March 07, 2024 14 min read

Disclaimer alert! I have known Bec my whole life. Our families would go on holidays together, we would hang out at her parent’s farm on weekends and when we all left the safety net of living in Bath on finishing school, we remained friends. She is very much family to me. So I can promise you, Bec is one of the most chilled out people you will ever find. I don’t think I have heard her raise her voice once and most of her sentences are peppered with giggles. And despite setting up and running the extremely popular My Neighbours the Dumplings, with her partner Kris, she still found time to sit down with me so that I can do a piece on her for International Women’s Day.

Bec My Neighbours the Dumplings

Bec, Kris (partner and co-founder) and their first child, Matilda.

Bec, you are the co-founder of My neighbours the Dumplings. What started as one neighbourhood restaurant, became two restaurants and you have also entered the wholesale food industry, stocking shops such as Whole Foods, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols. On top of that you are a mum to three kids and you live between London and Bath. Did you ever see this being your life?

Ha! No! I never did! It was about 10 years ago that we started My Neighbours the Dumplings and before that I thought my life was going to be quite simple. So far removed from what it is now.

So, I’m going to pretend I haven’t known you since day one, what was your upbringing like? 

I grew up with my brother and sister, and I’m the eldest. My dad worked a lot, so it was my mum bringing us up for the most part. Not that my dad didn’t love getting involved but he just had less time. When I was seven my parents bought a farm and so most weekends, we were there just playing outside, making dens and getting lost in the woods.

And did you have an interest in food from a young age?

We were definitely interested in how food was produced and also we were very aware of my mum’s love of cooking for people, which I guess is a very Chinese trait. Edible love is what people call it because the love isn’t very obvious in other respects – it all goes into the food. That’s not to say she wasn’t loving, but there was a fair amount of tough love growing up. So, I think the combination of that and having hens, collecting eggs, seeing lambs being born and growing in the fields and then off to the slaughterhouse! Yeah, it definitely got my attention.

For a period of time, me and my brother used to go to the farmers’ market and sell the lamb there. My dad would set us up and then go off somewhere and so there we were, two half Chinese kids trying to sell lamb out of a cool box. I was no more than 15 at the time which means Jonny, my brother, was about 13. Also, Bath was so white, I’m sure people thought, ‘Who are these two immigrant kids trying to palm off this frozen lamb?’ But I guess that was my first experience in dealing with the public when it comes to food.

And how was school for you?

I would say I was a bit of an all-rounder. At one point I wanted to go into medicine, but during school, even going to Uni afterwards and for quite a few years after that, I was trying to figure out what I actually wanted to do.

And where did you look to figure that out?

Well I went abroad, I think for me that was my way of trying to figure out myself. After Uni I did a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course and went to work in China. I was there for two and a half years and a major incentive was to learn Chinese and explore that side of me. We didn’t have a huge community in Bath. My mum has found a lot of that (community) more recently, which I am so happy and proud that she has managed to do. But when we were kids it was non-existent. We didn’t have any Chinese friends and we weren’t living anywhere near our family. So, it was just my mum and I think that was the source of a lot of her own frustration. She’s bringing up three kids and we didn’t have the community there to be able to learn outside of her. So, for me, I wanted to understand more about my heritage.

And was there anyone you looked up to as a teenager?

I wouldn’t say anyone really stands out.  My mum for sure, she moved from Hong Kong to Cornwall in the 70’s, so two massive extremes. Just being able to understand that as I got older, it made me see her in a different light and understand those frustrations of hers a lot more. In my teenage years (it was) just annoying.

I think we know the hardships that our parents encountered. But there’s little appreciation for those of us born bi-racial also experiencing it, not to the same degree, but we were also teenagers, so it was difficult to communicate that weird feeling, almost subconscious, of not quite fitting in, to our parents.

Yeah definitely and so you’re trying to fit in, like going shopping in town, and it was a major cause of argument. My mum would ask, ‘Why are you wanting to go and hang around in town?’ She really didn’t want me to go and then my dad would go, ‘Oh come on, she can do that.’ and drive me in! My mum would be really pissed off that she got side-lined and now, being a mum, I’m thinking, ‘Yeah that must have been really annoying.’ But at the time you just see it from your point of view and that’s just to fit in with the other kids.

What was it like when you got to Uni, was it better?

I went to Leeds Uni to do Philosophy and English. I’d say I enjoyed it. Personality wise, I’m quite flexible and can easily fit in, so I haven’t experienced massive anxiety or feel I spent a lot of my childhood or young adult life feeling discriminated against. But in hindsight, with the experience and understanding I have now, I probably would have behaved slightly differently in some circumstances. I remember people making stupid comments at school and I either thought, ‘You’re a total idiot.’ or I guess I respected them in some form and almost accepted it. I didn’t feel actively bullied and I don’t have a huge chip on my shoulder, but I think I have slowly understood myself more and the surroundings that we grew up in. 

