Tom is back in town! Or at least he is for another couple of hours before boarding his flight back to China. Over the past few weeks the team has zigzagged across half of New England talking with our partners in the community, finding new ingredients, and pairing our bao with delicious beverages and treats. Along with a well timed media blitz and the beginning of the construction process on our Cambridge location, it looks as if the stage is being steadily set for an epic grand opening in just a few months’ time.
Last Friday our friends at Hope & Main in Warren, RI gave us the opportunity to do something really special. They opened their doors to a select group of guests and asked us to make bao to be sampled and judged by them. Between Jhonny, Gerry, Jer, Clay and myself, we probably cranked out around 250 bao over the span of a couple of hours, with more than a little bit of teaching and mingling with our guests to slow production – not that we minded!
Bao making has always seemed to appeal to the inquisitive side of our friends and customers, and that evening was no different! Still, in all of our time together, I don’t think I have ever seen Jhonny and Gerry move that quickly around a kitchen before…
We did our best to recreate the Black Pork, Curry Beef, and Bok Choi bao, as well as adding an experimental flavor: sweet potato and taro. It was a hit! Our bao were paired with local favorites including Foolproof Brewing Company’s beer and New Harvest’s coffee. When focusing for months, or in Tom’s case, for years on making the perfect bao, it is sometimes easy to forget the care and effort that others put into making great food and drinks.
Washing down a hot curry beef bao with an American Pale Ale or sipping on Ethiopian single source coffee along with a delicately balanced blend of purple sweet potato and taro was an experience that encapsulated the entire evening for me: It is a great thing to do what you love and constantly work to improve, as we have with our bao, but much greater heights can be achieved when working in conjunction with the talented and passionate people around you, and celebrating what they do.
On that note, we would like to thank our friends across Massachusetts and Rhode Island who have welcomed us with enthusiasm and ideas for our bright future together. This first night of baos was for you. Don’t worry if you missed it though, there’s much, much more where that came from!
Everything we have done for the better part of a year has come down to one hypothetical event: “When we begin making bao in America…” It’s what we have used to justify every trip, expense, sleepless night, and debate over whether a Lobster Bao would be possible (it is).
Rosamond, Gerry, Jhonny, and I woke up on a cold New England Monday morning and drove to Hope & Main to make history 100 grams of dough and seasoned pork at a time.
We were joined by the newest arrival to our team, Jeremiah Tracy! He’ll be putting his decades of restaurant experience to work as soon as he gets back from his training trip to China, which he embarked upon this Tuesday. luckily for Gerry, our new colleague goes by Jer.
Back to cataloging history in the making, We spent the first couple of hours perfecting the dough water content, and setting up our prototype equipment for use. First the steamer pilot light wouldn’t stay lit, then the sheeter wouldn’t turn on, then I decided to try to fix the dough mixer, and succeeded only in finding out what sound I make when 110 volts of electricity gets sent through my body. Eventually we were able to get everything in working order, and from there on in it was smooth sailing.
Our friends at Hope & Main were finally able to see what we had been talking about all these months. I was more than a little rusty, but I was still able to make a few bao worthy of being steamed. On the other hand, Jhonny and Gerry have improved to a point that didn’t seem possible when I left them in China two months ago. At the end of the day we were reminded by Rosamond that there is still plenty of work to be done to establish bao in America. This is true, but that fact notwithstanding, US batch number one has officially been made, and it was a total success.
Meanwhile, in Hangzhou…
Our other new additions to the team have been hard at work learning how to make bao, but have still taken the time to explore and enjoy the view. Gerry, Jhonny and I are well aware of what a challenge they face. We know they’ll rise to meet it, and will return knowing what I now know: there is no secret to making bao – just hard work, dedication, and determination to never settle for ‘good enough’.
I’m back! Don’t worry, I wouldn’t forget about you! We have been very busy behind the scenes preparing ourselves for the return of our chefs, Jhonny and Gerry, from China and for the hard work of opening up our first locations. While I decided not to document my paperwork and phone calls online, we recently had a visitor worth writing about, so the blog is back in action!
During the past two weeks Rosamond and I were lucky enough to play host to Tom Tong right here in Massachusetts and Rhode Island! With stores still opening at lightning pace in China (look for our next location in the historic French Concession neighborhood of Shanghai), two weeks was a long time for Tom to be abroad.
