Necessary and Humble
“We love it out here,” John says, scanning his small plot of yard off Esquon Rd in Durham. “It’s a great place to come home to.”
I can easily see why. It’s dusk. The humble yellow rental— shared with his life and business partner, Lizzy, and their two-year-old daughter, Izzy—is surrounded by almond orchards and a fading lavender sky, still golden at the horizon. John and Lizzy are playing a post-dinner game of hide-andseek with Izzy. Her hiding spots are terrible, but you could’ve fooled John. “Iz-zy,” he says in singsong, “where are you?”
At one point I lose sight of him; he’s dropped down to the ground behind a raised garden bed he built. Suddenly I hear Izzy giggle, and I twist to see John pulling her on top of him. “Oh no,” he says, “you got me.” “I got you, I got you,” Izzy parrots as they both roll in the grass, laughing. Lizzy watches from a distance, her eyes smiling. Over the past week this is the John and Lizzy I’ve gotten to know: he, energetic and generous, always pulling someone in; she, composed, coy, holding close the center.
John Dean and Lizzy Young are the co-owners and operators of the Drunken Dumpling mobile restaurant. They seem to split the duties equally: John in the kitchen, Lizzy front of house. But John spends plenty of time taking orders and running food, and Lizzy’s been helming the trailer-kitchen herself a few days a week at their scheduled locations around Chico (e.g., Secret Trail Brewing Co, NorCal Brewing Co, and The Commons Social Emporium). I get the idea quickly that while John may be the nuts and bolts of the operation, Lizzy is the firm foundation. John is a classically trained pastry chef and Culinary Institute of America graduate (’98) who’s worked in Michelin star restaurants (Campton Place Hotel and Gary Danko’s), studied anthropology at Chico State (class of ’91), and spent four years in central Africa in the Peace Corps.
Lizzy’s a part-time photographer who’s lived and worked in the food industry all over the Central Valley. They met while working at The Wine Room in Paradise (he in the kitchen, she serving) and started Drunken Dumpling in 2016 somewhat on a whim after a tequila-inspired evening in Hawaii. It’s been a minor hit and a major boon to Chico’s burgeoning food scene ever since.
Drunken Dumpling makes delectable, tapas-style Asian food. Lizzy calls it “Asian fusion,” and it’s true, influences and techniques do seem to come from all over, but this is a mobile restaurant peddling staples like pork belly bao, shrimp shumai with house-made kimchi, pork and scallion dumplings, and pan-fried noodles. Its roots are in Pan-Asian cuisine, there’s really no way around it. Everything they serve (and I think I’ve pretty much had it all) is bold and delicious and plated with an artist’s eye. John’s sauces are sticky and complex, all iterations of pork are crispy yet unctuous, and the variety of pickled banchan could overshadow, if the mains weren’t so damn perfect. However, this recipe for perfection, as John reveals it, meanders and, as often, races.
John is optimistic and always in motion. In conversations with him, tangents build on tangents, and time moves in pretzel shapes. He overflows with stories and ideas and associations and usually espouses them while busy doing something else—updating the daily specials board, prepping myriad ingredients for dinner service, or chasing his towheaded daughter. His words come fast and free. To answer a question about the ethic of Drunken Dumpling, John starts by offering his adorations of the defunct Chico restaurant, Caffé Malvina, and its owner, Sal Corona, then dips into an extemporaneous aside about underground electronic music before veering into food preservation and the journal he kept while in Africa that captured techniques for drying bat, eel, and freshwater fish. From there we’re on to the physicality of sailing and why he turned down a position at The French Laundry. (Yes, you read that correctly. After winning the Outstanding Baker Award at CIA, John said no to Thomas Keller and his food- and culture-changing restaurant.) Before John gets to an answer, Lizzy interrupts him. “I think really we just didn’t realize the demand for this [type of ] food.” This straightens John up, and finally, we land on Drunken Dumpling’s ethic: “We just want to feed people quality food,” John says and takes a long breath.
In this exchange I glimpse maybe a morsel of why Drunken Dumpling has become something of an overnight success. John’s discursiveness, although occasionally distracting, carries with it a joy; it’s fun getting enveloped in his energy. And Lizzy works the lasso like a pro, tethering ideas to earth. This can also be seen in their food and workspace.
John’s small dishes can be grand (their $6 Sexy, Spicy Noodle bowl has, by my count, over fifteen visible ingredients!), but the execution is simple. Simple enough that Lizzy—not a trained chef—can easily work the line. The Drunken Dumpling trailer does not have a grill nor a flattop nor a fryer. Inside the spotless and minimalist “kitchen” is a countertop convection oven, a steamer, and a single induction cooktop. There is no crowding, there are no hot new gadgets, there is no trace of the capricious man who fills this space. Instead, there is only the essential from the bag of tricks that John must have originally brought to Lizzy. A symbiotic collaboration, John a sailboat, Lizzy a lighthouse.