In my early 20’s I remember a friend saying, ‘You’re not really Chinese.’ and it’s because we grew up in a white environment, and yeah, my Cantonese is rubbish, and there were lots of aspects that were kind of missing from that side, so I suppose it’s true to an extent. But the way it was said, they meant it as a compliment. And it takes a while to process, and realise ‘Oh, that’s where your head is at’.

I find that frustrating, because they might say, ‘You’re not really Chinese.’ but clearly you’re not White, so it’s like, ‘Thanks for pointing out that I don’t have a camp and I’m just in no man’s land’.  I have some friends who say, ‘You don’t like spice? But your Dad’s Black, how can you not like spice?’

It’s so mad isn’t it? This tiny slice of what they think you or this entire race of people should be. I suppose underneath all of that, I think I’m all the better for having both perspectives on things. That’s a real positive and those who had more of a monoculture growing up didn’t get to experience that.

That’s a nice way of looking at it.  So you had the love of cooking instilled in you from your mum, and did you do much cooking in China?

I ate a lot! In China it’s so cheap to eat and there’s a lot of street food. The city I was living in first, they have loads of night markets and round the corner from my house they did noodle soups or bao, so I wouldn’t say I cooked that much, but I definitely experienced loads of different street food dishes.

What gave you the idea then, for My Neighbours the Dumplings?

Kris and I were making food at home a lot because in this country, you can’t eat out as regularly. One of the things I loved to make was dumplings and it was a really fun thing to do together. So we were making dumplings at home and would just talk about the fact that it was hard to find dumplings outside of Chinatown. And opposite our flat we saw this pizza place open up without putting a huge amount of money in to do it up, East London style. Piecing it together with bits and bobs. Then the doors opened and it was just rammed. It was exciting just watching that happen from scratch.

Did it make you feel it was doable?

Yeah It definitely felt like… why don’t we just open a dumpling place?

And what was your first step into the restaurant business?

It was gradual, we started wrapping dumplings and getting friends round with a drink and music on.  At the same time we were testing what people liked, what worked, what didn’t, the cooking times for things and would the food prep work in a restaurant environment? Then we did our first pop up, above Palm 2, a grocery shop in Clapton and it was epic. Inviting mostly friends and family with my sister on the door, I didn’t think random people would come because it was upstairs. It ended up being rammed with people queueing at the door. It was a success in that everyone enjoyed the food but no one got what they ordered! It was such a blur and doing anything for the first time, even now after 10 years of doing it, you still get an adrenalin rush.

My Neighbours the Dumplings

My Neighbours the Dumplings Clapton restaurant

So you had friends and family coming, your sister was working on the door. What was the support like from your parents?

Yeah and my brother was in the kitchen cooking dumplings, so full sibling support. But the parents were nowhere to be seen. My mum thought it was really stupid to do dumplings, because they’re really hard work. Which is actually true and maybe now I do see her point. But she also couldn’t see why I would choose to work in the food business.

What do you mean by that?

A lot of people who move to this country from China, Hong Kong or wherever, will start a Takeaway business because it’s a way of making money. My mum couldn’t understand why her university educated daughter was doing something that needs no education.

I know of other East and South-East Asian people who have started a food business like myself when their parents had much higher expectations from them. The parents are like, ‘what are you doing? Why did I waste all that time and money trying to send you to a good school or go to University and now you’ve just thrown it all away and doing the food business. That’s what we were trying to get away from’. As far as our parents are concerned, there’s a stigma attached to it.

It's interesting though, because it’s actually you leaning into your culture.

Yes, I know and they’re like why are you doing this?

So around this time as well, you had your first kid, Matilda.

Yes, so that was 2016. We opened the Clapton restaurant in March and Matilda arrived in April. It was indescribable, becoming a mum for the first time was a massive step, in terms of responsibility, lack of sleep and not knowing what you’re doing.  But times two, because the same thing was happening with the business. I think I did payroll for the first time really soon after giving birth. There’s so much that goes into being able to do a service. It is a business as well as a restaurant, so there’s loads of HR stuff, Marketing, Accounts.

Who does all of this, there’s you, there’s Kris and then who else do you have behind the scenes?

I have an old friend of mine who works on accounts, she’s also a mum and works from home. She started working for us a year and a half ago. Until then, I did it all myself. For social media we have someone helping us now, who started working on the bar for us in 2016. Later she chose to move onto the dumpling rolling team and has now started her own food pop-up called Swilipino, she’s half Philippino and half Swedish. I think she mostly joined us because we sort of represented a piece of her. She works with us on food development, our guest chef series, social media and still rolls dumplings with the team.

So you had the Clapton restaurant, and then you opened another in Victoria Park. Why did you want to get another restaurant on the go?

Well it wasn’t really a conscious choice, probably similar to us wanting three kids! The landlord for Victoria park would come to Clapton to eat and he loved the food and one day he said, ‘I love it, do you want to set up a second restaurant in my spot in Victoria park?’  We checked it out and it was a really good deal because the previous people had done it all up at great expense but had failed within the first 6 months. The landlord just wanted someone in there.

And when did you have your second child, Dylan?

He arrived in 2018 and about a year later we opened Victoria Park.

