April 16, 2024

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World's finest Food

How a Century-Old Dumpling Place Is the Future of Mom and Pop Shops

Hennessy V.S.O.P is teaming up with young creators in food, fashion, art, and music—Future Forward thinkers who push boundaries, celebrate community, and elevate culture.

Wilson Tang is a “downtown guy.” He tends to stay below Houston—below Canal Street, even. He lives in New York City’s Financial District, works in Chinatown, socializes in Two Bridges. And at this particular moment, he’s taking an interview from a supply closet tucked behind his legacy New York dumpling institution, Nom Wah Tea Parlor—which is, you guessed it, downtown. “I have these bouts of wanting to go to L.A., or maybe Miami. But New York is always home. Downtown is always home. The Chinatown community is always home,” he says. 

Nom Wah Tea Parlor has been in Tang’s family for just over a century, and in his custody since 2010, when he inherited the place from an uncle. Tucked down Doyers Street, the beloved venue now sits at a particularly characteristic cross-roads. On one side, you’ll find a new-agey cocktail bar and an upscale spot with long wait times. On the other, there’s a long-standing, neon-lit beauty salon. It’s a block with a history. Now, it’s home to a patchwork of New York dining staples co-existing—a mix of new, old, iconic, and upscale. 

To modernize Nom Wah, Tang leaned into his community, while thinking of the future, expanding the idea of what is capable—push boundaries forward, break molds, blaze his own trail. In short, he had to imagine a new idea of what was possible in an old space. Those are the exact reasons he’s partnered with Hennessy V.S.O.P, who has made it a point to link up with talented creatives in the food, fashion, music, and art who are pushing culture forward. The partnership, says Tang, made all the sense in the world. “Hennessy, and cognac in general, is a big deal in Chinese culture,” he says. “Drinking Hennessy at a Chinese banquet is almost…it’s like bagels and lox. It’s a staple. And I always thought about it like a status symbol. Like proof of success.” 

That success wasn’t always guaranteed. Tang grew up amongst family-run restaurants in Queens, but he wasn’t always keen on running Nom Wah. In fact, until early 2002, he worked as a banker in Manhattan’s FiDi. So it came as no surprise that leaving, by choice, the kushy furnishings of his Wall Street job for the sort of work his parents had been forced into, was no small source of conflict between them. “Even as a very young child, I remember going to my dad’s restaurant to work or coming to my mom and my uncle’s restaurant to check in,” he says. “It wasn’t the life they would’ve chosen, so they couldn’t understand why I, with an education, would end up in the same place.”

For all his respect towards his parents’ stances, Tang says, ultimately, he had no choice. He’s a restaurant man at his core. Even while earning good money at a desk job, he felt New York hospitality was simply coded into his DNA. And if he needed a sign—some transitional moment of clarity—it came to him in the most tragically salient way possible. “I was in the first tower on 9/11,” he says. “And when I made it out, I couldn’t stand the idea of pushing paper from one pile to another at [a bank]. I really felt that my calling was in New York food service. I wanted to do something good for my city, and I knew that thing involved food.

“I was fully aware I was going to work crazy hours. That the banking pay would be better. That it would be hectic and difficult—and that my family would be furious. But I also knew that I had a degree and work experience to fall back on if things didn’t work out. So I just put my foot down.”

When Tang agreed to step in, he had a specific vision in mind for Nom Wah: He wanted to honor the traditions the restaurant had been founded on, but wanted progress, too.

Unsurprisingly, the transition was hardly easy. While Tang’s job in finance had taught him plenty about accounting and customer service—and he’d spent a number of his teenage years floating around restaurants, helping out on the back end—he was still an outsider in the industry. He had to start at square one, and began taking shifts in a friend’s bakery, newly assimilating to the rhythm of hospitality. He devoted himself to cooking, serving, planning, orchestrating. Then, seven years and one shuttered restaurant later (a failed coffeeshop venture of his own), he found himself with a new opportunity. “When the option to take over my uncle’s ancient dumpling spot came along, I thought, ‘This is my chance.’ Everyone told me no, don’t do it. I’d already failed once, but I knew I had to take it.” 

