence of the food. “We have always believed that the food should be authentic to Taiwan, where we come from.”

Sky high: Stacks of basket steamers at the new Din Tai Fung in Glendale stand ready for orders of the restaurant’s signature soup dumplings.

(Yasara Gunawardena / For The Times)

Clarissa Wei is a writer and cookbook author. Her book “Made in Taiwan: Recipes and Stories from the Island Nation” (Simon & Schuster) was published this fall.

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