Inside the Yuan Wonton prep kitchen with Chef Penelope Wong as Mile High Asian Food Week gets underway

Chef Penelope Wong is a finalist for a regional James Beard Award.
9 min. read
On most prep days, Yuan Wonton chef Penelope Wong and her crew will make about 4,500 wontons of various ingredients, which are then frozen ahead of being cooked. Feb. 13, 2023.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Penelope Wong works quickly in the prep kitchen for Yuan Wonton, the food truck she started with her husband. With movements as graceful as they are methodical, she picks up a wonton wrapper with a spoonful of filling on top. Next, she pinches, pleats, folds and turns it - those are her words to describe this process - all in a few seconds.

She puts each one on a large metal pan, which fills up fast. By the end of the day on this Monday, she expects she, her husband, and their sous chef will prepare about 4,500 dumplings. It sounds like a lot, but it's not enough to keep up with demand from Yuan Wonton's customers. Wong makes preordering available through Instagram and oftentimes it sells out the same day.

Now, Yuan Wonton is getting attention beyond Denver. Wong is a finalist for a regional James Beard award. She finds out March 29 if she advances.

She spoke with our colleagues at Colorado Public Radio at the start of the first annual Mile High Asian Food Week about her career and what food means to her. The food week runs through February 26. About 30 businesses in the metro area are offering special items or discounts. Organizers say Denver hasn't had an event like this for the AAPI community since 2009.

And foodies, be advised: Wong says Yuan Wonton will open a storefront in Park Hill by the summer - a venture it's undertaking with two other local businesses, Pho King Rapidos and Sweets and Sourdough. More details on that are below.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How long did it take you until you felt like you were good at preparing dumplings?

Penelope Wong: Not until my adult years. And not even until we decided to give the full commitment to starting this business. We had months of building the truck out, and so I was doing a lot of research and development work, recipe testing, trying to get faster at this. So every time I would make a batch of filling and dough at home, I would time myself to get faster.

On most prep days, Yuan Wonton chef Penelope Wong and her crew will make about 4,500 wontons of various ingredients, which are then frozen ahead of being cooked. Feb. 13, 2023.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Q: How does cooking connect you with other people?

Wong: I lost my mother at a very young age. I was 16 when she passed. Having a very tight knit family, we had giant family gatherings every weekend, every Sunday. But I lost my mother, lost my grandmother, lost my grandfather, and then lost my father, over about 10 years.

When you start to lose family at such a young age, there are so many questions that you have and there are so many questions I wish I would've asked, that I never did. Like what it was like for them growing up in Thailand. My father, how he learned to cook - he's the one that taught me how to cook in the kitchen at the restaurant they owned in north Denver for over 25 years.

The memories that I do have surround food. The dishes that I cook, a lot of them are from my grandmother's kitchen. It's kind of my way of holding onto my family, because I don't have them here. All I have are the memories.

Q: Is your mission to give people the comfort you had as a kid? Is it to expose them to new things and new flavors?

Wong: Both. Growing up Asian American in Denver wasn't quite, for lack of a better word, 'cool' like I guess it can be now. I was bullied a lot. I was made fun of for certain things I would bring to school for lunch. I remember I would beg my mom to just make me a simple ham sandwich. I was never going to eat it because it was gross. What I really wanted were the leftovers from dinner the night before. But you bring these meals to school and these kids are like, 'What is that smell?'

When you look at today's culture, before COVID when they didn't have any major restrictions at school on sharing, I would pack my daughter's lunch, and she was asking for dumplings. I would pack her dumplings, and the next day she would ask for dumplings again and she would ask for more. And I'm like, 'Are you actually eating all these?' And finally, days later, she admitted she was sharing. I thought, that's actually kind of cool. The fact that she can grow up in such a positive environment so different from my experience is such a good feeling.

And if we can be part of that education, to help others understand the foods that are important to our culture, I'm totally here for it.

Q: Was the James Beard nomination something you set out to accomplish?

Wong: Absolutely not. I have no idea how that even happened. There's still a part of me that thinks someone's losing their job over this giant mistake. When they made the announcements that morning, we were at our daughter's Chinese New Year performance and my phone just suddenly started going crazy. I opened up the thread and someone had sent me a screenshot and I was like, 'What the hell is this?' And I'm reading, and I just started crying. I don't know who nominated me.

But it's an incredible feeling. I've always had a certain idea of who I picture when I think of James Beard chefs. Never would I have imagined myself being in that same category. The foods that I cook are the foods that I love. I think of James Beard chefs as incredibly creative, incredibly brilliant. Making wontons is just innate - it's what we learned as kids.

Q: How are you trying to change the restaurant industry?

Wong: The biggest reason I left my previous job as executive chef at the Glenmoor Country Club was because I didn't want to work 90 hours a week every week, having to answer emails and finish writing menus while I'm 'on vacation' on a beach in Florida. In making the decision to leave, the primary point was to find some sort of balance.

With the truck, we can dictate our own schedule. We can go out as many times or as few as we want to during the course of the month. We're not doing this to become millionaires by any means. The goal was to have a couple days of prep and then go out for a couple days of service. The first time we went out, we sold out in probably 20 minutes. It was an eye-opener, because we realized we needed to produce more. But maintaining a balance has always remained a priority, so we said, we'll be out a couple times a week, and that's just the way it is.

Q: Do you risk making your customers angry?

Wong: We make them angry all the time! I deal with a lot of messages throughout the week from people asking how they can order, how they can find out where we are, and where our schedule is. People say things like 'there's no information,' and 'it's hard to determine whether these are great because I can never get my hands on them.' In marketing you say, scarcity creates demand but it also creates angry people. But at the heart of it, this is about us and our daughter and our lives and our overall mental health. We love what we do and we want to keep doing it, but we want to do it in a way that's healthy for everyone.

On most prep days, Yuan Wonton chef Penelope Wong and her crew will make about 4,500 wontons of various ingredients, which are then frozen ahead of being cooked. Feb. 13, 2023.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Q: Where did the name Yuan Wonton come from? Is it after the Chinese currency, the yuan?

Wong: That's happenstance. I have a couple of aunties who have a pretty heavy accent. When we were coming up with a name for the truck, my husband was talking with one of my aunts. He asked her to say, 'Do you want a wonton.' And what she said sounded like 'Yuan wonton?' And it just kinda stuck. And as we were going, we were like, actually that's the Chinese currency.

Q: What do you hope to achieve with Mile High Asian Food Week?

Wong: There are so many people that move here from either coast. And one thing I hear across the board is, 'There's not a very big Asian community here.' But when you look at the concentration in certain areas, it's massive. There's so much that people just don't know about - certain parts of town that a lot of people don't venture to. If we can help get the word out and share the foods that are important to our cultures, I want to be 100% on board.

There's a level of support in the Denver AAPI community that I never knew existed growing up as a child here. And over the last few years we've seen a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes. Personally, I've seen Denver show up on different levels, and it's incredible to see that this place that I've called home my entire life, there's actually more to it than what I gave it credit for.

Q: What's the latest on your plans for a storefront in Park Hill?

Wong: We're going to be opening up in North Park Hill off 29th and Fairfax. We're in construction. We are hoping to open in May or June 2023. We're pretty confident saying definitely by summer.

But with the other concepts  (Pho King Rapidos and Sweets and Sourdough) going in there with us, it's more of a shared collaboration and we'll have weekly collaborative dinners between all three companies, and we'll have certain days where it will just be us serving, and vice versa with the other companies.

We will keep the truck for private events; we have a lot of weddings booked for this year.

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