We made every minute count by cramming in as many meetings, site visits and tastings as possible. I am tempted to show a picture of Tom comparing his height to some very large frozen meat cuts during one of our stops… but I’ll refrain. Tom powered through 13-hour jetlag, and endured my hardly functional Chinese skills to make the trip a success and move us closer to our goal of opening up our first American store.
During this trip we spent a considerable amount of time at Hope & Main in Warren, RI getting to know the team better and plotting out the first steps in American Bao making. While in Warren, we attended several dinners – all delicious.
Hope & Main even hosted a dinner and demonstration by Chef Eli Dunn from Eli’s Kitchen. We were also invited to Simone’s, which was made even more special by the addition of our guest Arlene Violet – author, radio personality, and first female State Attorney General in America.
Almost as captivating as our company were the various craft works we were able to see while in Warren. We visited Warren Chair Co. at O&G Studio to select locally hand-crafted furniture,
To even begin making chairs takes countless hours of practice
and even toured The world class Weinberg Glass studio and gallery that employs a unique molding process and high quality optical crystal – This is where any chance of translation was lost in a flurry of hand gestures and half-sentences as I tried to explain how the chemical process of fusing crystal to metal surfacing with controlled oxidation worked.
As we get back to the grind this week on permitting, licensing and mounds of job applications, I am more confident than ever that we have a real success on our hands. Even more so now that I am able to announce a new team member in our group! I would like to welcome Mike Colabella to the team, and wish him luck on his fast approaching trip to China. I know you’re up for the challenge, and hopefully you will cross paths with Jhonny and Gerry before their return from China on January 12th!
Do you love baobao? Do you have access to the internet (I know you do) and ability to type your own name? Then you can help us out by signing our petition to help us show public support and interest in our Harvard Square location in Cambridge, MA!
Thank you all for your support and for reading along.
Also, as special thanks to Lisa, Waterman, Ali, Luca, Betsy, Jason, Bleu, and the rest of our friends in Warren for being such amazing hosts and helping us every step of the way!
Tomorrow Eva and Zhang Laoshi will drive me to Shanghai Pudong Airport for my flight at noon.
I will be in the air for about fourteen and a half hours, and arrive in Boston at 1:30 PM the same day, thoroughly confusing my body’s circadian rhythm. The jetlag is going to make me fairly useless for the next few days, so I am writing this now in the hope that I will be able to reach through the cognitive fog to add my photos and post this once I have gotten situated at home.
Today (11/9/15) was the opening of our location at the Alibaba Campus in Hangzhou! Alibaba is comparable to Amazon in the US, if ‘comparable’ means four times as large.Alibaba has a huge campus in Hangzhou filled with scores of office buildings and countless tech experts circulating around in schools from meetings and conferences to auditoriums and collaborative spaces.
Now they also come to a Bao shop, and in great numbers too! Gerry and Jhonny manned the bao production line, while I made my final inquiries around the store and tried to fumble through filling out a couple of orders with my broken Chinese. It was a good last day for me in China, but it was bittersweet to say goodbye to Jhonny, Gerry, Jay, Eva, Penny, Mr. Hu, Tom, Mr. Zhang, Jing Jing, Jung, Ms. Shmily… and the dozens of other people that made this such a phenomenal trip. I want to take one last opportunity to thank everyone at Ganqishi for the support, help, and unyielding generosity we have experienced over the last month, and I want to wish them the best of luck as they spread their love for baos all across China. The sky is the limit!
Sorry it took so long to post this; as predicted, jetlag has kept me in a twilight of consciousness for the last three (or four?) days. Since our store opened at Alibaba, they have pulled off an online sale festival called Singles Day that is larger than Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. Yesterday I visited Hope and Main, the food incubator we are partnering with. As I inspected the new steamer and rotated the bamboo baskets, demonstrating the correct proofing method, I realized something: after a lot of hard practice and research, I know bao. Now is the time to stop telling you all about it and start showing you. I hope you are hungry.
Today concludes the fourth and final day of the ADM (Asia Design Management) conference in Hangzhou. I was only able to be there on the final day, but Jhonny and Gerry were more than up to the task of serving bao to hundreds, if not thousands of hungry guests without me.
