‘It all started really with an obsession with dumplings’ Chantel of Chubby Dumpling shares; an admittedly unsurprising statement from a business called Chubby Dumpling.
Specialising in delicious handmade Chinese dumplings, Chubby Dumpling is the brainchild of father-daughter duo Chantel and Joe. With a childhood spent helping out at her father’s Chinese restaurant, Chantel is no stranger to the world of hospitality, so when she felt the pull to do something different, father and daughter decided to team up. ‘At that point I was working as a graphic designer and I kind of wanted to do something else. I began thinking about opening a café or maybe a street food business or something like that.’ Whilst Chantel considered what this ‘something else’ might be, her retired but restless dad Joe, carried on filling his days with activities. ‘My Dad had a restaurant for 31 years and then he retired. [But] he’s super restless and still wanted to work. He loves food and he really got into making dumplings because he had all this spare time.’ Joe’s newfound obsession coupled with Chantel’s desire for change created the perfect impetus to do something together. ‘I kind of said to my dad, maybe we should do something together because you clearly can’t retire!’ Whilst Chantel may have been tasked with fewer chores than her siblings, Chubby Dumpling is a testament to a childhood of fond family memories of her dad’s restaurant, rooted in a strong heritage and a love for good food.
So why dumplings? Joe’s restaurant of 31 years specialised in Cantonese food and a delectable variety of fresh seafood such as lobster, crab, fish and scallops; not dumplings. Well, not only had he spent his spare time testing different recipes, different doughs and different shapes (arguably making him a top dumpling craftsman), dumplings also hold a special familial importance. ‘[My dad’s] only day off would be Sundays. Every Sunday when we were kids we’d go for dim sum and then at Christmas and stuff he’d always make loads of dim sum and a big dim sum meal for everybody. He wouldn’t sell dumplings at the restaurant, but he’d make them for us.’ Suffice it to say that dumplings hold a special place in the hearts of Chantel and her family; again, unsurprising given that her childhood nickname was the inspiration for the name of the business. Once they had decided on what to serve, the question then became how to serve it. With an extensive background in running a bricks and mortar premises one might expect Chantel and Joe to dive straight back into it. However, it was important to Chantel that her dad still enjoy some aspects of retirement and a mobile business allowed her to pursue her new passion in a less intimidating way. ‘I was just a bit scared; a restaurant is a big commitment to start with. So, I literally bought a van that already had the equipment inside and we just made it work. My dad didn’t want to start another [bricks and mortar] restaurant because he could have just kept his old one that was doing well. So, street food was kind of a good in-between.’
With an appearance on the BBC with Mary Berry and catering for film sets for the likes of Netflix and Warner Brother Studios, Chubby Dumpling have done much more than ‘make it work.’ Though Chantel would be the first to clarify that a lot of street food businesses cater for film sets, don’t let her modesty fool you. This is no small feat and indicative of the high calibre of their offering. But for Chantel and her team it’s not the fame or celebrity surrounding an event that matters because for them the best kind of events are the ones where people are enjoying themselves. ‘Anywhere where everyone’s having fun always has the best customers. We did the Wahaca summer party and they threw a mini festival. I don’t know how many people there were in total, but they booked the whole park. They had a theme park, food trucks, music and a DJ and it was really fun. Everyone was in such a good mood and everyone coming up to the van was really excited. I feel like those kinds of events are just the best really. Basically, whenever people appreciate the food that’s the best!’ It’s not hard to see why people constantly appreciate their food, but that appreciation isn’t limited to the dumplings, with Chubby Dumpling t-shirts remaining just as popular as the food. ‘I got them for us when we were working in the van and there were people asking to buy them, so I started getting more made. It’s so nice, I love it when people show me pictures of them in an airport or something, spotting the Chubby Dumpling t-shirt from across the way.’
Based in London, Chantel is no stranger to high operating prices, however, as for so many within the industry, rising costs are proving to be unavoidable. Nevertheless, Chantel is eager to keep Chubby Dumpling’s offerings at a reasonable price. ‘I mean obviously everything’s gone up. But we only put our prices up by about 50p because I just don’t want to be too expensive. I think street food should stay under a certain price really, although I know we’ll probably have to put our prices up soon. But we’re just trying to hold out for as long as possible. Profits have gone down a bit because prices have gone up, but we’re just trying to do more basically. I mean you’ve got to adapt and go with it.’ This openness to adaptation helps to make the future a bit less daunting and whilst the industry continues to voyage through unchartered territory, Chantel’s keeping her eyes on the horizon. So, what does the future hold for Chubby Dumpling? What might have begun as an alternative to opening a bricks and mortar premises, may well be leading Chubby Dumpling down a path to do just that and Chantel has been keeping an eye out for premises that could adequately house that Chubby Dumpling charm. That’s not to say the van would be going anywhere though! ‘It’s an old German fire engine. Inside there are the buttons for the siren and blue flashing lights! I was thinking to myself the other day that if I ever got a really big restaurant, I’d probably cut the van in half and put it inside the restaurant or something to keep its origins present.’
