Kitchen Tour: Kenny Lao of Rickshaw Dumpling Bar
I recently had the pleasure of visiting the East Village kitchen of Kenny Lao, founder and owner of Rickshaw Dumpling Bar. Wrapped up in my morning with Kenny was a dumpling-making tutorial. In honor of Chinese New Year, we ran the recipe today. But first, a tour of his place.
Kenny’s relationship with dumplings started as a child in California when he learned to make dumplings from his mother who is from China’s Hunan province which is known for its spicy food and, according to Kenny, its beautiful women.
The family would often gather with friends together to make dumplings. “Someone would making the filling ahead of time and we’d sit around wrapping dumplings. You can chat making dumplings, as opposed to other kinds of cooking where you actually have to concentrate,” Kenny told me, as wrapped our own.
The un-renovated kitchen is functional without the typical granite counter-top and stainless steel appliance frills that new owners so often toss into their spaces. It looks like a rental kitchen and Kenny isn’t afraid to show it.
He bought the place, in Manhattan’s East Village, in 2002 when he got some good real estate advice. He hadn’t yet opened his first restaurant and wasn’t yet 30. His kitchen renovation was a few coats of paint on the walls, relining the cabinets, and hanging some pendant lamps from Ikea. The most wrecking-ball-type work was ripping out a few shelves above the cabinets to make room for his tall stock pots and hippo decal.
The kitchen has the original Whirlpool side-by-side refrigerator and Maytag gas stove, a basic sink with basic hardware, a simple terra cotta tile floor and white cabinets. What’s glorious about this kitchen is its lack of ego. It works beautifully and it is warm. It is obvious to a new visitor that it’s used frequently and to great effect.
The kitchen is open to the dining area and living room, yet is its own distinct area. Kenny likes to involve his guests in the cooking and the Kitchen’s layout is perfect for that.
There isn’t a lot in the kitchen that does not get used. Kenny’s plates are simple and useful. His cookware is thoughtfully chosen (he’s in love with his Le Creuset enamel skillet and uses it constantly) and his gadgets all have their place and function.
There are touches of humor throughout. The taxi soap was a housewarming gift when Kenny moved in. I calculated it was almost 7 years ago. As Kenny plunged his hands into the bowl of raw ground turkey to mix the dumpling filling, he assured me that he does wash his hands before cooking.
The big window in the kitchen has a substantially-sized tiled windowsill that functions as the perfect staging area for ingredients. Kenny had the filling fixings all chopped and assembled into little cups and plates, perched in the mid-morning light. I almost didn’t want to disturb the scene.
- How would you describe your cooking style?
First off I always cook thing I am excited to eat myself. I tend to cook seasonally and generously. The only time I really follow recipes with measurements is when I bake, otherwise I cook to taste.
- What inspired your kitchen?
The fear of not having food in the house is pretty inspiring and so is having appreciative guests that I really love.
- What is your favorite tool or implement?
Le Creuset cast iron skillet.
- What is the biggest challenge in your kitchen?
I guess I always wished I had more counter space but I have been able to cook for upwards of 20 people in my kitchen.
- What is the biggest indulgence in your kitchen?
Cooking with bacon fat.
- What is your dream splurge?
I would love to have a sausage stuffer. How amazing would it be to make forcemeat?
- What are you cooking this week?
I made an awesome ragu from leftover shortribs from the weekend before and have tossed it together with pasta and rapini.
- What is your desert island cookbook?
The New Joy of Cooking
- Describe a meal you cooked here that you’re really proud of.
There are so many meals i have great memories of and i would have to say that one of the most memorable usually are the ones where the guests have a great time and are so relaxed and fun. My birthday is New Year’s Eve and instead of going to a multitude of parties, i force my friends to come to my house from 6:30 to 10pm and I guarantee that I can get them out for their various events by 10pm (no one does anything on New Year’s Eve between 6pm and 10pm anyway. I started off with hot cheddar scallion bacon corn muffins then I served: a leg of lamb stuffed with herbs, bubbly brown crispy scalloped potatoes with Gruyere that I did on the Le Creuset skillet. I made a cucumber and dill salad and served simple baked cauliflower with it. To finish we had a killer cheese platter from East Village Cheese with bread and cornichon. It was great and I will never forget that birthday.
- What is the best piece of cooking advice (or tip) you ever received.
Mise En Place. Everything in its place. If you prep properly and know what dishes need to be made concurrently, what can be made ahead and preset out serving dishes you are ahead of the game.
Kenny’s favorite resources
• Cheese at the East Village Cheese store,
• Asian ingredients like fresh meats, fish and veg in Chinatown
• Union Square Greenmarket local and seasonal produce.
Rickshaw Dumpling bar, a quick and tasty dumpling eatery on 23rd Street near 6th Avenue and 8th Street near Broadway, are celebrating Chinese New Year today with free dumplings. Customers whose order number has a lucky “8” in it get their dumplings free today. If you’re in NYC today, stop in for lunch. They also have a truck, parsing out dumpling goodness all over the city that you can follow on twitter. Today the truck is at Columbus Circle at 57th and 8th.
(All images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan)