Chef Darren Gee wants to make one thing clear: his restaurant, Ugly Dumpling, is not a dumpling house. Granted, it does serve dumplings, but the house-made comfort food is not the main focus of its menu.
It’s a common misconception that the young restaurateur is still trying to work around, but he chose the name because it’s fun and spontaneous, in a way that’s similar to the food that he makes.
“You’d be amazed how many people walk in here, look at the menu, and leave, because it’s not a dumpling house,” Gee told the Straight in an interview at his Commercial Drive eatery. “It’s not a Chinese restaurant, it’s not a Japanese restaurant. It’s whatever I feel like making that day.”
There’s a reason why Ugly Dumpling was voted the 2020 Golden Plates runner-up for best new restaurant by Georgia Straight readers—Gee makes tasty food that extends beyond the Chinese-style comfort dish in a fuss-free, neighbourhood-style setting.
After completing a six-month course at Granville Island’s Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, he went on to work at some dining establishments around Vancouver. He held a position at Farmer’s Apprentice for a long time, which he credits as a strong influence on how he works with ingredients and creates food at his own restaurant today.
But opening his own brick-and-mortar spot wasn’t the first thing that came to his mind.
“When I was thinking about opening a place, it was not really because I wanted to, but there wasn’t really anywhere else that I wanted to cook at the time,” explained Gee. “I guess the next logical step was just to do what I wanted to do. Cook food that I wanted to eat, and hopefully other people wanted to eat it too.”
For those who want to get a better grasp of what kind of culinary creations come out of Ugly Dumpling’s kitchen, it’s simple: it depends on what ingredients get delivered to Gee daily or weekly.
“Our menu is very much ingredient-based. The most important thing about food for me is how it’s grown and where it comes from,” he explained. “We don’t have an account with GFS [Gordon Food Service] or FreshPoint. We only use small farms, we do whole-animal butchery.
“We put a lot of time and effort into our sourcing. And then when we have these great ingredients, it’s really just not to screw them up too much. So the food is very, very simple, often just, like, two or three ingredients,” added Gee.
He also built a small garden on the patio meant for more seating, which perpetuates his culinary philosophy of local, seasonal, and organic.
Since the menu changes so often, there’s no static menu page on Ugly Dumpling’s website. Instead, Gee makes sure that the daily features and specials are posted to its Instagram account.
On the day Gee spoke to the Straight, the menu consisted of duck-fat scallion pancake, house-cured ikura (salmon roe) on grated daikon, steamed ling cod and kabocha squash in black-bean sauce, B.C. uni (sea urchin) on sushi rice, and braised duck leg with mustard-soy gravy and celeriac slaw, among others.
“If we were to compress it into one statement that would be semi-accurate, I think we settled on farm-to-table Asian restaurant,” said Gee, when asked how he would categorize his cuisine.
Although Gee emphasized that he doesn’t run a dumpling house, he acknowledges that pretty much all of his guests order dumplings, which is why the flavours change every couple of days.
“There are infinite combinations of dumplings you can make. Some of them are just classics, sometimes they are just experiments,” said Gee. “Pork and cabbage, and pork and chive, come back often.”
Besides food, guests will also find a very lengthy selection of libations. “Food and drink should go hand in hand, I think. We have a very diverse bar program,” he added. “Our wine is shifting toward more farm-focused producers, so it will align more with the concept and ideology of our food—how it’s grown and the quality and care that’s taken for the planet.”
The drinks menu includes sake, craft beer, wine, cocktails, and sherry—the last of which Gee believes goes well with food that is hard to pair with wine, such as dishes with very intense, fishy, or spicy flavours.
Ugly Dumpling opened in the last quarter of 2018, and has garnered plenty of attention and recognition within and outside the province. This has helped attract a clientele that Gee wasn’t used to receiving, because his main demographic is regulars and industry folks who live in the neighbourhood.
“There were people coming here to dine as a destination that we hadn’t really seen on a large scale before. It didn’t last too long, it was a little bit of a trend,” said Gee. “We tried not to pay too much attention to it. Just keep your head down and keep working.”
If you’re wondering what drink pairs best with dumplings, Gee has some insight to share.
“Beer and dumplings is what I would go for. Champagne and dumplings is very trendy,” he said. “If we’re just talking about flavour pairings, sherry and dumplings is very good.”