Michelle Xiao just bought a new knife, but she doesn't like it — it's too new. But there's not another one like it in the kitchen at ChoLon Modern Asian, where she just started working, so she's scuffing it up a little with a scouring pad.
The knife resembles a butcher's cleaver, but it's lighter, and the rectangular blade is made with thinner metal. Xiao doesn't use it for chopping through cartilage or separating racks of pork into individual chops, though. She's about to start making har gow, the most difficult of all dim sum — and she's very particular about her equipment. She's earned the right; after all, she's been making dumplings nearly her whole life, starting as an apprentice when she was still a teenager in a Cantonese city not far from Hong Kong, then moving to New York City thirty years ago, where she worked her way up to some of the top kitchens in the world.
"Michelle is one of the best dim sum chefs in the country," notes Lon Symensma, chef/owner of ChoLon and a longtime colleague of Xiao. They met when Symensma was hired as executive chef to open Steven Starr's Buddakan, his jaw-dropping Asian restaurant in New York City, and Xiao was second in command on a twelve-person dim sum brigade.
Even after he left Buddakan to open ChoLon in Denver, Symensma would send his staff to train under Xiao in New York City, and she has come to his restaurant twice in the past few years to teach other chefs the difficult art of dumpling making. But this year, frustrated by her inability to break through the glass ceiling in New York (thirteen years after opening Buddakan, she was still number two on the dumpling team), Xiao reached out to Symensma and told him that she was moving to Denver.
Of course, Symensma immediately hired her.
ChoLon already employs two dumpling makers, Hong Zheng Zu and Tong Li, who specialize in xiao long bao. And two doors down at one of Symensma's other restaurants, Cho77, Mirasol Martinez (who has trained under Xiao) handles dumpling duty. But the chef wanted to up his dumpling game at ChoLon, to out-dim sum Denver's three or four top dim sum parlors, so adding Xiao to his team was an easy decision.
Behind ChoLon's big kitchen windows facing the 16th Street Mall, there's a little dance going on. Xiao needs a wooden cutting board, so Symensma's right-hand man, Jeff Stoneking, rounds one up that's not already in use. But then the counter's too high, so Symensma digs up a step stool. In the meantime, Xiao churns wheat starch, potato starch and boiling water in an electric mixer to form a firm, white dough. Then she oils a dish towel that she uses to keep the flat of that new knife blade slick, for reasons that become apparent after she begins working with the dough.
Standing on the stool, Xiao is now high enough above her work surface to really get her shoulders into the process of kneading that mass of har gow dough. After throwing her full weight into it for a minute or two, she wraps the dough in cling film to keep in the heat and moisture. Dry or cold dough is impossible to work with, she explains.
Tearing off a wad of dough from the main mass, she shapes it into a rope and then cuts a marble-sized piece from one end. She rolls it against the wooden board with the palm of her hand, quickly slaps the side of the blade against her oiled cloth, and presses down on the ball with the knife. A few feathered strokes with the flat of the blade turn the tiny sphere into a delicate disk pressed onto the cutting board. She uses the blade's sharp edge to flick the disk off the wood, then repeats the process several more times until she has a small stack of circular har gow wrappers.
If you've eaten dim sum, you've seen shrimp-filled har gow dumplings gently steamed until the wrapper becomes translucent, showing off the pale pink shellfish beneath the surface. Getting the wrapper thin and even enough to turn transparent when cooked while staying firm enough to keep from tearing takes years of practice, but Xiao makes it look easy. Her nimble fingers, even in latex gloves, make quick work of the pleated pattern distinct to the har gow. They're shaped like miniature bonnets, with pleats along one edge and a smooth arc of dough on the other. Xiao's finished dumplings are so perfect, they could be used in a geometry classroom to demonstrate the symmetry of Euclidean curves.
I watch Xiao carefully as she executes three more dumplings, because I know my turn is coming. She creates exactly eight pleats to form the ruffled edge of the dumpling, so that's what I plan to replicate, but first I have to use her knife to press out my own wrappers. I botch the job, mashing down clumsily on the dough (Symensma's behind me, instructing, "Don't press so hard!") until it's a rippled oval rather than a neat circle. I try another and it comes out better — too thick, but at least the right size and shape. After scooping in a coarse-chopped shrimp mixture, I fold the dough like a taco and begin counting my pleats and pressing them into place with my trembling fingers. "Not bad!" I exclaim as I hold up the result to Xiao and Symensma, not realizing that I'm so tense I've jammed my thumb through the bottom of the dumpling.
Fortunately, Xiao is proficient (and there are no customers waiting to sample my misshapen effort), so she quickly turns out a dozen or so har gow, demonstrating different folds and pleats. One style is folded to mimic a goggle-eyed goldfish: Two tiny circles on top of the dumpling imitate eye sockets, into which raw peas are placed, so the steamed har gow stares upward from its bamboo basket with vivid green eyes. Others look like they have zippers instead of pleats, and one style distinctly resembles an Italian tortello.
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Symensma expects to introduce only three or four of Xiao's dumplings to ChoLon's menu, along with further perfecting the dim sum offerings at Cho77. At ChoLon, they've already started serving the dumpling chef's scallion pancakes, which require another specialized dough and refined technique.
At the LoDo restaurant, an order of dumplings disappears seconds after the server removes the lid of the steamer basket with a flourish, a cloud rising above the table as diners lean in with chopsticks at the ready. Each of those dumplings — there and gone in a flash — took Michelle Xiao a lifetime to perfect.
ChoLon Modern Asian is located at 1555 Blake Street and is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday and dinner on Saturdays and Sundays. Call 303-353-5223 or visit cholon.com for details and reservations.