New Food Truck Cumberland Shares Its Chow Mein Recipe
Chef Chris Sapp talks about opening during a pandemic
Last fall, Chris Sapp hosted two pop-up dinners introducing diners to Cumberland, his upcoming food truck, and to his Japanese Canadian ancestral influences. Unprecedented local and global challenges might have postponed Cumberland's opening plans, but the dishes, like Sapp and his adaptable chow mein recipe, thrive during adversity.
Of the journey, Sapp said, "Like most restaurants, our opening day moved steadily backward for three to four months." After the pop-ups in September, progress bumped along slowly but steadied by February, foreshadowing a promising new opening date in time for the profitable spring season. In early March he was posting job listings and blocking out rumors of SXSW's cancellation. When that fateful March 6 announcement did roll around, Sapp said, "I was equal parts relieved and depressed. Relieved because it's a really bad idea to have your first week be a high-volume week. Depressed because an unhealthy amount of my self-worth is tied up in cooking for people and opening up this food truck, and another delay seemed inevitable." On March 13, Sapp and his brother/business partner postponed for the foreseeable future and have since been in limbo.
Sapp's Japanese great-grandparents, who immigrated to Canada, were much of the inspiration behind the upcoming truck, a detail noted even in the truck's name – a nod to Cumberland chow mein, the dish created by Japanese immigrants in Cumberland, British Columbia, using available noodles and local vegetables. The dish became particularly popular during World War II. Sapp's version marks the origin of his personal culinary background, which began in his mother's kitchen when she challenged him to make chow mein to her standard. From there it was the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Shawn Cirkiel's Parkside, Alon Shaya's Domenica in New Orleans, sous chef at Dai Due, and opening chef de cuisine at Pizzeria Sorellina before his most recent post as sous chef at Apis Restaurant.
Now, his food aims to share the story of his family, and his newly launched website – a testament to the behind-the-scenes work still in progress – sums it up nicely: "Cumberland is a culinary experience that flowed from our roots, our pasts, and all the seasons of life that made us who we are. It's a concept inspired by a group that walked paths of hardship and endured terrible things to ensure the grass would grow greener once it passed."
It all goes back to that chow mein. Sapp said, "My mother made this dish for me when I was a kid, and her mother made it for her. We trace this dish back to our family's establishing steps on this continent, and each generation has been a little different. I love this dish because it's made up almost exclusively of staples that I always have in my pantry and vegetable drawer. It is also super adaptable. Leftover char siu from a trip to a Chinese barbecue restaurant can replace the chicken in the recipe. Do you have half a rotisserie chicken in your fridge and don't know what to do with it? Shred it up and throw it in chow mein. Chinese sausage and American bacon have both made appearances in my chow mein. It's hard to find proteins that don't work."
He added that sometimes his mother uses pre-cut veggies, and he won't judge others doing the same. "If you cut the right corners, you can throw this together in the amount of time it takes the rice to cook. Another plus: This is one of those dishes that gets better when it's leftovers, for some reason. Our favorite way to eat it is 'picnic style,' where the topping is served cool over warm rice. I'm doing a version at the food truck that I've 'churched' up with house-made noodles using Barton Springs Mill flour, house-fermented umeboshi puree, and ginger-oil-poached chicken. Everybody makes this dish their own in the end. Come through to try ours and compare notes."
As for now, the grand opening is "still TBD," he said. "I feel cursed, but I'm lucky. I'm lucky that I didn't get open only to immediately have to pivot to takeout or close temporarily. I'm lucky because I don't want people's first impression of my food to be takeout or delivery. I'm lucky because I didn't have to cut anyone's hours or lay anyone off. I'm lucky because I didn't have refrigerators [full] of food spoiling. I'm not paying rent for a space and I have been saving for years for a time when no money would be coming in for a long stretch of time while my business grew. I'm lucky that it was even possible for me to save money. These are blessings that most restaurants and the people working in them are not afforded."
On the current status of Cumberland's opening, Sapp said, "We have to always think about our customers first. We're excited for the day that everybody feels safe to gather together and enjoy what we're building."
For food truck updates, see the Cumberland Instagram, or www.cumberlandatx.com.
Cumberland Chow Mein Recipe by Chris Sapp
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/2 (115 grams) yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 (100 grams) celery stalks, julienned
2 (100 grams) small carrots, julienned
20 grams ginger, minced
100 grams fresh shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
100 grams mirin
100 grams sake or dry white wine
40 grams toasted sesame oil
30 grams soy sauce
4 eggs, yolks broken
2 chicken thighs, deboned
5 ounces chow mein noodles
8 ounces bean sprouts
4 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
Serve with steamed short grain rice or sambal (very optional)
1) Prep the vegetables and aromatics. Set aside the onions, garlic, and ginger in one container, and the celery and carrots in another.
2) Season the chicken with salt and pepper and pan-sear it. Heat a small sauté pan to medium high; add oil and place the chicken thighs in the pan skin-side down and reduce the heat to medium. Cook until the skin is golden and fully rendered. Flip the thighs and cook until cooked through. Slice the chicken thighs and keep to the side.
3) Cook the eggs. Break the yolks of your eggs. Don't mix it: You want bright yellows and whites to be distinct once cooked. Season your eggs with salt and pepper. In a 10-inch nonstick pan, cook the broken-yolk eggs two at a time, like you would a thin omelette or over-hard eggs. Once cooked, place on a cutting board and cut into thin strips and reserve.
4) Sweat the aromatics. In a wok or a large pot, sweat the onions, garlic, and ginger in oil. Cook until tender and the onions are translucent. Season with a pinch of salt.
5) Add the mushrooms to the pot and cook until tender and season with a pinch of salt.
6) Add the noodles and cook for 2 minutes, turning occasionally.
7) Add the mirin, sake, sesame oil, and soy sauce. Cook until the alcohol burns off.
8) Add the celery and carrots. You aren't cooking these through, you want them just barely cooked; this should only take a minute. (Think of the bean sprouts in a bowl of pho: You are just cooking it until it no longer has the flavor of raw vegetables.)
9) Turn off the heat and add the bean sprouts. Turn the chow mein so that the bean sprouts are on the bottom. Add the cooked chicken, eggs, and sesame seeds.
10) Turn the mixture over a few times to fully incorporate and serve over steamed rice.