It all started out as a dream for Jeff Wang. A dream that formed while watching his parents in the kitchen cooking the food that fueled his childhood. A dream that would one day allow him to own a restaurant capable of sharing the food he loves with the world. While things weren’t always easy for him in the pursuit of his goal, Jeff was determined to make his dream a reality and it definitely paid off. Today, Jeff runs one of the most popular food trucks in the city of Chicago. However, even with all of the success that he has had so far, he knows that none of it would have been worth it without his journey to this point.
Jeff Wang is a first-generation Taiwanese-American who was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. He is the son of immigrants who made their living by running a number of restaurants. It was in these restaurants that Jeff was exposed to the hard work it takes to be successful in the food industry, especially with seeing his parents work fourteen hour days just to make ends meet. He loved the whole process of making food, from the preparation, to the cooking, to the eating: “That’s kind of the way I grew up. I was always around food; I was always trying to help out at the restaurant,” Jeff said. Jeff’s parents did not want him entering the food industry himself. For them, the long hours were the sacrifice they made in order to ensure that their children would have access to more desirable jobs. Following his parents’ career path would be at odds with the American dream. A college degree and a good, stable job was what Jeff and his parents told themselves was best for his future. “It was something that they really didn’t want me to get into,” Jeff said.
After high school, Jeff went to University of Illinois and studied economics; and upon graduation, he took a job in finance: “I was basically just an accountant after college… “A couple of years into accounting I realized that I really hated it. A lot of sitting in front of a computer, a lot of slow days–It just wasn’t really my thing.” After long years in a job that made him miserable, Jeff quit.
No longer shackled to his desk, Jeff explored his newfound freedom through travel: “I went overseas, to Taiwan, to China [and] just had some really good food and just knew that that’s really what I wanted to do… So I came back and that’s how I decided to get into the industry.”
The household recipes Jeff grew up eating would be a cornerstone of his Asian Fusion menu: “Everything my mom would make for me, I try to have a variation of it. And use it as a base for what we use on the truck… [But] since I grew up in America, everything wasn’t super authentic, because I would put my own twist to it. And that’s kind of how the fusion came about.”
Jeff’s mother spent some time in Korea before he was born, and during her time there, she learned how to make “a pretty bomb kimchi.” Growing up, that recipe and its flavors found its way into many of the “concoctions” one might expect a hungry teenage boy to create. One of those concoctions was white rice with the kimchi spices and melted cheese. Though he credits his mother for creating the foundation for many of his recipes, Jeff acknowledges his own creative spirit with one particular food: rice balls. “I have to take credit for that one… Those are kind of what put us on the map.”
When he decided to start selling his own food, Jeff knew that recipe would be one of the vital pieces of the menu. But Jeff decided to ball and fry the kimchi cheese rice for the sake of presenting the dish in a way that works well in a food truck. Hundreds or even thousands of them need to be rolled beforehand to prepare for a big event or a busy day. “I would trick my girlfriend into coming over and tell her we were going to watch a movie, but afterwards I’d say we have to roll a thousand rice balls.” It was her who came up with the name “kimcheesy balls.” Jeff is planning on getting married to his girlfriend, Kara Peterson, this year.
“When I told them I wanted to open a restaurant my parents were like ‘oh cool we’re all for that,’ and then when I told them it was going to be in the back of a truck there were like ‘that’s crazy.’” But eventually, they came around to the idea and enthusiastically offered their assistance. Jeff’s mother even helped cook and serve food on their first outing.
“To be honest, it was just perfect timing. When I got back from my trip I knew I wanted to get back into food… Around that time Chicago had just passed the cook onboard law, which meant you could actually cook food on board the truck, rather than just hot-holding food. Which is something I really didn’t want to do; I didn’t want to cook dumplings at nine in the morning and keep them in heat, and serve them all day, by the end of the day they’d be really mushy.” The cook onboard law was what enable Jeff to cook and sell food of a quality that he could be proud of.
“I had a truck, I had an idea, [and] I had a little bit of money saved up. [So] I looked at some graphic design companies… I was getting back quotes that were like fifteen, twenty, twenty-five thousand dollars for branding.” Unable to pay the steep price on offer, Jeff reached out to his personal network: “I asked around. I have a friend who had just graduated from Columbia College in Chicago here, and she was a graphic design major. And she said one of her teachers, his name is Richard Zeid, and he was really into food trucks. So I reached out to him and he knew exactly what I was looking for.” Zeid designed a project for one of his classes in which students, divided into groups of four, competed to design the best food truck branding for Jeff. “I brought in dumplings for them… anything they wanted, and they did these presentations for me. And the one I chose was Yum Dum–they came of with the name, the branding, everything, it was incredible! To this day these kids still keep in touch with me and they think it’s really cool that their design is driving around the city.”
Social media plays an indispensable role in promoting Yum Dum. Jeff posts the truck’s location on Twitter and keeps followers aware of any menu updates or catering events. Which keeps his customers from having to guess where he will be, but also subverts the need for a rigid schedule.
When he was writing the menu for Yum Dum, Jeff’s parents broke out dozens of authentic family recipes that they hoped to include. Unfortunately, the physical confines of a food truck limit the size of the menu considerably. He has been forced to rotate those recipes in and out seasonally. In the future however, Jeff hopes to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant that would feature the whole menu.
“When we first started I had all these ideas for menu items. [My dad] makes this really good chinese curry, and he said we could do curry rice bowls. And he makes these chive pancakes that we used to eat as kids all the time. He said ‘we could do those, we could do soups.’ The original menu was super long… But we didn’t really have the space for all that stuff.”
Yum Dum currently offers in-house dumpling cooking classes, where participants learn the process of kneading, rolling, and cooking restaurant-quality dumplings. Although the classes are a great experience for everyone involved, offering them at a designated location would be ideal. A Yum Dum restaurant with a dedicated room for teaching dumpling class is a long-term goal that Jeff says he hopes to reach in the near future.
“I want to host these dumpling making classes where we can share this story with people,” Jeff says.
Despite these limitations Jeff has seen great success since Yum Dum started, and the potential for growth is bright. If possible, college campuses would be his ideal location for a restaurant: “I think our food looks great to families, to students. I want to open a brick and mortar somewhere around DePaul, around Loyola, around University of Chicago.” With plans for a brick-and-mortar restaurant, a wedding, and dumpling making classes in the works, Jeff is unbelievably busy for the forseeable future. He is not certain where exactly his first location will be, but wherever he goes, “Kimcheesy Balls” are bound to be popular.