The clue’s in the name. But the Secret Dumpling Club is more than likely the best culinary experience west of Worcester that you haven’t heard of yet.
Less than six services old, you’re lucky if you can secure a spot a week or two in advance of the monthly supper club. And for good reason.
The SDC crew knock out a seemingly endless run of steamed and fried Dim Sum, laying down bamboo steamer after bamboo steamer on the long communal tables until you stand up, full to the brim and joyful, and stagger to the door.
Having just dropped the ‘Underground’ from the Secret Underground Dumpling Club moniker – their regular night is moving from the below-ground speakeasy at the Left Bank, to Rule of Tum HQ on Aubrey St, and with plans in place for more events – we caught up with one of the Club’s founders.
Never been to one of her nights? Chef Holland Otik talks miso mayonnaise and chopstick technique.
(The gorgeous photos you see throughout this piece were taken by Emma Pugh, who spent a day documenting Holland and her crew from start to finish. It made for great photo series, which you can view in its entirety here.)
Hi there, so who/what is the Secret Dumpling Club?
Holland: "The SUDC crew are a rag-tag bunch of chefs and artists. The club was started by me (Holland Otik) after I left my beloved job at the Burger Shop to teach art. I spent my summer holiday tugging around the pizza oven from the Rocket Cafe to weddings and food fairs, and thought - why not do it for myself?
In short, we are:
Me! I work all over the place in Hereford, you've probably seen me. I'm the skinhead girl with the Harry Potter glasses who's usually covered in flour or paint. You know the one in the dance cage at Play doing the wobbly arm dance? Yeah, I'm her.
Joel Black - ex head-chef of the Canteen in Bristol, amongst other places (who also hand makes all of our beautiful kitchen knives).
"Sedana Fothergill who I met at the Burger Shop on his first work experience when he was 16. He sings me songs about my eyes when I'm stressing out. Can't work without him.
Caja Sandy - a total whizz with a mop, a pan, a lathe... you name it, Caja can do it. And she's a total badass.
Kath Ayres - Mostly she'll be out front bouncing around and making best friends with every stranger in the place. She just really likes food. Honestly we don't even pay her with money, just bao. She likes handing out the fortune cookies best."
For those whose only experience of dumplings consists of fishing out beige balls from a beef stew – what are we talking about when say ‘dumpling’ in terms of Asian-inspired cuisine?
Holland: "DUMPLINGS ARE LIFE. But also, they're anything dough-based which is filled with something else... I think? Think won-tons, steamed buns full of sticky meat, those little fried things filled with pork and cabbage... To be honest we just like stuffing stuff inside other stuff. It's good, try it!"
Have you ever been tempted to make up a Chinese-sounding name for one of your dishes, just to see if people notice?
Holland: "We HAVE been tempted. Although, there's nothing particularly authentic about any of our Chinese food, so we probably shouldn't even call it a real Chinese word. We love Asian flavours, but it's very much our own take on the classics."
Why does Dim Sum translate so well to communal, Supper Club-style dining?
Holland: "Dim Sum is the perfect supper club food, especially for a banquet style do.
We have two long tables, snuggled underneath hundreds of fairly lights in the dark, which we fill with steamers full of treats. Our menu is fixed, so you can try a bit of everything - which means you can share, swap, and try stuff you don't normally order. "
Is there one (or two) dishes that you’re really excited about handing out this time?
Holland: "YES. Joel has designed this fried soft shell crab steamed bun with pickled sea veg and miso mayonnaise. We came up with the idea in the car on the way home from Caja's in Cornwall at New Year, and took a detour to Bristol just to pick up the crabs - it was worth it."
How did you get in to cooking Asian cuisine?
Holland: "I started cooking Asian food because I love eating it! Simple as that.
My Dad is a great cook, and he's South African, so I've never been afraid of spice and seasoning. If you've got a good sense of smell (and I do) you can balance flavours, and balancing strong flavours is what Asian food is all about."
What are big mistakes people make when ordering dim sum at a restaurant?
Holland: "They don't order enough!"
Any beginners tips on using chopsticks in public?
Holland: "Chopsticks are hard, it's true. This is partly why we turn the lights down low. Pinch and balance, pinch and balance."
Most important of all, when’s the next Secret Underground Dumpling Club?
Holland: "We're hoping to pop up with different types of evening all over the place this year, from snacks at the new (and very cool) Sensory and Rye, to a more regular five course gig at AROT's The Bookshop - keep an eye out on our social media pages for dates. Each event has a set amount of tickets available, and they do sell out fast. We're open to bookings for events, too."
[note: since speaking to Holland, a date's been set for the next SDC. It's Monday Feb 20 - more info and tickets here.]