… Of reverie and reality, and everything in between.
Curator & Writer | Hakan Burcuoğlu · Venue | Matt’s Living Room · Gear | Leica
I first became aware of Matt—and his self-professed moniker, “The Dumpling King”—in the final days of last summer. Notable outlets had given him prominent coverage, plugging the shit out of his all-you-can-eat dumpling pop-ups. I’d corroborated from the grapevine that his events were a success—lines around the block, no dumpling left behind. It was official—the devotees of dim sum had finally bestowed upon him their blessed anointment. But I’ve never been one for sacrosanct.
“Fuck him, and his plastic throne” I remember thinking to myself. Especially after watching him continuously thumb-pick his nose, flaunt his possessions, and piss off his girlfriend by secretly filming her around the house, much to her tired, deadpan response—“Matt. Stop”. Stop—I probably should have [but glad I didn’t]. But in the words of Simon Sinek—the charismatic speaker who ostensibly cracked the code on millennials—I was simply, “addicted”. How could my bête noire beguile me this quickly?
To Gen X hard-knocks—especially those who’ve cut their teeth working the line in kitchens—a persona like Matt’s can be a source of vehement frustration. But in Matt’s words, “the proof’s in the pudding”. Once a banker under his father’s wing, Matt took a leap of faith and followed his heart East—to rediscover, and reconnect with, his Chinese heritage. If you possess the curiosity, patience and emotional aptitude to sustain—and look past—his histrionics, my feeling is you’ll taste that pudding, and like it too. And the dumplings don’t taste half-bad either.
So hail to the King, or abandon his Court—it’s for you to decide.
HB: When did your fascination with food begin?
MW: If your family cooks when you’re a child, you’re either interested or not. I was always interested in food. My favourite thing is to eat with my family. My mother’s a skilled home cook, a very good baker. She’s more of a French-Italian [style] cook and adores French food—the rich, provençal style, so I grew up eating a balanced diet of both western and Chinese food. She makes beautiful roast chicken and lamb, epic bourguignon, fish, soup, lovely scones.
HB: What about your father and his side of the family?
MW: My dad is a not-bad Chinese cook. His cooking style is influenced by his Hong Kong upbringing, a southern Chinese style with profound British influence—worcestershire sauce, spam, ketchup, pork chops, cheese. Now, I think I’m a better cook than him but he taught me the fundamentals. My grandmother was also a very good cook—she’d use a lot of sugar and different vinegars, famous for her bok choy and soup dumplings. She was from Jiangsu province, but escaped the Communist revolution to Hong Kong, through an arranged marriage when she was only 16.
HB: Sounds like both sides of your family are quite well versed in the kitchen.
MW: We all appreciate good food and drink. I grew up exposed to these things every weekend—family get togethers, sunday dinner. We used to sit at the table every night—serviette, knife and fork. Talking, savouring. And not in front of the television. It was very traditional, it was dinner time, and that structure drove it home for me. My parents had a strong relationship with food—creating and consuming it. They loved to travel and take us along, food was always the focal point of our day.
HB: How did your passion for Chinese cuisine begin?
MW: It was a wrestling with my identity. Growing up in Vancouver, being Chinese was a marker of differentiation. Back in the 80s, there were more half-Asian kids than ever before. I didn’t speak Mandarin then, didn’t totally look Chinese, but had a father who was one. Pizza, spaghetti—it was good, but I was more drawn to Chinese food. Eating the same [Chinese] food, trying to cook and approach the ingredients in a Chinese way—whatever the fuck that means—that, to me, was a way of connecting with that.
HB: When was the first time you travelled to China?
MW: I was a grown fuckin’ man. Didn’t speak any fuckin’ Chinese but it ended up becoming a pilgrimage. I was so stoked on everything I saw, and it’s become a big part of me now. I ended up studying Chinese history and moved to Taiwan to learn Mandarin. Lots of CBC’s [Canadian born Chinese]—they’re fuckin’ bummed—“How the fuck do you know Mandarin and I don’t?” That’s because their parents made them go to Chinese school and they’re not interested anymore. I didn’t get to learn as a kid, but had set my eyes on something I held dear, so it’s kind of ironic.
