We’ll see you in there.
Connect to customize your food & drink discovery.
Photographs by Larry Heng
Chef Ken Yau had finally established his first solo cooking venture before the onset of the pandemic.
k.Dinners, which prided itself on bringing strangers together to share a meal, was more than its refined and sensory menu; it was an experience. Yet, like many aspects of our prior lives, that all came to a screeching halt with COVID, as breaking bread elbow to elbow became a distant memory of hospitality.
Chef Yau was confronted with a feeling all too familiar for those in the industry -- what's next? Well, for Yau, the answer is k.Dumps, a dumpling delivery service that offers frozen dumplings and wontons that are easy to cook at home.
The true epitome of comfort, dumplings for Yau are typically something he cooks solely for loved ones but the chef thought everyone could use a little bit of comfort in times like these.
A nostalgic dish for Yau, the chef wanted people to relate to his own experience eating and cooking dumplings and the happiness that food made with love brings. That's where the chef got the idea for his unconventional fillings. After chatting with friends and family about their most beloved dishes, Yau was inspired to go beyond the traditional pork and shrimp fillings.
k.Dumps offers Pork + Chive Dumps, Dan Dan Dumps and Mapo Tofu Vegan Dumps. For wontons, find Red Thai Curry Wontons, Char Siu Wontons and Kimcheese Fishcakes Wontons. Flavour ideas remain rooted in Chinese, Korean and Thai cuisine and are inspired by classic comfort foods. Yau even quipped that someone suggested pizza as the beacon of comfort but the chef thinks that might be going too far.
We caught up with chef Ken Yau about adapting to the pandemic, the future of k.Dumps and what's in store for the industry in the coming year.
Tell me about your background in the industry.
Second career choice, I originally went to Guelph University to pursue Veterinary Medicine. I was in the middle of a Masters of Animal Behaviour when I pulled the plug to pursue cooking. My first restaurant was Nota Bene with David Lee. He was very kind to let me work in his kitchen without any experience or school. Scaramouche was my second spot in Toronto; that was a place where I really learned about food and how to cook classically. I then caught the travel bug and flew to Hong Kong, the UK and eventually Australia. I was lucky enough to work at The Fat Duck and also be the team to migrate to Melbourne and open there for eight months.
Your first solo project, k.Dinners, how did that come to fruition?
I was in-between jobs and I was really curious if I could cook a 12-14 course tasting menu that was entirely my own. I had a lot of ideas flowing through my mind and a lot of different concepts but never put them on plates for people to try. Alex and Tina from Fiorentina really helped with my idea and trusted me enough to let me rent out their restaurant during their off days to run k.Dinners. At first, it was friends and family, then friends of friends and eventually, after 5-6 months of doing it every Monday, it became strangers. Some media outlets picked up on it and eventually, I was booked up for an entire year! k.Dinners was all about getting strangers to come together and eat at the same table, at the same time. They would talk about the food, about each other and eventually, they became part of the experience without even knowing. The best is when people tell me after that they've become friends and some even started dating!
With the onset of COVID, what was the realization that you had to pivot? What was the process of transitioning from hosting pop-up dinners to launching k.Dumps?
The k.Dinners experience and concept was really dear to me and I didn't want to change it just to fit the new guidelines (tables apart/plexiglass in between -- it didn't match with what k.Dinners was all about). I didn't want to open even when it was approved by the government. I knew I had to pivot and put k.Dinners on hold if I wanted to survive and make it through. At first, it was a simple idea, comfort food and make people giggle a little. Make dumplings and call them dumps -- done!
Transitioning wasn't too difficult. Making dumplings is a very personal thing for me. I usually only make them for my loved ones and I had to sit down and coach myself to take something I loved doing and turning it into a full-time job. I know that I will still be making people happy by bringing some nutritional comfort but there will always be a small disconnect. That was the main mental switch. Physically, I don't think I was ever ready to make 45,000 dumplings on my own. It hurts.
Right now, k.Dumps is operating as a delivery service. In a post-COVID world (whenever that will be), could you imagine the concept transforming into a brick-and-mortar location?
I'm honestly very open to anything. I've found that once you have the ball rolling, the sky's the limit. I might pivot back to the dinners but also keep the dumplings going. Maybe a ghost kitchen. Dumpling pop-ups. Dumpling trucks. Dumpling empire (one can dream).
Everyone loves dumplings and wontons but you are doing something different; your flavours scream ingenuity! What inspires you to come up with unique fillings and what made you want to go beyond traditional offerings?
Thank you! I think the idea came up when people told me about their experiences growing up and their heritage and background. I asked them what dishes brought them the same comfort as dumplings and someone said red Thai curry. I just thought I'll hit them with double the comfort! A dumpling with well-known dishes as the filling, how could you dislike that? Char Siu was my personal favourite growing up and you can usually find it in a bao or puff pastry but never really in a dumpling or wonton. I was also asked to do pizza and other comfort foods; maybe that's going a little too far.
Do you see yourself expanding your offerings in the future?
I've finally hired some chefs to help me out with dump production and I've been busy working away at developing a Minute Fried Rice (the name isn't final), desserts, spices and sauces. This whole thing will eventually become an online market for people to fill their pantries and freezers with fun and exciting Asian foods. I really want to educate and encourage people to cook unfamiliar things. That is the ultimate goal.
The industry has undergone a seismic shift; what do you see for the hospitality industry's future in Toronto? Is the future continuing towards more pop-ups?
I think like most acute changes in any system, cool concepts and ideas will be born, but eventually, the equilibrium will balance out everything. Restaurants have been around for centuries and I don't see that changing because of this pandemic. That being said, I really hope chefs will find the courage to try new things during this time, reflect and know their own self-worth. There is no better time to try something different and new.