Meet Andrew Din, the executive chef, owner, and creative mind behind New York City’s Handpulled Noodle’s famous dish: Spicy Cumin Lamb Stir Fry with Ding Ding Noodles. Classical-violist-turned-chef, Andrew shares his passion for food, culinary innovation, and cultural heritage.
Today: We chat with Andrew Din of The Handpulled Noodle about his inspiration and thought behind his signature dish: spicy cumin lamb stir fry with ding ding noodles.
What is the spicy cumin lamb stir fry with ding ding noodles and can you deconstruct it for me?
Andrew Din: I am the only one in New York City or the 5 boroughs of New York that does the Ding Ding chopped noodles, simply because it is really labor-intensive to make. It requires many steps along the way before you even get to the point of chopping the noodles up into little bits of mini-gnocchi. So that is probably our signature dish. It is one of those dishes that once someone tries it, it becomes their staple at my restaurant.
Our noodle shop is called the “Handpulled Noodle.” Essentially this means that we pre-prove and form the dough into specific shapes so that once a customer places an order, we can stretch that piece of dough out into the various shapes of noodles that we offer.
AD: Ding Ding noodles are a form that requires the dough to be first stretched into long, sheet-pan length strips and proved overnight. During the preparation time, we fold that [the sheet-pan noodle strips] repeatedly until it becomes thinner and then use a dough-cutter to rapidly chop it into little pieces, which are then boiled in water. The resulting noodles look like little nubs of dough with a texture similar to chewy, mini gnocchi.
Traditionally, it is prepared as a stir-fry, and it’s only offered one way: with vegetables and a protein of your choice, usually lamb, which is the most popular. This is something that comes from a region of China that was born in North-Western China. The way that I have adapted it for my restaurant results from the way my mother used to cook for us. We didn’t really follow the rules closely: if we wanted it to be in a soup, we would put it in soup, or if we wanted to mix up how it is stir-fried, we would do that. You won’t see any other restaurants doing that. This is the nucleus of how I came up with the build-your-own format for my dishes because it was very reminiscent of how I liked to mix things up when my mother was cooking for us.
How often are you making dough if it has to be stretched and pulled to order?
AD: We make the dough daily. I have a full-time dough-prep chef. Every single day we mix at least 50 – 100 pounds of dough, form it, and let it rest on racks in the refrigerator. It’s a very labor-intensive process.
If I were to order the spicy cumin lamb stir fry with ding ding noodles, how would that dish come out to me?
AD: It would come out to you in paper: the iconic Chinese-takeout take-out container. We are predominantly a fast-casual restaurant. We have a bench along the front of the store with some stools that customers can use, but we are not a sit-down service restaurant. Most of our customers are either taking the food home or getting it delivered to them at home.
Do you get any pushback from customers on the free-form approach to your noodles?
AD: I have never received pushback from customers. In fact, I think I opened Pandora’s box because we frequently get customers requesting crazy things for us to make; but there’s a limit [laughter]! I think mainstream restaurants like Chipotle have made this format ubiquitous with the fast-casual setting.
Is the spicy cumin you use to marinate the lamb something your mother did as well or something you picked up along the way?
AD: Cumin is a very common spice used in this region of China. North-Western China was the gateway to the spice trade for the rest of the world and Europe, where Marco Polo entered and exited China with his stash of goodies he took back to Italy. This region also shares a border with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, which has a Muslim minority there. It is Xinjiang which has been in the news lately for the [internment] camps. This part of China has a very different language of spices to the rest of China. They use many spices that many people probably don’t even realize are associated with Chinese cuisine: like Cumin and Cardamom.
I use cumin in my dishes a little differently. In traditional Chinese cooking, everything is cooked and added to the recipe on the fly. This is why when you look at a Chinese kitchen, you often see a large table with a dozen little containers of spices and the chef just pinching a little bit of this and that, not really measuring anything out. This is a Western chef’s nightmare. It is also a nightmare for anyone trying to teach this cuisine to people who have never had it before. The moment you change hands, you get a different result. I had to Westernize how these recipes were executed by combining what could be combined, measuring out, and standardizing everything so I could teach anyone who stepped in the door with some kitchen experience.
What are the 1 or 2 key ingredients to Ding Ding noodles that cannot be compromised?
AD: Ingredient-wise, it would be the type of flour used. Secondary to that is a wok.
Texturally, you need to make sure you have the correct protein ratio in your flour. This is actually not that accessible to consumers in a supermarket. You can often find it in Asian grocery stores because dumplings and noodles are a popular thing to make at home, but you certainly won’t be able to find it in Western grocery stores. The type of flour we use is very important. We use a high-protein flour. It is a very delicate balancing act because high-protein flour makes it less extensible, which means it is not as easy to stretch because the protein structure is very strong. So you need something between your regular, all-purpose flour and bread flour. It’s that middle place where you want to be.
Where do the ingredients come from? Do you seek out specific purveyors who carry the types of products you need?
