Being Chinese has its perks: an intrinsic ability to wield chopsticks, fearsome academic achievements, bootlegged DVDs. But as all Chinese-Americans know, the greatest advantage of being a precocious Olympic athlete Communist our ethnicity is the food. Dumplings, noodle soups, stir fries—thousands of years of culinary history has created a rich, complex cuisine filled with flavors and textures.
There are only two places to eat great Chinese food: in a Chinese mother’s kitchen and on the streets. So I was somewhat surprised upon discovering that Chicago lacked an authentic Chinese food truck. A bit more researching, however, led me to Yum Dum Truck, an up and coming dumpling machine on wheels. I meet Jeff Wang, founder (i.e. “Dumpling Engineer”) of Yum Dum, at The Garage in West Loop. The Garage currently houses The Salsa Truck (an “inspired take on Mexican street food”) but hosts a variety of different food trucks in their space. Unlike the culinary scene in other cities, Chicago’s food truck culture reflects the city’s collaborative and supportive nature.
Wang reminds me of a frat guy without the traditional douchbaggery, and we immediately bond over our love of stir fried tomatoes and eggs. Like most successful entrepreneurs I’ve met, Jeff has that trifecta of enviable personality traits: kind, daring, and passionate. As he feeds me Panda-Express inspired bites from his special “fast food week” menu, we chat about Yum Dum and other topics:
What’s your educational and career background?
I went to the University of Illinois and studied Economics, not exactly your typical path to owning a food truck. After graduating, I did what most 20-something college grads do and worked in corporate America. However, sitting in front of a computer for 8+ hours per day wasn’t my idea of how I wanted to spend the rest of his life. So I left my finance job and pursued my passion for food.
Why is conveying your cultural background so important?
Food should be a culinary adventure and a cultural experience. It’s an outlet to share my culture, just like a painter expresses himself on canvas. I believe that there’s a story to be told behind every plate of food. It’s my vision to combine my mom’s Asian home cooking that I grew up eating with my personal experiences abroad.
What’s the hardest obstacle you faced since you started this business?
The hardest obstacle has been learning to be a business owner. I’ve learned that there are so many things to be done and so facets to owning your own business. You have to be the chef, the graphic designer, the PR, the event planner, the architect, etc. The list is never ending. However, it’s been an amazing ride and the end is in sight.
Why dumplings for your truck’s theme, as opposed to other popular Chinese foods?
We definitely cook all types of Chinese food, all items that I grew up eating – and I ate a lot! From my mom’s curry, her wontons, stir fried glass noodles, and more, we’ll touch on everything. However, the reason I made dumplings the theme of the truck is because it reminds me of childhood. It has always been my favorite food my mom cooked. Also, dumplings are such a unique dish that can be adapted to express so many flavors and cultures (ravioli, pierogi, samosa, etc).
What’s it like working with your mom? What are some menu items we can look forward to–conversely, never look forward to (pickled bamboo shoots?!).
Working with my mom is by far my favorite experience of this venture. She is an amazing woman. She cooks with a lot of love and that’s infectious. It’s the perfect balance to showcase her home cooking with my modern twist. For example, kimcheesy rice balls? This was a mad creation stemming from my love of her homemade kimchi doused with a lot of cheese. The flavors work so well together so we experimented with rice balls – like Asian aranchinis – and they have been a huge hit! Other things we’ve been testing that have yet to make the menu is a version of the Chinese sweet sausage almost all Chinese kids ate growing up. We have recently put the sausage on a stick, tempura battered it to make an “Asian Corndog” and topped it with our jalapeno sriracha mayo on top. Authentic? Not exactly, but good? You bet!
Plus, what’s wrong with pickled bamboo shoots? I love pickling veggies and love using it to add acidity to my dishes. I’m working on a pickled apple garnish now and have pickled shiitakes in my kitchen. Don’t knock it til you try it! However…. Stinky tofu? Now THAT is something that I will never experiment with.
How has your Asian background affected what you do?
I’m extremely proud of my culture and it influences every aspect of the truck. Even the logo is a panda! I want the truck to stay as authentic as possible, especially with flavors and ingredients. I’ve been asked to make special dumplings such as nutella dessert dumplings, chicken parmesan dumplings, or even bacon cheeseburger dumplings. I happily deny even though I’m sure these are would all be delicious and unique. However, these don’t tell the story I want to tell with my food, and I plan on sticking with only authentic Asian flavors.
Where does the name Yum Dum come from?
I had this idea for a dumpling truck but no real foundation other than great food. I found out that design work is EXTREMELY expensive so I reached out to a Columbia College professor for help instead. He was a huge food truck fan, so decided to make the branding of my truck his class project. So 20 extremely talented and creative designers divided into teams and each presented their unique concepts. All were amazing. Ultimately, I chose Yum Dum and the rest is history! I still stay in touch with the students and want them to take pride in the truck when I’m on the streets.
When can we expect to see Yum Dum make its big debut?
The launch of Yum Dum is well overdue, but rather than setting a launch date, it’s easier to say we’re waiting on the weather. Winter is a tough time for food trucks so I’m taking the opportunity to fine tune the truck and make sure it’s amazing. We’re planning on having a launch party and do some special events for all of our patient fans.
What are some other hobbies besides cooking?
Cooking is my passion but opening a business comes with a lot of stress so my outlet for release is crossfit. I am an avid crossfitter and regardless of my busy schedule, I try to go to the gym 4-5 times per week. It’s an amazing and supportive community. Also, I love summer and love being outdoors. I play volleyball (Yum Dum Sponsored intramural team) and basketball when I can. Otherwise my life revolves around food. I love exploring new restaurants/bars around Chicago and finding amazing food and hidden gems.
What is your advice to other young entrepreneurs who want to start their own business?
Dream big and follow those dreams. I never thought I’d be 26 years old and be where I am today. If you believe you will succeed, no one can stop you but yourself. There will be obstacles but don’t let them derail you from achieving your dreams. My dad always told me that the secret to success is loving your work and not just the money attached to it.
You said you were a chubby Asian kid. Did your mom oober feed you too?!
I was definitely a chubby Asian kid! My parents worked long hours which meant they would often drop off fast food for me after school. This meant A LOT of McDonald’s and Arby’s! When it wasn’t eating a burger or roast beef sandwich, I would let my imagination run wild with white rice, mom’s kimchi, and cheese. Also, I’m not kidding when I say dumplings were my favorite food. I would regularly eat 20+ dumplings in a sitting.