HB: Was that your last time there?
MW: I went back 2 years later, after I graduated university, and backpacked with a friend. We took a 14-hour train journey from Beijing to Shanghai. I visited the same cities from my previous trip, but more in depth. I travelled to Sichuan province and discovered amazing chili peppers. Made it to Chongqing—fuckin’ spiciest food ever, near the Tibetan plateau. Then we flew into Guilin, known for its “super mario” mountains. Finally Shenzhen, and back into Hong Kong. I ate fuckloads.
HB: Did you feel a deep sense of belonging during the time you spent there?
MW: No. I wrestle with that still. I’m a westerner at heart but my sensibility can be Chinese, at least in the kitchen. I don’t have to choose between either. I’m not Chinese. I’m not Caucasian. I’m a westerner—my views are western. And by that I mean progressive liberal, yeah, you can label me as that. It’s paradoxical.
HB: Were you concerned at all with how they regarded you?
MW: I used to be. Now I don’t care. I have nothing to prove. I still feel like forever there’ll be a slight feeling that you won’t be 100% anything. I don’t need to be anything, or to listen to what either side has to say of what I am. I don’t have to choose. I’m not concerned about how Chinese people view me because this is a personal experience.
HB: But you must be concerned with how people regard Chinese cuisine? What exemplifies the spirit of Chinese cooking in your mind?
MW: The root of Chinese food is self—a very distinguishable type of cooking. Obviously, over time, things have been traded back and forth—spices, techniques. But Chinese food is based out of taking meagre things and turning them into something substantial. And scarcity isn’t something they’re faced with from time to time, it’s ingrained in the culture—a fucking resilient culture.
HB: In the Western world we’re more accustomed to the Cantonese re-creations.
MW: Cantonese food is fuckin’ amazing, it’s one of my favourite cooking styles, one I hold in high regard. It’s so innovative. The reason why it’s so pervasive in western culture is because the first Chinese to ever leave and establish communities overseas were the Southern Chinese—the first ones to set up shop. And with that, overtime, came the so-called bastardization—or westernization—of Chinese food, which has become its very own genre.
HB: Now being aware of the existence of so much regional flare, especially in Vancouver and Richmond, people can’t help but question the provenance of these so-called Cantonese permutations [not that they taste bad or anything].
MW: It shouldn’t even be comparable to say…“This isn’t legit Chinese food”—it’s not trying to be! Quit trying to compare it to its root, the “authentic” stuff. They’re separate. When people say “I love Chinese food” that’s what usually pops up in my head, the westernized version of the dish. But Vancouver’s different, there’s nowhere else in the the world where you can get regional Chinese food on this scale. Vancouver’s known for that—it’s fuckin’ legit. I discovered at least 4 different Xinjiang [a Northwestern province] restaurants. That’s Halal Chinese food. There’s Central, Southern, Northern, Mid Northern, Mid Northeastern—it’s all over the place. You just need to search for it.
HB: I do feel like we’ve been late to discover different types of Chinese cuisine. In fact, it seems most of us non-Chinese remain in the dark. Curiosity is a caveat, sure. But there seems to be considerable barriers when it comes to experiencing regional Chinese cooking.
MW: Try to meet some Chinese people or find a fuckin’ language partner on Craigslist. Nobody’s talking about this, but it’s nothing new. I just happened to be looking. It incentivizes me to share it with people, why the fuck not? I recently had Uighur cuisine—naan, kebabs on skewers. I know it’s hard for people, but these are the things you need to do. I hope that can change, which is why I’ve started to write about it online.
HB: How can it change?
MW: People need to be more stoked about experiencing a bit more of other people’s’ values and cultures, and understanding that food doesn’t have to be pretty all the time. Food from Xinjiang for example—a huge issue in China that’s led to ethnic tensions between the Han and the Uighur people. There’s politics to food as well. There are race wars in Western China—there’s this Uighur woman, a Muslim, who opened a Xinjiang restaurant. Not a lot of people know about that. If you want to read into it a bit more, there’s not a lot of resources but I hope to be one in the city. Not an expert, but a person who delves a bit deeper, that’s it.