When Tang agreed to step in, he had a specific vision in mind for Nom Wah: He wanted to honor the traditions the restaurant had been founded on, but wanted progress, too. He wanted to find ways to celebrate the spot’s heritage—his heritage—while also working to stay relevant in the city’s ever-updating restaurant landscape. Most of all, he wanted to ensure the place remained a critical part of the fabric of his community, Chinatown, as it continued to grow and evolve. 

“When my uncle was running the restaurant, it was his way or the highway. If you didn’t like his food the way it was, you could go somewhere else. And I remember sitting in the dining room and thinking, ‘We really need to listen to what people are asking for,’” says Tang. His goal is to do the classics for which Nom Wah is known really well. But also, because “we’re competing with tons of other restaurants,” he knew they needed fresh ideas in order to compete, ideas they’d never considered in the past. Catering to dietary restrictions; social media; merch. “That’s the kind of edge that’s helping cement our status as a New York dining institution,” says Tang, whose iteration of Nom Wah you can, naturally, find on TikTok. 

Tang’s enthusiasm for melding legacy with innovation doesn’t stop with the spot’s clever online presence, though. Since taking over the business, he’s managed to open a Nom Wah outpost in Philly, and two more in New York. He’s made sure to add plant-based, gluten free, and vegetarian options to the menu (in addition to the age-old favorites, of course—which he maintains will never change). He’s insisted the spot’s arsenal of delivery packaging products be sustainably produced. And during the pandemic, he even began running a frozen dumpling delivery service as a way of keeping the place afloat. In fact, for weeks, he drove dumpling deliveries around the city, into Jersey, as far as Westchester, himself. “We’ve been around for 100 years. And the part of the business that reflects that won’t ever change, at least not under my watch,” he says. “But we’re trying to be a part of the future of Chinatown, too.” 

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For years, Tang didn’t talk much about 9/11, or think about that fateful day that would inspire the decision to alter his life’s path. But recently, he’s taking a new approach. “I was so young [in 2001]—I was in my 20s. I was traumatized and I didn’t know what to think,” he says. “But as I turned 30, and now 40, I’ve been reflecting more.

“I’ve still got the shirt I was wearing that day—and sometimes, when I feel like thinking about the whole experience, I put it on,” he says. “It’s really worn away at the elbows. The collar is all frayed. I’ve gotten it mended a bunch of times, but it still fits. And when I put it on, it’s this instant reminder of where I come from. The city and the community I serve. The fact that, in a way, feeding New Yorkers is exactly what I’ve always wanted to do.”

It was at a roundtable event for Hennessy V.S.O.P, it turns out, that first inspired Tang to share his 9/11 story publicly. Like one hosted by comedian and actor Lil Rel Howery (also featuring Tang) last week, the idea of the event was to come together around a table and show how the exchange of different perspectives could expand one’s potential. “It was such a privilege to be able to sit at a table with people from different backgrounds to just have a conversation,” says Tang. “It was really a very genuine experience, honestly. It was really magic, meeting people from all over—a borderless world—having some Hennessy, and talking about the crossroads between food, fashion, and hospitality.

“At night when I’m leaving Nom Wah, I’ll often look at Doyer Street with all the outdoor seating set up, and I’ll admire the way it’s humming,” he says. “I’m so proud of this place. I love what I’ve inherited, and what I’ve built on top of that. And you know what? I think my parents feel the same way. They’ll never say it to me, but sometimes, one of my Dad’s friends will come over and say, ‘Hey, you know your dad is really proud of what you’ve done.’ And honestly, that’s more than enough.”   

This is Tang’s community, and his ways of supporting it extend far beyond his famed dumpling deliveries. Of course he’ll get his third vaccine from a nearby, family-run pharmacy. Of course, he’ll sponsor the local basketball team. Of course he’ll partner with other restaurants in the area to keep the neighborhood buzzing. That’s what hospitality means to him. It’s a full-service kind of occupation.

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