‘Top Chef’ alum Shirley Chung wants to change the way people think about Chinese food in L.A.
One million dumplings. That’s the number chef Shirley Chung says she and her team have made in the last year. That’s 1 million dumpling wrappers cut, rolled, filled and folded, all by hand.
The “Top Chef” alum, who has been making dumplings since she was 6, turned herself into a dumpling machine to prepare for the opening of her first L.A. restaurant, called Ms. Chi Cafe, set to open on Main Street in Culver City on October 9. The restaurant and those 1 million dumplings are just the first steps in her plan to redefine Chinese food in Los Angeles.
“You assume people know what Chinese food is but they don’t,” says Chung, who was born and raised in Beijing and moved to the United States as a teenager. “They know orange chicken.”
Chung has worked at Thomas Keller’s the French Laundry in Yountville as well as at Bouchon, and she helped open six restaurants in Las Vegas in 13 years including CarneVino and Jose Andres’ China Poblano. She says she chose L.A. to open Ms. Chi because it offered the best opportunity to propel her cooking forward.
“It’s a melting pot and in a way, L.A. created so many iconic fusion foods like Kogi,” says Chung, who made hundreds of thousands of dumplings at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival this year, and has already opened a stall at the Fields L.A., a food hall attached to the Banc of California stadium in Exposition Park. “For me, dumplings make sense.”
While many of the dishes on the menu seem familiar, Chi, who hopes Chinese food will soon have “its moment,” promises her own take. Her sizzling pork potstickers are made with a Pachamama pork from Oregon and fennel; her vegan mapo tofu, inspired by lauded Sichuan chef Yu Bo, includes avocado along with roasted mushrooms and Sichuan pepper; and her Beijing zhajian mian are hand-cut traditional Northern-style noodles with a fermented bean paste from Beijing.
Ms. Chi will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with counter service during the day, and full service for dinner.
Chung is making all of her own pastries (available for grab-and-go during breakfast and lunch) such as mochi doughnuts, pull-apart sticky buns with adzuki beans and citrus caramel, scallion scones and classic milk bread. There’s avocado toast on the menu — Chung makes hers with hazelnut pesto and seasonal vegetables — and her brown rice oatmeal is reminiscent of the Chinese rice porridge congee, made with a soft egg, chile oil, ginger and poached chicken.
During lunch, there are scallion pancake sandwiches, made on Chung’s version of the classic pancake.
With the sandwiches, and the dumplings, it’s Chinese flavors, but we change the presentation so people understand it.
Chinese spiced pastrami, hazelnut pesto, Beijing mustard vinaigrette, served with salt and pepper tater tots at Ms. Chi restaurant in Culver City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Jumbo cheeseburger pot stickers with bacon tomato jam at Ms. Chi restaurant in Culver City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Chef Shirley Chung at Ms. Chi restaurant in Culver City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Beef and broccoli with black pepper sauce at Ms. Chi restaurant in Culver City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
A variety of doughnuts at Ms. Chi restaurant in Culver City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Vegan garden dumplings at Ms. Chi restaurant in Culver City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Charcoal-grilled oolong tea with cheese foam at Ms. Chi restaurant in Culver City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Sticky buns and scallion scones at Ms. Chi restaurant in Culver City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
A variety of bao, including some with hot dogs at Ms. Chi restaurant in Culver City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Scallion scones and sticky buns at Ms. Chi restaurant in Culver City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Ms. Chi restaurant in Culver City.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
“The recipe is from my grandmother and my mother’s pancakes, but instead of their roll technique, I make mine like French laminated dough for a lot of layers,” says Chi. “With the sandwiches, and the dumplings, it’s Chinese flavors, but we change the presentation so people understand it.”
Chung uses her pancakes to wrap her Chinese-spiced pastrami with Beijing mustard vinaigrette. And she borrowed a dish from her time on “Top Chef” as well. The jumbo cheeseburger potstickers — baseball-sized hunks of cheddar cheese, bacon jam and black pepper — won her a challenge from Cronut creator Dominique Ansel on the show.
“I don’t want people to think I’m a celebrity chef and that I’m here for the opening and that’s it,” says Chung. “It’s a neighborhood restaurant and I will be here.”
Chung says she spent almost as much time developing her beverage menu as she did her food, with a decadent version of the cheese foam tea popular in Asia. She uses a charcoal-grilled oolong tea and tops it with a foam made from cream cheese and Parmesan cheese. She will also serve boba tea drinks.
And while she’s getting ready to open Ms. Chi, Chung is also about to release her first cookbook: “Chinese Heritage Cooking From My American Kitchen: Discover Authentic Flavors with Vibrant, Modern Recipes,” out Oct. 23.
“This is everything I like to eat,” says Chung. “I can’t wait to open so I can Postmates my own food.”
Open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Reservations are available on OpenTable.com. 3829 Main St., Culver City, mschicafe.com.
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