Finally, Dumplings in Santa Cruz! You no longer have to drive all the way up to San Francisco to find amazing dumplings and bao. Every Monday night at the Food Lounge, Noah Kopito has a menu with 26 diverse items. We got to catch up with Noah and find out what drove him to create Mortal Dumpling with such an interesting pop up arrangement.
Tell me about yourself and how you came to create Mortal Dumpling? What past experience led you to where you’re at now with creating your own pop up?
I went to UCSC, which brought me to Santa Cruz, and after that I went to India for about a year and a half and kind of just hung out there. When I came back, I ended up in Santa Cruz again and got a job at Uncie Ro’s pizza. Uncie Ro’s pizza is a really successful Santa Cruz business, and Roland, the owner, didn’t have a ton of culinary experience and his wife Jen had really built this thing. That was the first time I’d seen someone that could start a really successful food business that wasn’t a chef, hadn’t gone to culinary school or worked their way up in restaurants. They kind of just dispelled everything and took down all the curtains and for me, that was like “Whoa, it’s really just cooking.”
They [Uncie Ro’s] still do a pop up at Companion Bakery. Every Tuesday they do a pizza night over there. That was definitely one of the first pop ups I’d seen. They started another one on the Everett family farm on Friday nights for one summer. He would bring his brick oven up there and they would set up some tables. I got a ton of inspiration from that event because this wasn’t building a whole food business, this was just setting up shop somewhere and serving people food. There would be lines and lines up at this random farm kind of out of the way, but it would just be packed with families and friends. People would spread out picnic blankets; there would be kids everywhere, dogs running around. You were up there and you really felt like people were getting something that they really wanted and that they couldn’t get anywhere else. It wasn’t like going out to a restaurant, the price and the product and the experience was all just one step different than what you get at a restaurant. I thought, “okay, well I like to cook a lot, and that’s the format I want to offer my food in. I want people to be excited about it in that way.” And it’s a small menu; it really allows you to just focus on a couple of food items and not have a large inventory of product to manage, don’t have to spend weeks prepping it.
Around that time I started working at the Hidden Peak Teahouse, and they didn’t have a large menu of food. So one day a friend of mine asked me to make him a steamed bun, and I did. I brought one to the owner of the teahouse and he liked it and asked me if I would make them for the teahouse. That was the first time I ever started cooking to sell and stuff. I got to see people eat my food in a commercial establishment and really appreciate it and enjoy it. I was trying to apply to grad school at the time and all the satisfaction you get from that kind of academic work is so far removed. I studied linguistics and I was getting into studying psycholinguistic research. You might spend 3 months designing an experiment and kind of scrape it together and then interpret all the data and maybe get it published and it might not even count for much. No one might even read your paper, and honestly, I really love linguistics but it was hard to argue with the stimulus response I was getting from making a steamed bun and watching someone eat it and enjoy it two hours later, and I already had money in my pocket so it was hard to argue with that.
Where did you get the inspiration to focus on dumplings?
I grew up in the bay area and my family and I would go out to dim sum restaurants. I was friends with all the servers at Hidden Peak Teahouse at the time and found out that none of them had ever eaten dim sum. A few weeks earlier a friend of mine in San Francisco had taken me to this place and told me I was going to love it. It was right in china town, but when I took my friends up there, it was terrible and I was so embarrassed. My friends didn’t know dim sum very well so they didn’t notice, but the food was old and obvious reheated several times and had been sitting around and none of the texture was right and I was just mortified. I take that kind of stuff really seriously, so I said you know, I am going to cook you guys a meal to make up for this and I am going to try as hard as I can to learn some of these recipes. Then we don’t need to go all the way back up to San Francisco.
So two weeks later I invited them over to my house on a Tuesday and just served like 5 courses of dim sum for breakfast at like 10am. It was a lot of fun and we just spent a few hours drinking pot after pot of tea and eating. Anyways we started doing that every other week, and that’s really what drove me to learn a lot of the recipes that I know. I would try to change my dishes each time, like the baked BBQ pork buns, which is a real classic, steamed pork buns, an open faced pork belly bao, Momofuku. We did shrimp dumplings, pan fried pan dumplings, taro puffs, a lot of the really classic dim sum stuff, sticky rice and lotus leaves, the stuff that you’d see on the cart in dim sum restaurants. I started doing that and it was at that time that I saw Roland doing his pizza night.
I was doing my little events but it was like pulling teeth to get people to come. No one knew about me, it was in my house, it was Tuesday morning. So it wasn’t really working, it was fun for me and for the people who came but it wasn’t really working in any other way. Then I saw Roland doing his pizza nights on the farm on Friday and thought, oh my god that is a way better format. That was a huge lesson for me, it showed me that it’s got to be really fun and different enough so that you don’t really need to promote. Really soon after I stopped the Tuesday thing and started doing a Saturday one at my house. The whole premise was 8pm to 2am – when everyone got off work. It would be around 6 to 8 dollars for a rice bowl with really good meat over sticky rice and some kimchi or something like that. We did chicken wings and open faced pork belly bao – like drinking food. I told everyone to bring their own booze. It took like a month or two but it started to take off and it got to be really fun. It was like a house party with a fun bar menu. So we had a little staff, we’d set up the tables with tablecloths, and little candles. It was a real balance between a party and a restaurant.
