BY WENDY HUNG
Before that first bite, a steamy basket made of bamboos arrive at the table bejeweled with ten perfectly shaped soup dumplings. Xiao long bao, as they’re called in Mandarin Chinese, dazzle above a moist white cloth, one dumpling entirely identical to the next. With a pair of chopsticks, a singular xiao long bao must be gently hoisted away, above fuzzy steam. Hold it against the light, sheer skin of the dumpling doesn’t break, it remains transparent. Tilt it to the right, then to the left, delicate soup inside glides with eyes and seduces appetite.
In the last twenty years, there has only been one restaurant that I frequently revisit. From the most extravagant in Dubai to some of the world’s most renowned in Europe; although I haven’t tried it all, I have ventured enough to know when a restaurant is humbly unpretentious while serving possibly the best of its kind in the world. Yes, I’ve said it, in the whole wide world.
Din Tai Fung is a glory of a family name and of a nation that continues to blossom with a changing face. Din-Tai-Fung, literally means: cooking cauldron-peace-abundance, has led the way of modern restaurant-experience in Taiwan then galloped to expand in presently seventy-five locations around the world. Since the inception of its very first restaurant on Taipei’s XinYi Road in 1972, it has been named as one of the top 10 restaurants in the world by New York Times, and continues to receive Michelin stars year after year.
The “Din Tai Fung experience” is far beyond its food. Its reputation beams from the minute a diner is directed to wait in line. As predicted, it is rare to walk into Din Tai Fung without having to queue. But the magic of the appeal is how every staff is trained to deliver such bad news, especially to anyone who is hungry and ready to devour. Always with a smile, the staff politely hands over order menus, which explicitly sets the tone to Din Tai Fung’s ultimate success: for one, diners are distracted while waiting in line, busy checking off delicious items on the menu. Checklists are typically returned to the staff before diners are even assigned to tables, allowing food to immediately arrive when they are seated. Timing and efficiency have been key.
“It starts from the moment you’re waiting in line outside of the restaurant.” Warren Yang, owner of the famous family enterprise, explains, “It’s the moment the customer sees these three words: Din Tai Fung. How he or she feels about our brand. A few days ago, an American customer told us, we really need to open restaurants in the States and bring a new sense of customer service to America. Our attitude, our smiles…he thought America’s average restaurant experience is lacking all of this.” This is the kind of Din Tai Fung that Warren wanted to create. He recounts a memory of visiting Disneyland in 1989. Every worker’s attitude radiated in “The Happiest Place on Earth” inspired him to educate his staff, to deliver the same class of demeanor and respect for their jobs.
Similar to massive amounts of entrepreneurial stories in Taiwan, Din Tai Fung began as a peanut and vegetable oil company in 1957, founded by Warren’s father. The industry struggled to succeed and morphed into a restaurant serving dumplings and dim sum in 1972. Business immediately boomed, locals gravitated toward the easy, balanced yet intoxicating tastes of traditional dishes. In 1993, New York Times listed Din Tai Fung as one of the top 10 restaurants in the world. Japanese tourists quickly flooded the restaurant, igniting Din Tai Fung’s now infamous image as the “it” restaurant for visitors from abroad.
There are more than quite a few striking dishes on the menu. The original contained: soup dumplings, fried rice, chicken soup noodles, hot and sour soup. To begin with its world famous soup dumplings, the paper-thin skin wrap encloses marinated juice from tender minced pork. When a dumpling is bitten, its soup bursts like flavorful flood, exploding against heated water gates of a diner’s pallet. Spoons are recommended while devouring this dish, part of the fun is the unpredictability of where the soup can rupture.
Its chicken noodle soup is one of local’s favorites. The Taiwanese view chicken noodle soup as an approval staple. If a restaurant can serve the dish completely up to par, then it will last. Din Tai Fung’s chicken noodle soup is clean, famously balanced in the use of oil. Served in a traditional ceramic bowl, an individual and dainty size that parallels taste, which isn’t cumbersome or loaded with herbs and spices. Its transparency aligns with hours of simmer, producing chicken stock and meat to melt in a diner’s mouth.
Ordering fried rice in a Taiwanese restaurant is similar to ordering mashed potatoes in an American joint. To spend money on comfort food or something so easy that anyone can make in their own kitchen, it has to be good. Exponentially good. Din Tai Fung’s fried rice is known for clarity. Not one rice sticks to another, one can almost count how many rice is piled onto the plate. Flavors of eggs and locally fresh shrimp seep into each dot of rice. The best part, this dish is even better as a leftover to eat at home the next day.
The success of Din Tai Fung comes down to two key components: standard and image. According to Warren, “More than ten years ago, Taiwanese restaurant industry didn’t require ‘standard.’ It was okay for waiters to wear sneakers and have long hair. The attention to detail wasn’t exactly precise. In recent years, we’ve really paid attention to our ‘image.’ Image has become a fundamental qualification to our company culture. We now require hair pulled back, and a certain way that each staff needs to presents him or herself.”
Walking into any Din Tai Fung, through aquariums of crispy glass windows are groups of chefs, folding, steaming, rolling and stretching dough. All of them covered in mouth masks, in head caps, gowned in white coats like doctors. The image is: the quality of food is of excellence, we take care of our food, we’re making sure you’re eating well.
“Our staff knows, if there’s a tear in one of the soup dumplings, that batch cannot be served to the customer.” Warren continues to explain, “We have to humanize our service to uphold a high degree of quality.” Foreigners cannot possibly understand what Warren has done to the culture of contemporary dining in Taiwan – a culture that brews itself and thrives on elements of street food. Within the food industry, his request for standard and image in the early 1990s elevates him as a radical game changer.
Rumor has it that there’s a spa behind the scenes for his staff. Although it isn’t true, Warren is known for the particular approach he treats his hundreds of employees: massage services are provided three times a week, personally selected menus are available for breakfast, each staff evidently receives higher salary and greater benefits than most waiters and managers in other restaurants. “I know it’s hard labor working in the restaurant business, so every location has a resting room where our staff can take naps. There are many restaurants that don’t have so many clients on a daily basis. As our business grows, I know this isn’t easy work for my employees.”
Today, there are seventy-two Din Tai Fungs in the world: Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Korea…etc. “I’m now in my 50’s, I grew up seeing my father work in the oil industry.” Warren recalls, “Since elementary school, my siblings and I would help with the family business after school. The mentality was, you don’t second guess what your career path may be, but you see that your parents are working hard, you naturally help out, whether it’s cleaning the tables or folding the dumplings in the kitchen.”
Din Tai Fung continues to be a Taiwanese pride and an international institution. In twenty years, it has accompanied my teenage phases, college years and vacations as a working woman. Last week, I landed in Taipei. As usual, there was only one place I wanted to go and fulfill my cravings? There it was, a batch of xiao long bao, right before a bedazzled appetite.