From what they report, our customers were stunned to see a couple of foreigners front and center with the local team making bao! Whether it was the curry beef, bok choy, or the novelty of the chefs behind the counter, we were the most popular food vendor at the event by far. It was also the perfect opportunity to strut around in the new uniforms, made by Uniqlo (a personal favorite – everything they make is so soft…). Its no wonder we were so successful selling bao, we brought a sleek classic design with real functionality handcrafted by experts. Yes, this design is comprised of 60g of dough and 40g of a mix of meat and veggies rather than the wood, metal, or fabric used by other groups’ concepts, but I think that just means we’re innovating.
Tom Also delivered a keynote speech about his products and why he is so dedicated to elevating the status of baozi in China, and soon in the US. There will be plenty of time for me to write verbose paragraphs about what I learned in China and how I feel about the trip in retrospect, but I think I will let the designs and artwork speak for itself this time.
Enjoy some pictures of the ‘art maze’ featured at ADM
In anticipation of the great photos and stories we hope to take from the Asian Design and Management conference (ADM), I am just going to briefly share our trip to the factory, rather than make a potentially long post even longer.
Before coming to the factory to learn about how Ganqishi cleans, cuts and cooks its fillings for the bao we have been making for the past few weeks, we ate dinner at a northwestern (dongbei) Chinese restaurant near our hotel.
We selected pork, veggies, and noodles, all served with a tongue charring, mind bending mix of spices that left us sweating through the latter part of the meal. In addition to the spicy flavor that most westerners are familiar with (called ‘la’;辣), there is also another type (called ‘ma’; 麻）that commonly comes from black peppercorn, and numbs the mouth, providing a tingly, spicy feeling. The numbness actually allows you to eat more spicy food, but does nothing for the sweating, red face, or heartburn.
Yesterday morning we were able to tour the factory to observe the production of the bao fillings from sorting of the vegetables and cutting of the meat right through to packaging for delivery. It was all done in a backdrop of chrome metal by workers clad in white. At first glance you might be tempted to call it futuristic in comparison to the hand-made emphasis of the shops. However, spending a few minutes watching people sort and chop vegetables, stir curry and bean mixtures, and toss the Bok Choy by hand, I could already tell that the dedication to quality I had seen and become a part of in the shops was continued on up the line here in the factory.
For the first time since we arrived in China, Gerry and Jhonny’s paths have parted from my own. Jay is accompanying them both to ADM today, which means that Eva will have to put up with me for the next few days until I join them (she is also the one responsible for translating this blog into Chinese. Her patience is legendary). I think I am going to let the pictures speak for themselves today – Look for a post on ADM and my departure from China in the next few days!
As I write this post, I am sitting in a dorm room at Tongji University’s Science Campus, looking out over a lush bamboo garden with picturesque walkways and bridges over slowly moving streams. In fact, I am sitting in the exact same room I was assigned upon my arrival to Shanghai from America fifteen days ago. That span of time that feels at once like yesterday and many months ago; yesterday because of our tight schedule and the excitement of seeing new things and meeting new people every day, plus the corroding effect that jet lag tends to have on memory. Months ago because of all we have learned, and how much our perspective has shifted. Yes, our work here has been a challenge, but there is a certain peace I have found standing behind soundproof glass, rolling dough and shaping it into a tight little pouch before placing it in the steaming basket as our guests stare and take pictures, sometimes waving to get our attention. If our ego has been at all inflated by our new-found celebrity, our coworkers’ expertise has helped to cut it back down to size, and then some. The men and women who were selected as the team to work in the first Third Generation store – the flagship location in Shanghai – are the elite of the elite. They are competition winners, veteran store managers and, because Tom would have it no other way, every one of them is a perfectionist. Jhonny, Gerry and I still clearly have much to learn.