It got to the point where we couldn’t fit everyone in the house, and so I stopped it. But it really showed me that there are a lot of people who want to eat my stuff, but it needed to be in a different context. We were open when everyone else closed. Our prices were a little lower because we had no overhead and that was awesome. We could do BYOB and it just showed me that you have to just do things a little different. So when we started doing Monday nights at Front Street Kitchen the whole premise was making dumplings and steam buns, and which you can’t really get in Santa Cruz. We served them on a Monday night when usually a lot of restaurants are closed.
What’s the kind of stuff you do for Monday nights at The FoodLounge?
We do pork and cabbage dumplings, it can be boiled or pan-fried which is like a classic Chinese thing. It’s not a dim sum restaurant, but you can go to a classic dim sum restaurant in the bay area where there are old ladies making dumplings and you can get them boiled or pan fried, that’s kind of the model we’re going for.
Can you talk more about Dim Sum?
A lot of people don’t know what dim sum is, but it’s interesting because it’s something really specific. Dim sum is a meal that is eaten for brunch and that’s it. It’s mostly Cantonese or Shanghai cuisine so it’s all from the south of China and it’s this elaborate meal that’s a specialty thing. A lot of other dim sum foods can be bought in bakery format and you can take them with you to go and bring them home. But that still wouldn’t be like eating dim sum. You wouldn’t say we’re going to eat dim sum and then go to a bakery and get it to go. That’s relevant for us because we do make a lot of dim sum stuff, and we do a lot of dim sum meals catering, but none of our events feature dim sum. The little cabbage dumplings aren’t really a dim sum dish, they’re more of a northern Chinese dish and more of a staple food. In northern China wheat is the staple crop, not rice. They are basically Chinese breads and dumplings, which are like Chinese pastas. Those form staple meals, and you would eat like a whole bowl of them. Whereas dim sum you get this little steamer with three delicate little shrimp dumplings in it, so that’s kind of the difference. We have had a hard time promoting ourselves, because we like to make dim sum stuff and we want to put it out there that we do it for catering, but our events aren’t really about dim sum, although we do incorporate some classic dim sum.
What are some challenges to being a pop up food vendor?
You never know how many people to come or how much food to make, especially for new events. Especially for a really young pop up, if that’s your only gig that week you have nothing else to use any of that food for. So you might prep as much as you think you need, but if you don’t sell it all, it’s just a ton of waste. Another difficulty along those lines is ordering. It’s that really awkward size of a business between just being able to go to the grocery store and buy a lot of cilantro versus being able to go to a distributor and get a case of cilantro. Restaurants have just as much unpredictability but they’re open the next night so they can use it. Also, it’s very inefficient to have to prep stuff for one night. If you could prep as much as you have time for and sell what you can that night, and then the rest the next night that’s much more efficient. It’s just not the most efficient use of any ones time to cook in that way.
What are the good things about pop up then?
It’s a form of business that’s possible with no or very little investment. Even though there are a ton of challenges and it’s not ideal in many ways, I wouldn’t have been able to take out a loan, and I didn’t have any training to put a menu out on pacific avenue 5 days a week. On top of that, again it can be way easier to promote something that’s moving around. It allows for a lot of visibility right away because you get to cross promote with all these other cool places like Lupulo. Those are some benefits but another one is that you can change yourself any time. We’re Mortal Dumpling, but if we wanted to we could do a pretty different menu at each event so that can be fun, pretty terrifying, also but fun.
Why the name mortal dumplings? Is there a story behind that?
Yeah, I spent a long time trying to think of a name, a year actually. Finally I considered things, a lot of dumpling houses and Chinese restaurants have really grand or positive names, like imperial or golden or fortune or something of that sort. The idea is that when you walk into that type of establishment they want you to experience all the good fortune or majesty and royalty. I couldn’t do that because first of all I wouldn’t really want to name my business like a traditional Chinese business because it’s not traditional Chinese. So Mortal kind of explains that difference between the traditional Chinese business and me. I’m not Chinese, I don’t have any Chinese training and it also represents that sort of seriousness is very me.
What do you have planned next for mortal dumpling?
We’re just working on our recipes and trying to get things running smoother. We’re open Monday nights at the food lounge with a massive menu, there’s like 25 things on it now, and we’re just trying to have fun with that. We’re going to try to go back to Pop Up downtown. We’d like to be there this summer. We’re also thinking about going to the farmers markets as well. We’re hoping to start at the west side one – so those are kind of our next steps.
Also, Check out Mortal Dumplings Pop Up Event every Monday Night at the Foodlounge from 6-9pm and stay updated with special events and catering options by checking their website http://mortaldumpling.com/.