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Behind the wok: Din Tai Fung tells us what it takes to prep for hectic CNY reunion dinners

Stepping into Din Tai Fung at Sunway Pyramid, I was met with the low chatter of small groups dining. The restaurant was not yet at full capacity since my visit was during off-peak hours, and Chinese New Year (CNY) was still days away.

Upon arriving, I was quickly ushered into the back dining area and was greeted warmly by Amy Chia, Senior Operations Manager at Din Tai Fung Malaysia.

Amy, holding a new design of Din Tai Fung’s packaging for CNY 2022

After a bit of small talk, our interview commenced. I was there to learn what went on behind the scenes at Din Tai Fung Malaysia in preparation for CNY.

With reunion dinners being a big occasion that families and companies look forward to at the start of each year, I’d assumed that the CNY period would be the busiest time of the year for the restaurant.

But contrary to my assumption, it is actually at its busiest in December due to school holidays and end-of-year leaves.

That’s not to say that CNY is a quiet time though, as the few days of celebrations are enough to warrant the restaurant’s preparation for guests 2-3 months in advance.

To add, it is during CNY that Din Tai Fung reaps bigger sales and revenue numbers due to families and companies with higher spending power going all out.

For 2022’s CNY, prep had begun as early as November 2021.

Battling end-of-year supply issues

A majority of the restaurant’s CNY prep revolves around its food. As Din Tai Fung already serves Chinese cuisine all year, their CNY menu does not deviate much from that, much like other Chinese restaurants.

(This year, for reasons explained later, Amy told me they are foregoing a CNY menu, and will instead be focusing on offering yee sang, a Cantonese-style raw fish salad also called “Prosperity Toss”.)

Thus, the prep actually doesn’t differ much either, other than the fact that CNY coming right after the year-end holidays can make acquiring supply a little trickier.

Good old trusty chicken soup, comforting to the soul

Amy shared that suppliers themselves would usually take long leaves in December, which is why prep has to begin in November, when the restaurant can still lock down its orders to be delivered freshly at a later date.

One thing that’s helped the team operate efficiently in this area is data analysis from the past year(s). Based on the data, they’re able to project how many portions will need to be made, and from there, the quantity of raw ingredients required.

Wantons cooked in Din Ta Fung’s own chilli oil

This is especially important because getting fresh seafood for CNY can sometimes be a challenge due to the monsoon season late in the year.

Seasonal vegetables can also be an issue, so data helps the team anticipate issues regarding demand versus supply.

With this strategy, Amy shared that they’ve never really faced any major disruptions, plus working with multiple suppliers alleviates these concerns too.

Handmaking specific dishes a mere hour before serving

As we spoke, Sam, the General Manager at Din Tai Fung Sunway Pyramid was busy setting up some dishes at the next table for me to photograph later.

Sam making sure the food looked picture perfect but still authentic

What immediately caught my eye was the tall mountain of shredded vegetables in their yee sang, a dish that’s undoubtedly the star at every CNY reunion dinner.

An eye-catchingly colourful display

Din Tai Fung’s yee sang is now a smoked salmon version, a tweak they made last year to keep the dish fresher when demand for deliveries was at an all-time high.

The pandemic made it impossible for groups to convene in person, so in replacement of reunion dinners, corporates were delivering yee sang to their employees that they could lou (toss) together in a virtual celebration.

Little pouches of goodness

So high was the demand that Din Tai Fung came up with several different dish sizes as well to cater to corporate employees that had all sizes of families.

But this year, the restaurant is sticking to one size. Amy predicted that the trend they’ll see for 2022 is that walk-in diners will celebrate CNY in smaller groups of six or less.

The place was much quieter in the time between lunch and dinner

This trend is also the reason why they’ve not created a CNY menu for 2022, which is usually for the convenience of much larger groups.

Salted egg yolk prawns as golden as the prosperity we’d like to have this year

That being said, they’re still geared up to dish out significant portions of Din Tai Fung’s signature dishes such as their prawn with salted egg, chicken soup, fried rice, and, of course, their xiao long bao (soup dumplings).

Fun fact: Din Tai Fung’s outlets each have an extremely expensive fried rice machine that de-clumps the grains after cooking, leaving the finished dish light and fluffy. It’s one of several investments the restaurant makes in order to upkeep the consistency of its food quality.

Their fried pork chop with egg fried rice, made with Japanese short rice grains for extra fluff

The central kitchen where the base of some dishes are made helps lighten the restaurant’s burden during CNY, but several dishes still need to be finished by hand.

A team of four in the back that day, making fresh xiao long bao

For example, the xiao long bao and wantons cannot be fully prepared days in advance. Though the meat is prepared by the central kitchen, each dumpling can only be weighed and wrapped an hour before serving.

Each xiao long bao is weighed to be equal in size so that they will be cooked through consistently

If prepared in advance, the dumpling skins will turn stale and yellow, leaving diners with an unsatisfactory dish.

Sacrificing their own family reunion dinners

As a business of its scale should, Din Tai Fung does not keep all of its eggs in one basket. Freshly cooked food aside, Amy told me that their packed pineapple cakes are surprisingly quite in demand too, so they’ve ramped up production for CNY.

As a lover of chilli oils, I’ve got my eye on theirs now

They also sell their own brand of rice vinegar, chilli oils, and frozen dumplings, but ultimately, their freshly-made dishes are still what the crowds flock towards.

In the months after Malaysia’s mass vaccinations, local tourism has given the business a boost. Families having staycations at the Sunway Pyramid Hotel make up a significant portion of their dine-in customers.

After all, Din Tai Fung’s position along the seam between the hotel and the mall makes it a strategic location to capture hungry, holidaying shoppers.

Attempting to take a picture of Amy with Din Tai Fung’s logo in the background was a bit of a struggle since it’s placed so high up

With one hour of chatting behind us, we soon wrapped up the interview to snap some photos of the gorgeous food laid out before us. (Endearingly, Amy and Sam asked me for some tips to take good pictures for Din Tai Fung’s own social media.)

The full layout of what we were working with

Later, after we tossed the yee sang, Amy mentioned something heart-warming over the good food we were sharing.

Our earlier conversation had been focused on how Din Tai Fung was preparing to give its customers a CNY reunion dinner to remember, but its staff deserved to celebrate too.

Desserts to end your meals with a sweet memory

Unfortunately, the need to work longer hours during the CNY period makes it tough for them to celebrate with their own families.

Anyone walking past Din Tai Fung can watch xiao long bao being made live

Thus, a Din Tai Fung tradition every CNY is to close its outlets for two hours on the eve to have an internal reunion dinner.

For me, this really drove home what kinds of sacrifices service staff need to make in order to provide a good experience for customers during this meaningful celebration.

A poster I spotted in the kitchens, a testament to Din Tai Fung’s commitment to quality customer service

So, if there’s anything I’d want to finish this article off with, it’s to gently remind us all to be more patient with a restaurant’s staff during peak hours, especially this CNY.

Happy celebrating, and Gong Xi Fa Cai from us at Vulcan Post!

  • Learn more about Din Tai Fung Malaysia here.
  • Read more F&B content here.

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Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

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(UEN 201431998C.)

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