Driving out to Durham I was excited at the prospect of witnessing John’s cooking knowledge and technique on display for my personal pleasure, so I’m more than a little surprised to be welcomed into their kitchen by a mise en place of homemade pizza ingredients and storebought crust. I roll with it, and soon we’re sipping local wine, assembling (with help from little Izzy) pizzas with ingredients grown in the raised garden bed, and talking about Drunken Dumpling. “No one makes art for the money. It’s the same for me with food. For me, it’s about feeding people. See. . .” and we’re off again.
This time John’s weaving a story about his grandmother, an “in the rug, card-carrying housewife,” who prepared meals every day for her family of ten. She pickled, she canned, she dried, she cooked, she baked. John says that it wasn’t until he was in Africa, where he saw the need for the villagers to do everything themselves, including grow their own rice, that he really considered the work his grandmother did as Herculean. He’d loved watching her cook and had always been interested in food—baking cookies as a ten-year-old and hiding them in his sock drawer for him and his brothers, digging backyard pits for roasting a whole hog for his Chico State lacrosse teammates—but it wasn’t until he was on the other side of the world that he realized “food [for me] was never a choice.” It was instead where he’d been heading all along.
Everything they serve (and I think I’ve pretty much had it all) is bold and delicious and plated with an artist’s eye. John’s sauces are sticky and complex, all iterations of pork are crispy yet unctuous, and the variety of pickled banchan could overshadow, if the mains weren’t so damn perfect.
“Cooking should be about feeding people. And eating should be about fostering a relationship with food.” John hopes his mobile restaurant helps this cause. “I try to make food that’s exciting, but with a reference point. Food needs some familiarity.” Drunken Dumpling does just this. If you’re into food, nothing on the menu will baffle you. It will, however, more than simply satisfy.
The pizza’s done so we move to the table and begin eating with our hands. Izzy nibbles on the tiny tip of her slice, John and Lizzy sit across from each other and catch each other’s eyes as we talk about a variety of things: the many transitions in life we’re all forced through, the ill effects of screens and social media on children, hammock camping in rural Maui. I have another slice, am poured another glass of red, and watch the room turn from gold to gray as night arrives. For more than a few moments I forget I’m here on assignment.
And this is the best thing about dinner at John and Lizzy’s: it isn’t about the food. At all. John could’ve easily prepared a laborious meal representative of Drunken Dumpling and his formal training and rattled off the long list of every ingredient used and every technique employed. But instead we just hang out, make pizza, and shoot the shit. No one seems out to prove anything. Instead, John and Lizzy seem more interested in making a friend. As someone both engaged in and annoyed by the food world, I find this incredibly refreshing.
Food culture today can be a bit much. It seems like every hundredth hipster has a boho-chic, rustic yet refined restaurant with questionable farm-to-table aesthetics, an ampersand in the name, and an infestation of Edison lightbulbs. People who have made menudo exactly once feel the need to share the recipe and photos digitally, and every fool with 500 followers reviews restaurants (“Too many microgreens on the abalone fumé #amiright”). Even waiters now seem directed to regale guests with the genealogy of every ingredient, even if it takes five minutes to describe avocado toast. If this is what John could have been about, we’ll never know, maybe thanks to Lizzy. Because this is not what Drunken Dumpling is about.
Do they make thoughtful (mostly local, mostly homemade) food that looks charming and tastes scrummy?
They do. But does Lizzy belabor the description when she delivers it to your table? She does not. Could John tackle you with gastronomical particulars? Of course. But only splashes of this posturing arise and only when he’s excited to share his product with his patrons. And really, who’s to blame him?
He’s stoked on food and the lifepath he’s currently hiking thanks to it. If he’s proud, it’s only because we should all be a little proud. Even Lizzy, though she’s like the best version of what the rest of us are trying to be, is a dash proud, along with being humble and hard-working. And a dash, like the amount of local citrus ponzu in their house dumplings, is the perfect amount.
Izzy is hiding again and wants John to find her. I’m finishing up my wine, and John is telling me about how, after taking a year off in the early 2000s, it was hard to find his way back into the kitchen. Not hard cosmically or metaphorically, but actually. “No one in the City wanted to hire a 40-yearold pastry chef. They wanted me even less at 45.” John looks down for a second, a rare moment of reflection maybe, then starts searching for Izzy. “Here I co-ome,” he says and makes off. I watch Lizzy watch her man chase around their child and feel a sense of relief. John may have felt unwanted in his 40s, but now in his 50s, he is wanted by many. Wanted by Lizzy, who’s teaching him how to want again; wanted by Izzy, to find her crouched behind the grape vines, and wanted by the residents of Butte County, to feed us pretty and delicious food that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
As I depart, they leave me with a funky homemade dill pickle, some pizza for my family, and a well-used copy of a cookbook I’ve never heard of, just like friends would.
Stephen David Caldes is a writer, home cook, and assistant professor in the Journalism and Public Relations Department at CSU, Chico. He has many hobbies, but eating with friends is his favorite.