Any kitchen work is physically taxing, but dim sum in particular requires fine handiwork and nimble fingers. The caliber of a dim sum chef is often judged by their har gow, a dumpling with paper-thin skin that must be able to hold its shrimp filling without breaking apart. A master chef can fold more than a dozen pleats into the wrapper and still maintain its crescent shape.
But fewer chefs are learning this traditional craft today. In Manhattan’s Chinatown, dim sum parlors are grappling with a shrinking local population and an aging workforce, threatening an important thread of Chinese American heritage. Restaurants like Jing Fong and Dim Sum Go Go are facing the looming shortage of skilled chefs. Without inheritors, the art of dim sum may one day be replaced by automation.
Many dim sum chefs in Chinatown are in their 50s and 60s. It’s rare to see a young apprentice in the kitchen nowadays, says Eric Lee, the operations manager of Dim Sum Go Go on East Broadway.
Mastering dim sum can take a decade of training and practice, and apprentices have to work their way through each kitchen station: making rice rolls, steaming, frying, creating the fillings, wrapping dumplings, and mixing the dough. This lengthy process makes it a challenge to find new chefs.
“Usually chefs start at an earlier age in China, but that’s not the case now,” Lee says. “Not a lot of people are going into the field because it’s super labor-intensive.”
Iconic Chinatown dim sum hall Jing Fong used to rely on chefs who honed their skills in China and then immigrated to New York, but third-generation owner Truman Lam says the talent pool dwindled as Chinese immigration slowed in recent years.
Although immigration from China has continued to increase since 2000, the growth has been happening at a slower pace. Plus, more Chinese immigrants have been entering the U.S. to pursue higher education or lucrative jobs in science and technology, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
“We don’t have a lot of new immigrants coming from China, especially since living conditions there have gotten better and opportunities over here have gotten more sparse,” Lam says.
Jing Fong has 14 chefs, most of whom are in their mid-50s. The head dim sum chef has been with the restaurant for over a decade and there’s no apprentice in the kitchen.
When the current generation of dim sum chefs retires, their decades of experience will be lost, says Carolyn Phillips, the author of The Dim Sum Field Guide.
Phillips says she has been encouraging more Western chefs to do stages — internships in exchange for experience — in Chinese restaurants, especially in a dim sum kitchen. “This is only something you can learn at the sight of a master. It has to be shown.” she says. “You can write down the recipe, but you need someone who has years of experience under the belt to teach you, for example, the feel of something.”
The chaotic dim sum brunch experience, or yum cha, is also facing an existential crisis. The Chinese community in Manhattan’s Chinatown was already getting smaller due to rent hikes, Jing Fong’s Lam says.
Chinatown residents are regular customers at dim sum parlors, but many have been displaced by gentrification in the neighborhood in the past decade. And since the pandemic, at least a dozen Chinatown restaurants, such as Hop Shing and 88 Lan Zhou, have shuttered.
Lam relocated Jing Fong — once a 800-seat dim sum hall that was a cornerstone in the neighborhood — to a downsized, 125-seat location on Centre Street during the pandemic amid rising rents and declining sales. Despite having a smaller space and slower traffic during the winter, Jing Fong has brought back the dim sum carts, an iconic marker of the former location.
Most restaurateurs don’t have a foreseeable solution to the shortage right now. No one wants to admit the truth yet, Lam says, but he believes that automation is going to replace the chefs.
Grace Young, an award-winning cookbook author and expert on Chinese cooking, says machine-made dumplings require the dough to be thick enough to hold their shape without falling apart.
“The best dumplings have a thin dough, which means there’s more filling to enjoy in every bite,” she says. “If the dumpling has thick dough, every mouthful is mainly gummy dough.”
But mechanization is inevitable, according to Lee from Dim Sum Go Go. “They’ve been on our mind, but we’re not at that stage yet,” he says. “Many of our dumplings require technical folds that can’t be done with machines.”
Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the oldest dim sum parlor in Chinatown, has already pivoted to making dumplings with a machine. Brooklyn Dumpling Shop took it one step further, employing dumpling automats and eliminating any face-to-face contact.
Barbara Leung, Nom Wah’s head of operations and marketing, says that the restaurant’s senior dim sum chefs are involved in the process to mechanize dumpling making.
“These are chefs who learned a way to do things decades ago and are humble enough to consider reframing their own thinking,” Leung says, adding that operating and optimizing these machines is similar to learning how to fold all over again.
The end products are perhaps not to the liking of those focused on nostalgia, Leung says, but their efforts to innovate should be celebrated over “authenticity.”
“People aren’t perfect, and neither are machines. That’s why we continue to iterate.” she says. “And even though there’s always room for improvement, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t value the sincerity and effort that has been put in thus far.”
Some dim sum newcomers are automating parts of their process — if not the chefs themselves — and are succeeding in their efforts.
Featuring a minimalist interior and contactless ordering system, fast-casual spot Awesum Dimsum offers a glimpse of what the future of dim sum may look like. It opened at the height of the pandemic in 2020 and has impressed food influencers — and New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells — with classics like har gow, shu mai, and turnip cake.
The owners, Frank Yu and Sze Yeung, chose to open the joint in the heart of Manhattan, with one location in Flatiron and another in Times Square, to reach more customers. They scouted their head chef from Lake Pavilion in Flushing and assembled a dozen kitchen staff members, but future recruitment might be a problem if they were to expand their locations. They hope to train more new chefs and are considering scouting in China after pandemic travel restrictions are eased.
They never thought of going back to the traditional way of serving dim sum, instead combining it with the most American of inventions: fast food. It is “never outdated,” Yu says. “If you’re looking for great taste, I can offer that and you don’t need to go all the way to Chinatown.”