To all of our surprise, they have actually begun to put some of our better bao into the steamer for consumption by the general public. No complaints have been reported to date. When we are not working our shift, we have been exploring Shanghai as much as possible. As I mentioned in one of our first posts, the scale of this city is beyond comprehension unless you have seen it first hand, from high up. It just so happens that Shanghai is home to several of the tallest buildings in the world, so finding a good vantage point should not be an issue. As chefs, I knew any trip to Shanghai with Gerry and Jhonny would be incomplete without a trip to the French Concession, an area of Shanghai famous for its old French style of architecture, robust international community, and globe spanning culinary history. For those of you who don’t know, I traveled to Shanghai once before this trip in 2009 at the age of sixteen. During that visit I ate at what I can still say is my favorite restaurant in the world (that doesn’t serve baobao). La Creperie is a restaurant designed to transport its guests to French Brittany, then stuff them with crepes, cheese, and Dijon Mustard, all for about twelve dollars. I could write pages about this place, but just like Shanghai itself, if you don’t go, you’ll never really understand.
So far we have completed two night shifts at the Chifeng road location, and will be completing two morning shifts on Monday and Tuesday before heading back to Hangzhou for the ADM (Asia Design and Management Forum), which we will attend from Wednesday to Friday. I am proud to announce that we have graduated from exclusively making bok choy, and have been entrusted with pork and curry beef bao. The secrets of the black bean bao (right) still elude us, but hopefully not for long…
On our day off we decided to give in and hit up some of the more popular tourist destinations Shanghai has to offer. First we took the spotlessly clean subway from Tongji University directly to the (in)famous Xinyang Market.
Xinyang is quite literally an underground market, and specializes in brand name apparel and accessories for extremely low prices. The catch is that you have to engage in some of the most aggressive bartering you could ever imagine, and navigate through a labyrinth of small shops with back rooms and secret compartments, all offering you a ‘best friend price’ if you buy just one more item. If you are prepared to be yelled at, chased after, and pulled by the arm in a heated debate about how much two pairs of sunglasses and a soccer jersey are worth, you can put a huge dent in your Christmas shopping list in an hour or so.
Next we emerged from the subway in the Bund, an upscale shopping district and the historical center of international banking and trading activity on the Huangpu River running, located in the heart of Shanghai. The UK, Netherlands, Japan, Russia, France and many other nations have left their marks here with classical architecture, consulates, and financial institutions that still line the water. However, the real show was across the river. The Bund provides a full panoramic view of the heart of Shanghai, featuring the Pudong area, famous for its record breaking sky scrapers, some of which have held the title of tallest building in the world in the recent past. Due to the clouds, I don’t think we ever saw the top of the tallest building, the Shanghai Tower, which is currently the second tallest building in the world at 2,073 ft. However, we did get a view of the Oriental Pearl (the red tower with the sphere up top) and the Shanghai World Finance Center. Due to the rain, and anticipating a 4:30AM alarm the next morning, we headed home early to get some rest. I can’t believe my trip will be over in just over a week! Thanks to our translator and tour guide, friend and occasional baby sitter Eva for showing us a great time and not letting us small town boys get lost!
Hello from Shanghai! Yesterday we made the drive back from Hangzhou, encountering our first rain showers since arriving in China. We left having passed our qualification tests to work in the Shanghai store, but only with great difficulty – on the last day before our departure, we practiced and ran time trials on dough cutting and rolling from 4:30 AM until after 8:00 PM, and still needed the next morning to pass the most difficult portion, the dough cutting. I think I can speak for the entire team when I say that we are very proud to have completed our test successfully, but even more so we are humbled by the difficulty of training, and the dedication the staff has showed in trying to help us overcome the challenge. As if the generosity they showed us with their time and patience was not enough, we were presented with amazing gifts at the end of training.
These masks are based on traditional stage make up that represent different traditional Chinese characters. Jhonny received the visage of an ancient general from the Three Kingdoms period, Gerry was given a character that was described to us as a ‘ghost buster’, and I received the Monkey King. I recalled that Mr. Yang had asked me what my zodiac sign was a few days ago, and being born in 1992, I told him it was the Monkey. To me, that level of thoughtfulness speaks volumes about the quality of people we work with. I never expected that leaving Hangzhou would feel so much like leaving friends behind.