AD: At the beginning, it was very much just relying on help, advice, and referrals from other people who are restaurant owners. It was not easy to find purveyors outside that referral circle who offered the same products. It was a huge barrier of entry for a lot of people. If they were not lucky enough to get the right referral, they would be stuck with an inferior product or less than an optimal partnership for a long time. This networking is something that can make or break a new restaurant. You might have a fantastic, killer menu, but if you can’t source a wholesale supplier of this product, you could potentially be overpaying by multiples. This can have a real-life impact on your profit margin and the sustainability of your business.
Seeing that Ding Ding noodles are a less common noodle, was it an instant hit when you put them on your menu?
AD: No. Actually, it was a very poor selling item at first. As you can expect, people tend not to order things they have never had before. People like to think they are adventurous, but that is only to a certain extent. People are spending money when they are hungry, so the last thing they want to be is disappointed: you can only risk so much of your choice. There were definitely a lot of verbal cues by our cashiers telling our customers that ding ding noodles are our signature dish and that they will love it. We describe it to them in Westernized terms, so they understand: we say it has the texture of gnocchi. This really helps because you don’t really have any other comparables to Ding Ding noodles to use as a reference.
A lot of education is involved.
What’s the weirdest (most annoying, chefs hate mods it’s not a secret) modification you’ve had a customer request?
AD: To mix noodles! For instance, “can I have half ribbon noodles and half Ding Ding?” This is the most aggravating thing to hear because we make everything to order, and everything is portioned. If we did this, we would have to throw half the ribbon noodles away and half the ding sing noodles away. We definitely don’t allow that kind of a mix to happen.
What makes this dish standout on your menu?
AD: I think it is more of a stand-alone dish because everything else we offer is accessible at other hand-pulled noodle shops in the City. It is definitely a stand-out dish.
If you could sit down and eat lamb ding ding noodles with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?
AD: Definitely Anthony Bourdain. He had a passion for the food of this region and great appreciation and affection for rustic food. In fact, I have to attribute opening a restaurant to his initiative to highlight small, regional Asian cuisine. That really gave me the confidence to strike out and to think I could make it on my own.
Have you always worked in restaurants?
AD: Absolutely not; nope! I used to be a classical violist.
Then what got you into the restaurant world? What was your drive and passion?
AD: Gosh, I guess I am just a glutton for punishment [laughter]. Being a musician in any field, especially the classical field, is like trying to resuscitate something that is dying a slow death. When I decided not to pursue that as my full-time career and I moved to New York City, the only “scrappy” thing you can do without going back to school and learning a whole new trade was to work in real estate. It’s almost like Ellis Island, where people come to New York, and the first thing they do is get a real estate license.
Through working in real estate, I met my friend and colleague who shared the same hope of one day opening our own place. We knew that working in real estate was not sustainable: it was too much of a grind, and we didn’t really have a passion for it. That’s how the coffee shop came about in 2012. We were lucky to have been in the right place at the right time: the business took off from day one. This gave me the taste of being my own boss. I didn’t want to continue in coffee shops because I felt that it was a very challenging space; you really depend on volume, the high rent prices, payroll expenses; I wanted something with a higher profit margin. I was a little naive when I struck out for the first time and opened a restaurant because profit margins aren’t necessarily higher [laughter]. But I have worked out all the kinks, and I am still here!
In your opinion, what is the relationship between tech and the professional kitchen, especially the back of house? How can tech help or hinder chefs?
AD: First of all, I think we are well past the point of discussing whether or not we need tech because it is here to stay. Tech is so integrated into every aspect of business operations that it’s crucial from your POS to keeping track of your inventory and putting through orders. For the most part, it is a positive and rapid-learning relationship. From the point of sale perspective, the tech I am using now is light years ahead of what was available back when I first opened a coffee shop in 2012 and even my noodle shop in 2015. I am all for technology integration into businesses: it will make my life easier as the more intuitive tech becomes.
Is there something tech is not currently doing that could help chefs in their day to day?
AD: The biggest barrier of entry for using technology for anything in a restaurant is whether or not the employees have the skill set to use it. As younger chefs come to the table, there will be an organic switch to more tech; but I do not see that happening just yet.
How do you use technology in your day to day restaurant?
AD: Cut+Dry is something that has helped a great deal. It has reduced ordering errors and streamlined the interaction required for each order to be submitted. In the past, my managers in all the stores would have to run their inventory lists manually with pen and paper. They would have to individually type in or cut and paste notes from their phone on all of the supplies and ingredients they wanted. It was very cumbersome.
I tried other products in this space, too, like Pepper, but I feel Cut+Dry is far ahead in terms of its intuitive interface. It was very easy to onboard, even for employees that didn’t have a high level of technical ability. Cut+Dry minimized many errors and allowed me to step back quite significantly from being so hands-on when orders were being placed. Plus, it has been extremely important in our “cost-saver,” making sure I am not over-purchasing.
Does Cut+Dry save you time in your day to day?
AD: It saves me so much time. Honestly, it saves me at least 20 minutes per order in each location. We have 3 locations, about 4 – 5 vendors at each location, and we order three times a week. So about four hours are saved per location in a given week; the time saved really adds up!
Handpulled Noodle Location & Hours
3600 Broadway (cross street 148th)
New York, NY 10031
11:30 am – 11 pm daily
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