HB: I had read an article sometime ago in the Lucky Peach by Todd Kliman about the authenticity debate in food today. He’d mentioned that the Government of China [and let’s not forget the denominazione di origine controllata in Naples] had sanctioned certain ways for cooking particular dishes. Doesn’t this temper with the pioneering spirit that came up with that dish in the first place?
MW: They do that because they want to guard that, and if happens to be served at a particular type of restaurant, they have a designation—it’s to promote a style of cooking which they fear is being threatened, or perhaps one they’re just proud of. I don’t think the Chinese are as intense about that as Italians, for instance. I remember watching this show on youtube where this guy put pineapple on a pizza he’d made, serving it to people on the streets of Naples… They were hitting him, fuckin’ swearing at him and getting all up in arms about it, and it was funny. Chinese people wouldn’t do that—they wouldn’t take it so personally where they’d be beating you because you put prosciutto in the fuckin’ fried rice.
HB: Really? I’ve heard of Chinese masters, Mak Kwai Pui of the infamous Tim Ho Wan chain for one, who’d have staff fired for over-steaming a certain type of dumpling just a second longer.
MW: The Chinese are more open to variation and innovation than Italians. Italians are like “Don’t fuck with it, just leave it alone”. In Chinese restaurants I see a lot of playful innovation—just fucking with things, turning it on their heads—mostly things based off very traditional dishes as well. There’s a nature to it, and how it’s approached is distinctly Chinese. It might not make sense to a western person, it might even sound gross, but it’s pragmatic. To me that’s Chinese—pragmatism.
HB: What about the concept of abundance in Chinese food?
MW: They value a very big spread. But you can be at home and have a bowl of soup, some stir fried vegetables and steamed fish. That’s also very modest, very straight forward. I’ve experienced lots of different types of cuisine, and I can say the that nothing’s too sacred in Chinese cuisine, which in turn, allows for fuck loads of innovation. And the Chinese are so innovative, so clever.
HB: How innovative were you when it came to designing a best-selling dumpling? How’d you learn?
MW: Myself! Watching youtube, watching people in China, my grandma. Stuff pops back into my head every once in a while. My skills are fresh. Just like my Mandarin.
HB: You seem to take a lot of pride in being self taught. Did learning from others wear you out?
MW: I had the most useless education… worked a bunch of random, shitty jobs, and ended up staying at the bank for 3 years because my dad worked there. I hated it. The nail in the coffin was that I wanted to be a cook. I always loved cooking. I used to binge-watch Jamie Oliver and Iron Chef growing up.
HB: People hate on Jamie. I like him because he taught people they didn’t have to cook something a certain way. Pound the garlic with your fist, you don’t have to slice the tomatoes uniformly, it’s all fine as long as it’s cooked properly, and tastes good. He got rid of that fear of entering the kitchen for most people.
MW: Exactly, he’s just on the other side of the counter, talking to you, selling you on the experience. So nonchalant, whatever, you want that experience. I took influence from him. I grew up watching lots of cooking shows, I loved them.
My folding style is my fucking folding style.
Don’t like it? Fuck off.
HB: What do you think of docuseries like Chef’s Table, for instance? The chefs in fine-dining that execute their craft at the highest level.
MW: I watch Chef’s Table and it’s all slo-mo, and they’re like “it took me thirty years to master this”, and I’m like “good for you”. By that time I’d made a dumpling and was selling it on the internet.
HB: Would the masters approve of your dumplings? Of your technique?
I’ve made over 30,000 fuckin’ dumplings, I have nothing to prove. My folding style is my fucking folding style. Don’t like it? Fuck off. I think about all these questions, “Do you have six crimps on each side”? I’ve folded enough. I don’t owe anyone an explanation of how I cook Chinese food. The proof’s in the pudding. People are buying it. It stays shut. It looks pretty—that’s my folding style.