Before packing up and leaving our luxurious rooms at the Bo Jiang International Hotel we were treated to one last meal cooked by the ayi (literally translating to ‘aunt’) at the training center. From the first piece of braised pork to the last spoonful of blackfish soup it was extraordinary. Yes, sometimes I wasn’t sure exactly if what I was eating was duck or pork, and debates were had over the definition of bacon, but if it tastes good, I eat it. Thanks to Tom for correcting my poor chopstick skills, you would think I would have mastered them by now, but like bao making it’s all about knowing the right gestures, and practicing until the motions as natural as breathing.
The trip to Shanghai was a long one. We packed our Volkswagen Sharon, a model of minivan unknown in the states, until the bags were nearly completely blocking the back window and spilling jenga block style into my third row seat. From there.
We took one last drive past West Lake, taking a short break for a photo op in a rock garden and some more sightseeing. Hangzhou to Shanghai can be driven in less than two and a half hours if the traffic conditions are right. Our trip took nearly six hours, due to a traffic jam that clogged the freeways from the edge of Shanghai to its center, and a peculiar law that I had never heard of before. If you do not have the correct license (our Sharon was registered in Zhe Jiang Province), you are not allowed to enter Shanghai during peak traffic hours, which end at 7:00 PM. Jhonny commented that there is a similar system in parts of Colombia. By the time we arrived at our base of operations in Tongji University it was nearly 9:00 PM, but none of that matters now, because we’re finally back in Shanghai and as I write this, we are putting on our orange caps and tying on our aprons for our first shift as certified baoists (bao makers).
My colleagues in China, Eva and Penny, have done a wonderful job translating this blog into Mandarin Chinese. Apparently their translation gets more views than my English version. I choose not to dwell on what that says about the quality of my writing… Anyway, if you would like to take a look, here is the link to that version – this is just one of my posts, but I will create a page with all of the links in the near future.
After six days of hard training, we were able to sleep in a full 5 hours later than usual, which meant getting up at 9 AM. We managed to get our documentary film maker and de facto tour guide Jay (星文 to take us to West Lake. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, West Lake is the most well known attraction in Hangzhou, and has been near the center of activity in the area for millennia. After a 45 minute taxi ride we arrived at a bustling, high end shopping district right next to the busiest Apple store I’ve ever seen. We had a lunch of very spicy noodles, and took a short walk through the shopping mall to get a grasp of Chinese interpretations of western fashion and international cuisine. I think what made the experience so strange was how close they were to looking like western shopping malls, but at the same time they all had a small twist or stylistic choice that didn’t quite fit from my perspective… take a look for yourself and see if you agree.
It was a short walk from the rows of designer clothing stores and upscale dessert shops to West Lake. In the past few decades the entire southern bank has been turned into a giant public park and historical landmark, and serves as the city’s main tourist attraction. Unlike most parks in American cities, this one was packed with people talking, playing games, and relaxing with cups of tea, imagine that!
Unfortunately, my iPhone didn’t do very well at capturing the distant images due to the fog and air quality mixed with overcast skies. However, to the naked eye the low light combined with the tree covered mountains on the far side of the lake to create an amazing visual effect. Through the fog and diffused light through the clouds, all I could see of them for most of the day was dark silhouettes overlapping one another, bearing a striking resemblance to mountain paintings in the traditional Shan Shui style of Chinese classical artwork. There were also some very talented bands playing traditional instruments around the lake, I’ll try to post the videos I took as soon as I get a good enough internet connection…
There is a small island near the side of the lake called Tiandi, accessible via ornate stone bridges from three sides. On the island we took a break to purify our bodies after an evening at a karaoke bar with piping hot tea (sorry Rosamond) and rest my broken foot for a while. You can’t see us behind the trees, but we were behind and to the left of the golden Ox statue pictured here. Tiandi also had everything from coffee shops to an ‘American Style’ brew pub.
I want to give you all fair warning for this next section and let you know that I am a complete history nerd. My favorite attraction by far that we were able to see on the lake was Temple of King Qian. This compound was built during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) as a memorial to Qian Liu, first of the five Qian Kings who used Hangzhou as their capital.
In addition to being a gorgeous example of historical architecture, the Temple of the Qian Kings also had some more recent history about the descendants of the kings, where they lived, and what they have done over the past century. I was frankly more impressed that they managed to keep track of them than what they actually did. I am sure, like many historical sites in China, there were significant restoration efforts made in the late 20th century as international travel and tourism to China became more popular, but regardless, once inside the outer walls, it is easy to get the sense that a procession of Chinese nobility clad in silk robes and wreathed in incense could be right around the next corner. That feeling may be a result of me watching too many kungfu films when I was younger, but I think anyone would agree that this small sanctuary feels a world away from the crowded, busy city streets and lakefront that surround it.
