House of Dumplings
This next story comes with a bit of a content warning – mum, I’m sorry, there are quite a few swears coming up. But if you ever met Vicky Ha of House of dumplings, you would know that if I was to censor this interview, I wouldn’t have much left, and it would also be taking away what is truly great about her! She is sassy, honest and incredibly fun to be around. I have no doubt that when Vicky was born she didn’t cry, she laughed her almighty laugh, said “about fucking time” and walked straight out of the womb.
I love dumplings. They are a beautiful thing (like Vicky) - small and perfectly formed packages of awesomeness (like Vicky), bite too quickly and you will get burnt (like Vicky!). I guess there is a reason they call her the Dumpling Queen.
How did you come to be the Dumpling Queen of Wellington?
I grew up with Mum making dumplings. We would all sit around the table making them - it was like a family ritual. So dumplings have always been a comfort food for me. But I was never aware of it until I moved to New Zealand. I was working at Caffe L'affare and I invited some friends over for dinner. I wanted to serve them something that was a bit out-of-the-box so rang up Mum and got all her dumplings recipes and BAM! They were like, “Fuck Vicky, this is fucking awesome.” That is when I realised I had something cool and it gave me the courage to open House of Dumplings. But it took me a long time to prepare - after L'affare I was working on a prawn trawler as a cook and that was tough as I didn’t have much time to myself, and I was gone months at a time. But one day I went in to see Rachel and Martin at the City Market and said, “Hey look this is my product,” and they gave me a chance. I was so nervous; I worked for 24 hours the day before my first market. The next day I was at the door of the City Market and my legs went to jelly, I was like, “Fuck this is the judgment day,” I was freaking out, thinking people are going to turn up and judge the product and you have worked so hard for this moment. Then I had sold out within two hours. I couldn’t believe someone was buying my dumplings, I was like, “Fucking awesome.” So it went from there.
When did you move to New Zealand?
I was 16, it was just me. I told Mum I wanted to be a professional windsurfer and she didn’t like the idea of that! I was doing miserably at school, so Mum decided to pack me off to a Catholic private boarding school in Dunedin! Ha ha. I was punching the walls - I was not happy. I was in the Hong Kong windsurfing team and I was forced to give it up; it’s too cold in New Zealand. So when I moved here, my diet completely changed, and I turned into a fatty. I would only eat potato and fucking cheese!
What food do you miss from Hong Kong?
Street food. It is too cold to have street food here. Hong Kong is a very busy place; people snack a lot. Lots of stuff on sticks, things that you can pick at. Fast food Asian style, not like McDonalds. My favourite is Beef Brisket Noodle Soup. When I was in Hong Kong last year, I was having noodle soup every day. It is affordable - I love the ugly dirty places. Food hygiene doesn’t fucking exist and yet I never get sick! New Zealand is too cold. But the Cuba Street Night Market is a great start.
Are there ingredients from Hong Kong that you wish you could get here?
I asked my mum to send me a type of flower – Osmanthus. Very similar to elderflower. I want to make a dessert dumpling.
What makes House of Dumplings special?
It’s playing into human values; food is supposed to be made by hand with love. It is a celebration. Food is one of life’s great pleasures and it’s not just the eating side, but making it too. As a chef, either you are passionate about it or go find another job! I’m passionate about it and making food is like telling a story to someone. You put all these ingredients together and you have this flavour and when you give that to someone, you don’t tell them about it, you just let them eat it and realise it themselves. It is about ritual, family, people and a celebration of food. That is why we also do the dumpling classes, I just want to share that experience I had with my family with everyone.
How long have you worked as a chef?
I have been cooking for quite some time, I’ve always surrounded myself with food. But as a qualified chef I have been cooking for two to three years. Before that, I was doing marketing.
What made you decide to be a chef?
At 27 I decided I didn’t enjoy my job, so I started washing dishes at The White House. At 27, after a marketing degree, you aren’t supposed to be washing dishes, but I did, earning minimum wage - but that is when I realised I loved being in the kitchen. I started doing food prep and decided to go to chef school.
Who taught you everything you know?
I’ve learnt so much from all the chefs I’ve worked with along the way. It is all about how much you absorb. I’m an open-minded person - I’m willing to try anything and I read a lot of books, do a lot of research, YouTube, etc. If you are passionate about something, you just read and read until you become an expert.
Mum is a great cook, Grandpa is a famous chef and my uncle is also a chef - there are a few in my family, so maybe it is in my DNA.
Do you have challenges finding ingredients?
Not really, as I am sourcing all vegetables nearby; it is important to buy my stuff locally. I have seven set dumplings, most of which I can do all year round. Garlic chives are hard to get because not many people grow them. I do random special dumplings if I see something I like at the market and want to do something cool with it.
Do you change anything for New Zealand diners?
I call it ‘con-fusion’ - I have a western approach to Asian food; it is a bit like me in a way – best of both worlds. There are some traditional dumplings on my menu but there are also some that I’ve made up just from being a chef. If you try traditional Korean dumplings they are quite boring, but if you taste mine they are actually pretty damn tasty. I still respect the culture, but I make mine a bit spicier. I adore dumplings, but New Zealanders don’t really get it. They deserve a better name. I want to make dumplings sexy; I want to bring that comfort food but also sexiness as well, little parcels of sexiness.
What is your favourite dumpling?
Indian Lamb – the flavour still excites me. It is like fuck yeah – and then you pan-fry it and it’s all crunchy, then there is that doughy bit on the top, it's so fucking good.
Korean Beef – I love the texture of the sesame seeds and the beef is all juicy, fuck yeah, it's like why fucking not!
What is your ultimate comfort food?
I can eat noodles every single day. Noodles and dumplings, it is the same dough. I love pasta too, which is similar to noodles I guess. I always order the pasta at restaurants.
Where do you like to eat in Wellington?
From dodgy Asian restaurants to flash-as restaurants. You can taste if a place is passionate about food. It’s not just about what is on the table, it is also what is behind the doors. Whatever takes my fancy - I can eat at KC Café, Floriditas or Caffe L'affare. I will also eat at KFC! Fuck their chicken tastes good; I eat it like once a year but damn it’s good, oh and McDonald's apple pies! I don’t care if they have gravy in them instead of apples - it tastes so good, the seasoning is perfect.
What do you make for yourself at the end of a long day?
A cup of tea! But if I feel up to it I’ll make a broth, loads of veggies and either risoni or soba noodles. One pot wonder.
What is the future of House of Dumplings?
We have our frozen dumplings going into Moore Wilson’s and nationwide. Teaching more people about dumplings with classes every few months.
What food trends are you most excited about?
Basic food, going back to how things should be. After the industrial revolution, we processed food more and more and we forgot about simple food. I want non-complicated, non-pretentious food– bangers and mash and kidney pies. People put MSG in food because they are lazy; they don’t want to cook . If you know the true combination of food then you won’t need it; if the stew is supposed to be cooked for 15 hours, it needs to be done. The flavour will be there, instead of a spoonful of shit from a container. That is laziness.
Tell me something about yourself that most people don’t know...
I’m an open book, I tell everyone everything!