Because sometimes life is awesome, I got to interview the owner of a dumpling factory a few weeks ago. I ate dumplings off the conveyor belt! Yes, it was some super-awesome. Here's my piece from yesterday's New York Daily News.
One hundred years ago, Bushwick, Brooklyn, was chocka-block with German immigrants and beer concocted by breweries like the stately brick Edward B. Hittleman.
Though the brewers have vanished, Hittleman's bygone building remains - retrofitted to manufacture a different immigrant-imported delicacy.
"We can make 11,000 dumplings an hour," says Terry Tang, 52, wearing wire-rimmed glasses, a pinstripe shirt, blue blazer, gray slacks - and black bags beneath his eyes, befitting several decades of ceaseless labor.
"I work at least six days a week, sometimes seven," says Tang, who lives in Flushing, Queens, with his wife of 23 years, Anna, and his 90-year-old mom.
Since emigrating from Hong Kong in 1977, Tang's industriousness has propelled him from part-time noodle-maker to co-founder and CEO of TMI Food Corp., headquartered in Hittleman's transformed brewery.
TMI creates Twin Marquis-brand noodles and wonton wrappers, spring rolls, Chef One pot stickers - including all-natural and kosher versions - and even imports bubble tea.
"I'm not a food scientist, but I do like eating," says Tang. "My father was a very good cook."
He calls his dad's stir-fried fatty pork belly "one of the best meals I ever ate."
Tang left China during the Cultural Revolution when suffocating constraints forced students and intellectuals to flee.
He relocated to England for several years, before moving to New York City in an equally tumultuous time: blackout-riddled 1977. His first home was an itty-bitty West Village apartment, surrounded by strange creatures.
"There were lots of hippies," Tang recalls. He enrolled in St. John's University, laboring at a noodle factory to pay rent. The hard work paid off when he nabbed an accounting degree - and a job at big-shot firm Coopers & Lybrand, which later merged with PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Though his head now spun with numbers, his mind still revolved around food. After toiling as an accountant for three years, Tang's father - then living
in the city, along with Tang's brother Joseph - pulled him aside one day.
"Do you want to open a restaurant?" he asked.
Tang thought for a minute. "Yes," he answered with hardly any hesitation.
Tang's Kitchen came to Lindenhurst, L.I., followed by a second location in Islip. "Every day, it was a long commute and even longer hours," Tang says. It was time to diversify, branch out and fill what Tang perceived to be a void in the lo mein and noodle market.
"I knew I could do better," he says. Tang and Joseph devised a business plan for the Twin Marquis (so-called after Joseph's twin sons) noodle factory and found a teensy Canal St. plant.
Before launching in 1989, and to ensure Twin Marquis products were top-shelf, Tang headed overseas to survey and work in Asian noodle factories.
"That's how I learned to cook and make the best noodles," he recalls proudly.
Perhaps he should also thank his covert espionage. "I also requested samples of noodles and wrappers from my competitors," he says, laughing.
Research paid dividends, as his noodles became a hit in East Coast Chinatown grocery stores. "We were even in Chicago," Tang says. "Who could expect that from a little four-person factory?"
The company expanded to Bushwick in 1992. His customers clamored for more. "Every time we'd make a delivery, people would ask, 'Do you have anything else?'" Tang says.
He did. In 1999, Tang and Joseph started Chef One dumplings in another Bushwick space, creating flavors like chicken teriyaki and spicy chicken. Another hit.
Demand increased as Tang sold to cruise ships and casinos like Foxwoods. What could come next? A Chinese counterpart to Nathan's annual hot dog-eating event.
In 2004, Tang launched a competitive dumpling-chomping contest. The record is nothing to shake a set of chopsticks at: For men, it's 60 in two minutes; for women, 43.
"I can probably only do 17 or 18," Tang admits.
Instead of honing his competitiveeating skills, Tang is focusing on community service and do-gooding. He's active within the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, co-sponsors Queens' annual Dragon Boat Festival and even aids aspiring culinary all-stars.
"It's very important for us to give back," Tang says of his $2,000 "Smart Dumpling" and "Using Your Noodle" scholarships for students at New York City College of Technology.
"Terry and Joseph are extraordinary human beings," says Steve Soiffer, special assistant to the president at the college. "It's very clear that they will never turn their backs on the community. Terry is eager to open his checkbook and put it where his heart is."
Lately, he's had to open his checkbook a little wider.
Expanding into the former brewery in 2007 brought new expenses, compounded by the recent escalation of prices for commodities such as eggs and wheat. Nonetheless, Tang remains optimistically committed to his long-term goal.
"We want," Tang says, clasping his hands together, "to make the dumpling as American as the hot dog."