When talking to Chantel her love and commitment to both the business and her family are palpable. As with her father’s restaurant, Chubby Dumpling is a family affair and one which her journalist sister and restaurateur brother have also helped out with. ‘My brother has three restaurants. He started them before Chubby Dumpling so that was also a lot of helpful advice coming in from him and my dad. He helps a lot and he’s even come and worked in the van when I’ve been short staffed which is really sweet. So has my sister actually, we all sort of help each other out a lot. She’s a journalist and it’s funny because she got recognised in the van once. Someone was like ‘Aren’t you the one who made that documentary? What are you doing here?!’’ However, helping out at the family business is far from alien for Chantel and her siblings and undeniably why switching career from graphic design to working in hospitality didn’t faze her. The excitement of seeing her brother open his own restaurant reminded her of the joys of hospitality and when you’ve grown up with weekend and evenings hours as your norm, it arguably becomes a no brainer to take the plunge yourself. ‘I studied fashion and textiles at uni and then I went to London and worked a couple of places doing print design and graphics for clothing. I just really can’t handle being on a computer at a desk all day. I think I definitely need to be on my feet, it just didn’t suit me at all and then I saw my brother opening his restaurants at that time and that was so exciting. We’ve always grown up in hospitality so I know a lot of other people maybe wouldn’t want to work weekends, evenings and Friday nights, but I’ve grown up with that being normal, so it wasn’t such a weird thing for me.’
Chantel’s childhood experience in the hospitality industry has proven to be an invaluable asset in her journey with Chubby Dumpling. However, it would be doing her a disservice to say that she hasn’t carved her own unique path; utilising lived experience and the guidance of relatives to mould the business in her own way. Fighting against her own fears and societal influences that don’t often encourage pursuing a career within the hospitality industry, Chantel and Joe have created something to be proud of; a continuation of family traditions and memories in an idiosyncratically modern way. So, having gone through this journey and come out triumphant what advice would Chantel give to her past self? ‘Just do it sooner. I was really scared of changing careers; I’d gone to uni to study something else and paid a lot of money for a degree and I spent so much time going back and forth. Kids aren’t really encouraged to go into hospitality and people don’t often see it as a ‘real’ career. I was too scared, so my advice would definitely be; don’t be so worried, just do it.’ For Chantel starting Chubby Dumpling was like coming home. Coming home to family, coming home to new faces and coming home to what she loves best; lots and lots of dumplings. ‘The thing I noticed most in changing from an office job to hospitality is the amount of people you meet every day. I talk to all different kinds of people; loads of different customers, loads of different traders as they set up for a market and just meeting people all the time is really nice. Hearing customers’ stories and traders’ stories about their business and how they do things is the best. Nice customers writing to you afterwards or coming up to you to tell you how much they enjoyed the food is a great feeling. People telling us they like our food is so personal because we put so much effort into the recipes and it’s the most rewarding thing when someone is nice about it. I’ve never had that kind of satisfaction from any other job.’
Job satisfaction, meeting new people and escaping the shackles of an office job are a result of the symphony of flavour that is Chubby Dumpling. Each dumpling serves as a testament to the passion, dedication and talent of Chantel and Joe and whilst Chantel’s dumpling making skills aren’t yet on par with her dad’s, she pours the same love into running the van as Joe does into preparing the dumplings. ‘I’m rubbish at making dumplings compared to my dad! I’m just really slow and he can make them crazy quickly!’ Nevertheless, with her proven track record of resilience and determination, we’ve no doubt Chantel will be vying for that spot as top dumpling maker in no time. Chubby Dumpling is much more than just another street food truck. It’s the amalgamation of a father’s passion, a daughter’s innovation and a collective dedication to doing something just as unique as their vintage German fire engine. It’s authentic, it’s nostalgic, it’s fun and this seeps into everything that they do, including their socials. Their Instagram offers an inviting insight into their world of dumplings and those pillows of perfection have no doubt helped to boost their popularity. Mouthwatering morsels and the odd cameo from our dynamic duo, presents Chubby Dumpling in its truest form; family focused street food intended to touch the heart.