HB: How did you end up here?
MW: I quit working at the bank and thought I could do something entrepreneurial. I started work on building a sawmill with this ex-client of mine. I started getting lost in this bullshit, I wasn’t getting paid. We’d sort of muse and be like “what would you do if you had a million dollars?” My answer was that I’d cook for fun. I realized I didn’t need a lot to do what I wanted to do. I was going to do it anyways—a whole new soul-searching experience.
HB: What were some of your influences?
MW: Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisine. I had my brain blown open by all those flavours and techniques. The manti [Turkish dumplings], noodles, butchery and knife work really stuck out to me. I loved working with dough. It was really fucking eye opening.
HB: Were you working at the same time? Getting some hands-on experience in the industry?
MW: I was working and hustling as a private chef—stuff way out of my comfort zone. It was stressful and that really pushed me as a cook. But I didn’t want to end up as a line cook. I’d done that and didn’t want to do it again. Fuck no. But you’re not a real cook unless you’ve been a line cook. I’m fresh to this industry, but I hold that as well. All these fuckin’ bloggers need to know what that’s like before they can comment and critique food. The repetition, that speed—it’s a right of passage. Sometimes I feel bad I’m not back on the line… like I haven’t paid my dues long enough.
HB: Do you feel you’d be embraced if you decided to make a comeback and start over again in a kitchen?
MW: Probably not. I don’t really give a shit but I do think about that because understanding the environment, that habitat you’re entering—it’s a different story. I still hold that as a marker of skill and respect—if you’re a fuckin’ solid line cook. They’ve really put in their time. I haven’t. Purposefully so because I don’t want to do that job. I could be a line cook but I don’t think I’d be a good one in the long run… I’d just burn out and be shitty and quit, and do something else. I don’t have what it takes to be a line cook. I’m more of a business person. I’m an entrepreneur.
HB: Would you call yourself an entrepreneur who’s also a great cook?
MW: Yeah, thanks man. I would like to say that I’m an above average cook. You can say “he’s not bad”.
HB: What would you say to someone who said “he’s a great instagram guy, but he’s no chef”?
MW: I would say “you do it.” You do something then, show me. That’s my honest answer. If it’s good, I’ll tell you it’s good. I know I can cook. It’s not a question anymore. I used to be self conscious of it. I wouldn’t put my fucking name out there if I couldn’t cook—that’d be embarrassing, if people found out and said “this guy can’t cook”. Why the fuck would I put my name out there? Attention only lasts for so long.
HB: Some people in the industry might say you have it rather easy.
MW: Everybody’s got a hard life, and some people have easier lives than others. I see this game differently, based on the privilege I’ve had in education, in having to choose what I study, where to work, more or less. I’m not going to waste this gift. I put my time into the kitchen which I thought was enough. I’m making my fuckin’ money man.
HB: What would you say that gift is?
MW: It begins with my parents. They’ve worked very hard to give me the life I’ve had and I don’t want to waste it. By wasting it means not fulfilling my potential. Being happy, giving back, producing something for people to enjoy. Being a good son, whatever the fuck that means. I’m eclectic, which makes it hard to compete. I may not have more followers than you, but I produce more interesting things than you. It’s just a matter of time in my opinion. I just have to be honest to myself and to my customers of what I am, and what I offer.
HB: What’s your business model?
MW: I source my ingredients from Vancouver’s Chinatown. I buy retail to support them and then go back to create handmade, small-batch dumplings which I freeze. I deliver to homes, workplaces, bus stops, Safeway parking lots, back alleys, wherever the fuck people want. When I first started, I used to get orders through text, so it’s come a long way.
HB: What constitutes a good dumpling in your mind?
MW: Depends on what you’re trying to do, what it’s rooted in. A dumpling can be a dish of pasta; it could also be an apple. I’ve happened to hit a formula that resonates with the Vancouver palette. In some parts of China, they have very thick, doughy skin. Very filling. That may not fly here. Maybe in 50 years, who knows?
