Susie Chen recently got a very welcome phone call.
A space had come open at the Tosa Farmers Market, and her new business had reached the top of the waiting list.
She eagerly accepted the spot and set to making potstickers and wontons. She had been in a new production space less than three months, and was still in the early stages of building on her business model – selling handmade, homestyle Chinese dumplings, frozen and ready to cook.
Last Saturday was her first appearance at the market, and it floored her.
"We sold over a 1,000," Susie said. "We were running out of the chicken at 9:30. This week I'm making more."
Of course, she didn't attract that many people to buy frozen food on first sight. The whole Chen family turned out with pots and pans and cookers and offered the treats up steaming hot.
The enticing aroma (and charming children) did the rest.
They'll be back every Saturday morning through the close of market Oct. 13, which the Chens hope will be plenty of time to develop a wider appreciation of the product.
Check out Susie Chen's booth at the Tosa Farmers Market this morning, 8 a.m. to noon.
The idea is to first sell wholesale packs to caterers in lots of 100, up to four flavors to the case, sauces included. After that, retail packaging – likely in dozens and perhaps larger party trays – will be developed for supermarkets and specialty food stores.
"We can sell now to grocers if they're willing to repackage themselves for retail sales," said Susie's husband, Kyle.
A Midwestern girl dreams of a dumpling empire
"Every culture has a dumpling," says Kyle Chen.
Susie Chen's first inkling of making and marketing her favorite family food began about six years ago. With three young children and a part-time job at the , it took a few years to take the first baby step, a small-scale endeavor in a cobbled-together kitchen in Milwaukee.
She was just getting a good start when the landlord took back the space for a higher-paying tenant who wanted it. But with her kids then old enough to be much more of a help than a hindrance, Susie was not going to give up.
"It's hard to find space for food production," she said. "Really hard. You have to follow state Department of Agriculture rules, so not just any space is going to do."
Luckily, she was able to land a spot this time in hometown Wauwatosa, in the same building at 6228 W. State St. that houses , another Farmers Market favorite.
In just one room, only 300 square feet, Susie and as many of the Chen children as are available gather at least once a week in a dawn-to-dusk potsticker marathon.
Susie would break it down a bit, but every work session has to be visited by a State of Wisconsin food inspector, because the Chens are working with raw meat products.
"Wisconsin guidelines are more stringent that the USDA," Susie said.
There isn't any need for much more room until Susie's week fills up with production days and she can start hiring help. Her product is produced raw and is then frozen – so the only cooking apparatus in her kitchen is a small microwave oven for warming water to make the dough.
Two work tables and two sinks make up the rest of the production area – and the only piece of equipment is a vintage countertop KitchenAid stand mixer, about 50 years old and still going strong.
That and a lot of hands. Susie has been getting help on production days, and at the Farmers Market, from Michael, a sophomore at ; Christina, an East junior; and Elizabeth (Lizzy), a sophomore at DePaul University in Chicago.
With school about to start, things are looking busy for Susie.
"We'll be losing Lizzy for sure," Susie said, "although she said she'd come home for the market if we pay her train fare."
A grandmother's gift from across the ocean
Susie met Kyle Chen in Fort Wayne, Ind., where they grew up, and first tasted Chen family potstickers when they were dating and she first had dinner at his home.
"Potstickers were traditionally something the Chinese make on special occasions," Kyle said. "They weren't everyday food."
Naturally, it was a special occasion to host Kyle's girlfriend, and Susie fell in love with Kyle, with his family, and with his family's potstickers ... in roughly that order.
Kyle's parents are first-generation Chinese-Americans, and they brought the most authentic homemade Northern Chinese potsticker and wonton recipes here from Kyle's grandmother – "PoPo" is the only name by which he ever knew her.
His parents though, arriving in America, could not find the traditional ingredients available – ground pork and Napa cabbage for the filling.
They experimented and came up with a shredded beef and spinach mixture that they and others liked, and it became the new family classic.
"I liked them so much I asked Kyle's father to show me how to make them," Susie said, "and when the kids came along, they all learned how to make them."
"I don't ever remember not making potstickers," said Christina.
Learning to feel your food
At first, though, all-American Susie found it dismayingly hard to follow the process. Her father-in-law threw together ingredients without measuring them, and his hands flew as he folded them into neat little packages.
"I asked him how much water for the dough, and he said, 'This much, so much," she said. "It took me awhile to understand that he did it all by feel, and when it felt right, it was right."
Same with folding the little dumplings. You could fuss and concentrate and focus and carefully crimp as much as you wanted, but it would only come to you when you had folded enough to just feel it in your fingers.
Now, of course, they can all pinch together a perfect potsticker with their eyes closed or while carrying on a conversation – a very traditional family way to do it, and something that came much more naturally to children introduced to doing it from just outside the cradle.
The Northern Chinese versions of potstickers and wontons are considered to be the true and best form, with thicker skins and more savory flavors than other Far East versions.
But like Kyle's parents, who dispaired of finding the age-old combinations in a New World, Susie and her family have put together a combination of fusion flavors and old favorites, ranging from her take on a recreated classic Pork & Vegetable Potstickers to Buffalo Chicken and Beef Taco wontons.
The secret to the perfect potsticker?
"Great ingredients, great meat, to begin with," Susie said. "And knowing how it ought to be done."
Fast frozen potstickers and wontons at home
Susie Chen's handmade, homemade products come in seven flavors:
- Beef & Vegetable Potsticker
- Pork & Vegetable Potsticker
- Ginger Chicken Potsticker
- Pork Wonton
- Ginger Chicken Wonton
- Buffalo Chicken Wonton
- Beef Taco Wonton
Though it's fun to buy and eat them just-cooked at the Saturday morning market (three for $3, six for $5), the Chens also will be selling them frozen to cook at home (not every flavor guaranteed to be available at all times on every market Saturday).
To cook up the perfect potsticker or wonton, Susie says, coat a frying pan with oil, heat, add and just brown them. Then add water to cover by two-thirds. Cover and cook at medium until all the water is gone. Fry again just until well-browned on the bottoms. Then turn over onto a plate and serve. About 15 minutes.