Every year throughout his childhood, chef Chris Cheung would march through Chinatown in the Chinese New Year parade, battling the frigid weather to bless every store. So it was fitting that when he opened his Park Slope restaurant, East Wind Snack Shop (471 16th Street, Brooklyn; 929-295-0188), during the holiday this past February, he met his neighbors by sharing blessings for good luck in a somewhat accidental parade.
So far, those blessings have been paying off for Cheung.
He opened East Wind with the intention of doing “creative Chinese cuisine,” combining the classic French technique he had practiced under chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten with the Taishan fare he grew up eating in Brooklyn. But the shop’s lightning-quick popularity forced an early menu shift: Cooking solo without the force of a brigade system behind him, Cheung had to cut his menu by half and focus on a realistic goal if he was to keep up with demand. He made that goal 1,000 dumplings a day.
They’re not your five-for-a-dollar corner shop dumplings, though. Cheung says he put his training to work, “refining the battle of making the food as perfect as possible in a high-volume setting.” He focuses on the details he can control, like exactly how hot the pan needs to be to get a perfect sear on the dumplings before adding water, or how long he needs to flash them in the oven before serving, dehydrating them ever so slightly for a perfect skin and juicy center. “You have to take things apart like a sniper when you’re doing them day after day,” he says. “That’s how working with some of the best chefs in the city has helped me.”
His menu is not without some elevated touches, though, such as bao buns stuffed with foie gras and slowly cooked sweet chile ribs and potstickers made with 28-day dry-aged beef. The menu specifies where his meat comes from, and that the meat blends, dumpling dough, and even the soy sauce are all made in-house and cooked to order. They’re specifications that mean something to him not only as a skilled craftsman, but also as someone who grew up eating the best Chinese food New York had to offer.
“I grew up in Chinatown eating at tea- and coffeehouses where the food was really good,” he remembers. “We weren’t cooking for anyone but ourselves, the working class. When you’re working-class you don’t have many pleasures in life except for a good meal. And when you’re working hard you don’t get to come home and have that meal cooked for you. So you rely on restaurants, and they have to be cheap, and they have to be good. We had that. The place downstairs from my grandmother’s house had the best shrimp dumplings I’ve ever tasted — they’ve been closed forever now, but 30 years later I remember them. I want to create those memories for people, since those teahouses don’t exist anymore.”
In that vein, East Wind welcomes families, and Park Slope is rife with them. The colors in the restaurant — vibrant red, popping out in the hanging lamps and in geometric patterns on walls, and bright white accents — hark back to the classic colors of China while creating a fun ambiance for kids. The restaurant sells Pocky sticks, Hello Kitty face cookies, and Yan Yan dips, too, all brightly presented. “We want kids to look back and say, ‘We used to go to East Wind!’ in the same way that I have memories of growing up,” Cheung says. His greatest satisfaction comes from hearing a youthful “yummy!” shouted out across the small dining room, or from a parent confiding that their fussy eater loves coming in for dinner.
For Cheung, East Wind is the culmination of many things: his childhood in Brooklyn, his professional training, and his general hopes and fears for Chinese cuisine in New York: “In my heyday as a cook and chef, Chinese food wasn’t regarded as anything special, and was taken for granted. So the sheer fact that Chinese food is getting this big push and people are starting to be really educated about it is great.”
He enthusiastically applauds his contemporaries at Tuome and Fung Tu for how they’re moving Chinese cuisine forward. But when it comes down to brass tacks, he still leans toward those childhood favorites. “I still go to Chinatown and all the same places, like Big Wong and Ping’s Seafood House and Hop Kee. They’ve been doing their things for more than 30 years and haven’t skipped a beat, so I tip my hat to them — to still be doing consistent food over that period of time is special.”