Dim sum master Sandy Shi of Wynn Las Vegas appears unintimidating at first glance.
Her cheery smile is seemingly perpetual. It always reaches her eyes. She beams, even when being asked complicated questions about herself and her work through a translator in an underground commissary hallway. But the moment she steps into the kitchen, her sharp, no-nonsense attitude comes out – particularly if she’s been asked to show me – a dumpling-making novice if there ever was one – how to make har gow.
For the uninitiated, har gow is the dumpling that a dim sum restaurant is often judged on. One of the most minimally-flavored dishes in the devotedly uncomplicated canon of Cantonese cuisine, har gow consist of a silky, translucent wrapper full of shrimp, pork fat, ginger, and very little else. Shi, a thirty-year dim sum veteran from Hong Kong with a no-nonsene attitude, can knock one out, complete with thirteen perfect little folds, in about half a minute.
I, on the other hand, have no future in dumplings. She moved on from attempting to show my clumsy hands to do what she does after a mere two unsuccessful tries.
Luckily for Shi, her teachers were much more patient: “I always watched my mom cooking at home and found it interesting.” As she got older, Shi started to work in hotel dim sum restaurants after school, cooking to make extra money. Dim sum and pastry require similar, meticulous skillsets and as such women are more commonly found in dim sum kitchens than anywhere else in the Chinese culinary world. Shi even says that despite all the systemic issues facing women in professional kitchens the world over, her gender never felt like a setback in her career. And as such, dim sum became her passion.
Now, Shi can confidently produce over one hundred types of dumplings, and does so every day at Wynn’s many Asian restaurants. Wing Lei (the first Chinese fine dining restaurant in the US to be awarded a Michelin star), Red8, Wazuzu, Mizumi, and even Wynn’s SW Steakhouse feature her team’s remarkable creations.
My pre-interview lunch consisted of the greatest hits of any respectable dim sum hall, plus some cheffy reinventions. Sandy served har gow, siu mai, soup dumplings, and barbecue pork buns with her signature grin. But those pork buns were baked instead of steamed, were topped with a decadent basil-infused sugar crust. They were accompanied by deep-fried shrimp and pea shoot bites bursting with broth, and a very fancy mushroom and abalone pastry. Did I mention the siu mai were topped with truffles?
In short, she knows what she’s doing. Shi has been in charge of dim sum at the Wynn for the past eleven years. She’s seen a lot of change in that time. Las Vegas is an increasingly international town, and a good chunk of Wynn’s high-rolling clientele come straight from Hong Kong or mainland China to gamble their hearts out.
While they’re in town, they expect food that caters to their tastes. But they’re not the only visitors she has to consider: “My menu is catered to multiple clienteles. Sometimes it’s more guests from Asia who are looking for more authentic food. And now, in Asia, the trend is that people don’t want to eat dishes that are too heavy, too oily, or too salty. So I have to cater to those tastes. But Americans are looking for things that are tastier and more eye-catching.”
That means Shi strikes a delicate balance with her menus, making colorful dumpling skins fortified with carrot or beet dyes to wow the locals and periodically traveling to Asia to taste new dumplings. More Chinese customers means more access to the best ingredients, and Shi says that the growing popularity of regional Chinese cuisine gives her freedom to make what she wants.
But it also helps that she likes her job. “I have a great boss. I can give him direction and he gives me room to create whatever I want. Plus, all the hard work of making dim sum eight hours a day every day pays off the moment I see guests eat my food. I’m happy when I see that my guests are happy.”
Having been one of her guests, I’d say she sees that pretty often.