Continuing around the lake, I noticed what a spectacle I had become to passersby. This part of the city had a fairly high concentration of westerners, and I was still getting more quizzical looks than back near the training facility. I’m not sure if it was the blonde hair, the crutch, or just the fact that people had their cameras with them, but I saw more people trying to stealthily take pictures of me, or asking to pose with me here than anywhere else. It wasn’t too bad pretending to be famous for a few hours.
Our wakeup call for Monday was scheduled at 4:00 AM, so after pushing through the crowds for a few hours, we decided to find a taxi and head back to the hotel for some dumplings and an early evening. before leaving the lake side, I looked out to see a large pagoda in the distance, on the other side of a narrow inlet. On another trip I might have tried to push everyone to get there today, but I would rather save it as a reason to come back.
Please enjoy the remaining pictures, and as always, email me with any questions about this post or anything else!
Are you tired of me writing about our first stage of training? Well, too bad! The other two are professional chefs, so while they still have flour specifications and ingredient sourcing to discuss, I’m left with nothing better to do than apply my liberal arts degree as it was intended by pretending that I know what I’m talking about, synthesizing analysis of technical culinary operations with descriptions of a fascinating cultural context… or something like that.
The featured photo for today may seem a little stark, but I thought it was important to showcase the unvarnished, imperfect, and ever-changing Hangzhou. I could have chosen a picture of the stunning West Lake (XiHu) or one of the ancient estates that made this city one of the most famously beautiful in all of China, and there will be time for that later. Right now I want to show Hangzhou as it is lived by many of its residence, who are on the edge of a relentless wave of expansion. To the right you see a tightly packed neighborhood of multi-unit houses, in center, the road we walk to work every day, and on the left, a huge development of high-rise buildings still under construction. To put it simply, there is no place in America, or anywhere else for that matter, that builds like the Chinese are building now. We build a building and call it a major project that will reinvent a neighborhood. The Chinese build neighborhoods in a single project and move on to the next with little fanfare. A friend of mine who lived in China for two years once remarked that the national symbol for China should be the construction crane. If you looked at the skyline of a city like Shanghai or Hangzhou, you might think it already is.
Today we have increased the intensity of our training, moving our start time from 8:30 AM to 4:00 AM. Our 12 hour redbull fueled shift was enlightening and exhausting at the same time. It began with a huge milestone for the three of us. by 5:00 AM we were called toward the back of the training area and shown to a container full of bok choy. For the first time we were going to get to steam and eat our own bao! The sense of accomplishment made the baos taste that much better, however, the green bits poking out of some of my sub-par folds were a reminder that we still have a long way to go.
Much of today was spent discussing how the hell we are going to recreate baos of this caliber in America. Where do we get the correct dough? The dough used in China is soft as a pillow and can stretch seemingly endlessly without tearing. What cuts of meat should we use for the pork? The pork and beef cuts are different in China than in European style butchering. Other than training to make bao, a huge reason for this trip was to learn about the challenges and details of bao making that we need to anticipate once the stores open in Harvard Square and Providence. To sum up what we have gathered so far: 1. Quality is everything. If we compromise the quality of our bao, service, or employees, its over. and 2. This is really hard.
For contrast, I would like to submit this picture of Gerry with a “McBao” from McDonalds. I declined to ask why he decided it would be a good idea to get a fried mystery meat sandwich with obviously fake bacon and stone-colored bread with black spackling, but he is ever the inquisitive type and seems to have a strong stomach. I did ask his professional opinion on the McBao, and he described it as “awful” – a short but sufficient answer. In comparison to the GanQiShi baos, he stated that it was “truly insulting” before forcing down his third and final bite before abandoning the sandwich-bao Frankenstein that now sits in my trash. Assuming Gerry has not been incapacitated by his last meal, we will be getting up at around 3:45 tomorrow morning to head back to work, as we will every day of training. There are still plenty of baos to make.