Yeah, I joke around and do slow zooms…
Smoke dope and fuck around…but you’re still selling dumplings.
HB: Which variety is your bestseller?
MW: The most famous one right now is the Johnnie Walker Black, the pork belly variety. It hits everything on the head, a full-flavoured thing. You gotta try it to see if the hype is real. It’s the selection of particular ingredients, and the pairings that make it intriguing, yet also familiar. It’s not ground-breaking or mind-blowing—it’s an elaboration, adding to the narrative of Chinese cooking. The dumpling situation in Vancouver is a very layman thing. Mine is the best to my customers, and that’s all that matters. They pay the bills.
HB: How much of your success would you attribute to your avatar on social media? If your dumplings are shit, people aren’t going to say “how eclectic of him, let’s buy anyway”.
MW: Then you don’t have a business. It’s just a bonus, like, you’re funny. It’s the chicken before the egg, I don’t know. I have a good product. Sound business practices. It’s good value for money. I’ve stood by it for two years now. Now people believe in it, you know? My fuckin’ phone just won’t stop beeping. Being provocative, interesting, quirky, random, stupid, funny, gross—all those things are for me to wave my arms around and say “pay attention to me for a second”, and after that’s done, there’s actually tangible stuff to it. Yeah, I joke around and do slow zooms, I smoke dope and fuck around and have lots of shoes, but you’re still selling dumplings.
HB: Like a hawker?
MW: Exactly. That’s what it’s become in an abstract, 21st century form. At the end of the day I fuckin’ peddle dumplings.
HB: How would your dumpling business fair if it weren’t for your instagram histrionics?
MW: In this day and age, if everybody had instagram and I wasn’t allowed to have it, the business would probably fail. Cause I wouldn’t have the stamina to go out and yell out “dumplings” all day. Where the fuck would I go, right? Stores would be a really hard sell because social media these days is your “designations and your pedigrees”, so to speak. And that’s how people cross-reference your street-cred in the food community. How many followers you got? Right?! And anybody who doesn’t acknowledge that is a fucking moron.
HB: What is it about instagram, especially the power it holds over the global food community?
MW: I’d be a hard sell if you took away my social media. My business is virtual so I have to stay in people’s minds. When they turn on their phone, they have to see the little reddish band around my image to see what I’m up to. I’ve created something of value through what I think is fluke. Everyday, my followers expect to see me driving, they expect a stupid video, to see me in my local Chinatown butcher shop. It’s hard to create this universe for someone.
HB: What’s been the feedback?
MW: I think people sense my realness, that I’m myself, and not trying to be a certain way. And I’m really not. Why the fuck would I do slow zooms every day if I genuinely didn’t find it funny? Certain people who have a strong presence online, some of whom I’ve met in real life, are real fucking duds.
HB: To that I’d say a very humble response coming from a self-professed King. And this is coming from someone whose given name means supreme ruler, mind you.
MW: It began as a joke during culinary school. My rugby buddy used to call me “dumpling king” because I was Chinese. He was Italian. I think he also called me “gyoza king”, which was kind of racist, but funny. I used to hashtag #dumpling #king whenever I’d be making dumplings in culinary school. And I made tons, they’re really good when you’re high.
HB: There’s also this cheeseball sort of spin to it. Is that deliberate?
MW: It’s kind of like the Simpsons “plow king” episode. The notion of being singular, it had a pop to it, but it’s also kind of cheesy in a western sense, or way of branding—like “sofa king” or “garbage king”. It’s totally different in a Chinese context though. When you add “Wang”, which means “King”, to anything, it means you’re the best. In Chinese it’s not corny, it’s cool—you’re the guy. So, I just ran with it. Being othered growing up… yeah, I’m the fucking king. You can call me “other” or “wanna be” or “mixed race” or appropriate, but like, fuck you.
HB: Why do you say that? I guess there’s a certain few in defiance of their King?
