Eat with Chopsticks

Dajiang Tai
Architect at Cheshire Architects

I

I am Chinese, one of the six billion. Most of us are in the mainland on the other side of Earth; some of us are scattered around this planet. We have been around a long time, something like five thousand years. We gathered a lot of things during this time, and we threw away a lot of things as we went—probably way too much. There are many of us—we live different lives, speak in different tones, care about different things, but that’s okay because we eat with chopsticks. I’m just trying to point out the obvious. It’s our united memory, the one thing that makes us who we are.

But chopsticks are just tools. They’re what we use to eat, and this is the key to unlocking the very hardcode of our culture—food. So let’s talk about Chinese food… and why don’t we start with dumplings? When I was a kid, mum loved to make dumplings and she expected the whole family to be around her. Mum usually did the chopping, Dad did the pastry, grandparents were wrapping, and kids ran around playing with flour. The TV was on, the room full of steam. The kids usually got to taste the first dumpling when it came out of the pot; they usually burnt their lips and would cry in mum’s arms. I remember when I got home after school on Fridays; every family in the apartment building was chopping. I could hear the repetitive chopping and I knew they were making dumplings. When I came to New Zealand, I remember my mum made dumplings for a Chinese international student, and he burst into tears within seconds. I didn’t have to ask him why I knew we shared the same memory. And of course, dumplings are delicious. They turn some chopped up mince and vegetables wrapped up in pastry into magic.

Our family moved to New Zealand when I was15 years old. We lived in Orakei; the only Chinese restaurant near by was a tiny kitchen in Glen Innes, and it was so small that it made the McDonald’s next door seem like a stadium. We went and dined at the Chinese restaurant occasionally. It had white walls, small windows, there were always some broken chairs, and the big round and sticky glass tabletop shook when it turned. I never used the bathroom there because it never flushed properly. However none of that mattered, really. The food was perfect; each dish only lasted two seconds on the table before we smashed the food onto an empty plate. We would take a duck home every time too, and have it the next day. There weren’t many choices around, so dining out in that tiny kitchen was extremely satisfying. A few years later, there was a steamboat restaurant that opened in downtown Auckland. The international student who was living with us took me out there nearly once a week. Back then, steamboat wasn’t something we could cook at home because there were no places that sold thin, frozen shaved lamb, and no induction hobs to keep the water boiling. So eating at the steamboat restaurant on a stormy night was the best dining experience. I ran into every Chinese I knew in that restaurant, and we smiled like lamb every time. Then the trend started, and Chinese restaurants took over—Dominion Road, Howick, Northcote, Panmure, and more. The food is great—it is authentic—it is authentic in a way that every restaurant is famous for its own particular dish. I can even say that some of the Beijing Duck I had in Auckland is better than the Duck I had in Beijing. However, what hasn’t changed are the white walls, small windows, sticky tables, and the toilets that don’t flush. There may be many of these restaurants around, but I have to admit that we aren’t setting the bar very high.

The reasons are simple. People generally want to get the biggest return from the smallest effort. Chinese food is so tasty and there is a growing local Auckland population that demands it. If all of these restaurants are packed every night with steady cash flow, then why bother giving any effort to making the venue better? Chinese restaurants are well priced; you always feel you are getting more than you’ve paid for. That’s because the market is competitive, and Chinese restaurants are competing on price and food, not service and environment. Also, a lot of the restaurants are run by the chef. The chef cares about his food and the restaurant is just a place for him to perform his skills. There is no professional operator running the show who cares about the other important things that complete a good restaurant. The restaurant usually opens with a hope of doing really well, and that’s pretty much it. There are no long term plans, no proper business set ups, no accountants, no way to secure the chefs or staff; there is just hope. I’m frustrated—frustrated by the fact that there is so much amazing Chinese food out there made by the nicest Chinese people, but there is not one restaurant that stands out to be better than the okay restaurants. A lot of people like Dominion Road; they like it because its made up of these Chinese restaurants. I love it too, I go there everyday, I would live there if I could. But it will need a way forward. If it had even just one step forward to jump out of this band of okay restaurants, it would be phenomenal. I can already see it. Imagine if all the houses are built like they are in Dannemora? Then there won’t be Architects anymore, and all it takes a few more Eyrie cabins, they will destroy those stupid plastered giant column houses, simply because it’s showing a sight of possibility.

In the past few years, we have made a number of restaurants with the best operators in New Zealand. Together we are pushing the boundaries in every way. I knew one day we would be making a Chinese restaurant, and I was so ready to give everything I’ve got, so we did. It was a good size restaurant in the basement of Imperial Lane called Mandarin. The place was influenced by 1920s–1940s Chinese fashion. We designed the cabinets, the lights, and furniture, and they were custom made in China. The walls are plastered with clay mixed with straw. Nat painted the Chinese calligraphy at the entrance, and I painted the entire private dining room with a Chinese poem. The operator was about my age; we use to have long midnight conversations about this place and what it will become, and we made the architecture for this restaurant and everything else. One day it opened its doors, and it had dimly-lit circular tables with steamed squid ink dumplings in woven baskets. It was packed every night, and if the restaurant survived a little longer it would have made a difference in the market, but it didn’t survive. Due to internal issues the doors shut quickly, and I never heard from the operator again. It felt awful but I still had energy left, so we wrote to the operator of XUXU and convinced him that dumplings would be the best fit for the venue. They are now making the best dumplings in the city. There is no giving up, there is only more to come, hence why I'm writing this.

 

III 

When people are moving to other countries, they will carefully select their essentials from all of their belongings. They will take these essentials with them to the new place; these essentials will represent what they are in person, where they came from, and what they need that the destination doesn’t have. When people move to their new destination, the new place will then be enriched by the essentials—physically and culturally. We have lived a parallel world in the same city for a long time, and these two worlds will collide. We would like to curate this collision when it happens, and food would be the perfect medium.  It just makes me happy when there are more kiwis than Chinese in Barilla Dumpling, and all the beautiful Chinese girls bombarding Milse dessert restaurant. Good food is the common language.

Chinese food has come a long way from the sweet and sour pork dishes in Chinese Fish & Chip shops, to the Beijing Duck on Dominion Road. And I believe it’s time to make the next step, because it is so easy, I can see it in front of my eyes. There are no dragons and phoenixes, there are no decorative timber screens, and big red flower paintings; there is just a good wine list, a good source of ingredients, some music in the room, some dimmed lighting, clean toilets, and tables with staff who can speak proper English. It’s that easy.
 
We eat with chop sticks because we were perfectionists once upon a time. We have not only been perfecting the food, but also the tools for eating, so better learn to use those sticks now because more food is on its way.


IV

I am Chinese, one of the six billion. Most of us are in the mainland on the other side of Earth; some of us are scattered around this planet. We have been around a long time, something like five thousand years. We gathered a lot of things during this time, and we threw away a lot of things as we went—probably way too much. There are many of us—we live different lives, speak in different tones, care about different things, but that’s okay because we eat with chopsticks. I’m just trying to point out the obvious; it’s our united memory, the one thing that makes who we are. We eat with chopsticks because we were perfectionists once upon a time. We have not only been perfecting the food but also the tools for eating. Let’s revert back to our focus on perfection.