MW: If you want to use this title, you name yourself that then. And compete! It’s an open market. I chose this name, and I’m not the first person, there’s many dumpling kings on the internet. Actually, there’s one in Ontario, and Richmond too, but I have the most SEO. People know me as that. So if you’re better than me, spend more time on your fucking SEO.
…if you’re better than me,
spend more time on your fucking SEO.
HB: Somehow I feel like you wouldn’t stick out as much on the East coast.
MW: My presence is jolting—jarring—to the narrative of what Vancouver is. But the irony is that I’m a fucking Vancouverite, born and raised. I couldn’t be more Vancouver. It’s interesting that there are quirky, weird people here that are interesting and worthy of attention, it’s like, I don’t know, fuck, I’m just being myself.
HB: So you’ve got allegiance to this land?
MW: It depends, it’s highly contextual. Mine’s a distinctly Vancouver noted business. The question of retaining identity, or a loss of perceived identity—these are universal themes. I could set up anywhere, but the reason to move, I don’t foresee.
HB: How do you feel about home in the context of a global food destination. Can you identify a unifying thread?
MW: I feel Vancouver lacks a narrative—a depth of cuisine—right now. What’s so Vancouver? Sushi. Well, sushi’s from Japan. So, it’s more elaborations on traditions of other peoples and places which then make Vancouver what it is. But there’s no singular thing that makes Vancouver what it is. People then say something like JAPADOG, a Japanese influence imbued into a common western fast food. That’s where we’re at right now. We’re establishing ourselves. It’s a city with a very strong Asian background—there are some very legit spots here. We have a lot to offer from regional recreations, but nothing that has been slammed together just yet.
HB: When do you feel that “slamming” is going to happen? Eventually it’ll trickle down right?
MW: I don’t know. It’s an ideal that’s abstract and troublesome—one that doesn’t yield a clear answer. It’s more something to be aware of, instead of something to attain. It’s really problematic to be like “this is a Vancouver dish”, what is that truly? We’re such a young country—a diverse population—that has come together in a very recent past; that things haven’t been forgotten and then reasserted. Versus the Chinese experience—you’re working with centuries old recipes. We don’t have that kind of lineage here. Anything that old is from a different part of the world. It takes time… happens naturally. It’s very hard to foresee because it’s this singular thing—how culture changes.
HB: I do feel however that we’re also quick to dish out excuses. People make it sound like there were tumbleweeds rolling around in this city before Expo 86—that quintessential small-city complex.
MW: It’s not a huge city, but by no means a small city. Somewhere in the middle. It’s just straddling before becoming an “international city”. I think that’s why people like its ambiguity, because it’s not a clear institution like New York, Toronto or Montreal, or Paris. Paris and Vancouver, what are we comparing here? This is still a 21st century city, wide open to the world, for everyone to come to. It’s a different case of a growing city, unprecedented on many different levels—its culture, economy, government, its traditions of Canadiana. One word cannot sum up Vancouver.
HB: It’s also quite a wide spectrum, isn’t. Persians, Koreans, Brazilians, just to name a few.
MW: Which is kinda fuckin’ cool ! A lot of people have a stock answer. Nobody wants to get into this 10 minute conversation. “Vancouver’s just like a melting pot, there’s so many different flavours, different people. I love multiculturalism!”. That’s true, but we don’t have a Vancouver style, necessarily. It’s like people from different countries emulating stuff from home so they can feed people here, and in doing so, they end up establishing a community.
Vancouver… It will always be strongly Asian. 100%. Forever.
HB: Where should the focus be?
MW: I guess we need to pay attention to what is the Vancouver flavour—the aesthetic. The nature of the city is that it’s nebulous. There’s all these stupid youtube videos and articles, “What is Vancouver?” Maybe that which remains unnamed, and indistinguishable, is the feel of this city—kind of lukewarm, “I really like snowboarding”, yoga, feeling centred, having lots of money… and being nice. And smoking dope. And being non-confrontational. Maybe that’s Vancouver. People should stop forcing it to be something. But Vancouver’s future will always be rooted in an Asian stance. It will always be strongly Asian. 100%. Forever.