And which is the most successful?

Clapton has always been more successful, but Victoria Park had a really bad start because we opened in the summer of 2019 and Covid was March 2020 when we had to close and change everything around for Takeaway. Usually, once you pass your first year, you get a bit more established. But we hadn’t even hit a year, so that was definitely a real challenge..

I feel you tackled Covid well because you went into the retail side of things.

Yeah we started with a ‘Cook at Home’ box during Covid. We’d been thinking about frozen dumplings for a while but Covid sped that process up. The main reason for doing this was to stabilise our revenue because we realised if we rely on the restaurants and something like Covid happened again then we’re going to be screwed. And at that time, everyone was going mad for buying decent food from nice delis.

My neighbours the dumplings | International Women's Day

It was the only fun thing you could do!

Yeah get coffee and buy food! So we started working with quite a few really new food retailers around the Clapton and Homerton area that were doing really well at that point. But recently it’s changed back again and people are wanting to eat out and go to events.

How do you find it stress wise? You had Dylan a year before you opened Victoria Park and then Covid hit, there was so much uncertainty business wise.

Yeah. Two kids, starting the whole retail aspect and then my third kid, Mei, was born in November 2020. That was a very stressful period of time. If you remember, during the first Lockdown everyone was being lovely to each other, it was all about caring and showing love for the NHS. But by the time it got to the winter lockdown, everyone was done with it. Mei was born just before it and I was breastfeeding whilst trying to set up a shop online to sell the ‘Cook at Home’ boxes.

I feel then, you weren’t really attempting a work life balance. Are things more stable now?

Those were extreme situations. Opening a restaurant and having our first kid at the same time, having the Covid situation and doing the retail stuff. All of that was really hard work but I think the most stressful time, weirdly, has been in the last year because of the cost of living going up. It hasn’t been as talked about as much (in the news) but it has put an immense strain on the business and has been unbelievably stressful. In hospitality, a lot of people are on minimum wage and when that goes up by £1, it’s essentially a 10% increase and you have to find it somewhere. Produce is more expensive and then there’s the energy bills. 

So you set up My Neighbours the Dumplings with your partner Kris, and what I’ve noticed in a lot in interviews is that women get asked a lot about how they balance things and the men are rarely asked about it. Do you find that annoying?

You know what, Kris probably finds it more annoying because he has actually taken the brunt of the kids, and hats off to him really for that because I still get comments made to me like, ‘When are you going to send Kris out to work?’ They think him looking after the kids isn’t him doing the work. But the fact that he does it, he fully appreciates how much time it does take to look after three kids.

How do you split the time between Bath and London?

I’m in London around three days a week and I do the people stuff, so I try to schedule in meetings with key managers, organising the new projects before handing them to someone else or I’ll be at an event. Every two or three weeks, Kris will come. But we’re never here together. So he may come from Sunday to Tuesday and he uses that time when the restaurants are closed to do bits there and then he’ll be back in Bath.

And do you enjoy it? Do you like the way you’re working now?

Yeah I do. For so many years it has felt like a slog at times, but it’s starting to feel a bit more balanced and enjoyable. It’s very varied and it’s a lot of people stuff which I do like.

If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be?

Don’t hold on to all of those fears. Most of the time if you just approach them head on you’ll be alright. So, the thing you’re worried about saying, say it. The thing you’re worried about doing, just do it.

If you knew then what you know now, do you think you would have the courage to do it?

Maybe not, but I’m really proud of what we have managed to do. So I do think it has been worth it. We started the business before we had kids, and then had kids as we were really getting it going. I think if we had had kids first, maybe we would have still started something but done it a bit different. Even the opening hours and the location have been difficult to manage with kids.

What are the future plans for My Neighbours the Dumplings

We are looking to open a third site, so that would be cool.

And if you could have a coffee with any woman, who would it be and why?

I was actually just thinking about Celestial Peach, her name is Jenny but that’s her Instagram name. We met more recently because we’re working on an event together, but I think she would be a really good conversation. She is an excellent communicator of heritage and understanding cultural influences and the implications. She’s written a book which she’s got a publishing deal for and it’s called an A to Z of Chinese Food, so every letter is a different concept regarding how Chinese food is viewed or exploring ideas within that. In brackets it says ‘not a single recipe is in this book’, so it is entirely written as an exploration into the culture behind the food and I find that really interesting. So ‘A’ is authenticity, and it’s something that really resonated with me, because it’s something that we get accused of time and time again, of not being authentic. People come down and they have certain expectations of what it should or shouldn’t be and we’re told we’re not authentic enough and it’s something that used to really bug me, but reading things like that has helped me to define that I am authentically me. Which is mixed. And I grew up on a farm with amazingly reared British meat and Chinese ingredients and flavours and that’s the marriage of what we have created. And we’re here in East London with a team of people who come from different places but we work together and we are not a monoculture. I think that’s the great thing about who we are and I’m slowly becoming more proud of that.


And what does your mum think now?

She’s really super proud now. But it’s one of those things. You have to prove yourself - over time. Especially to Chinese mums. You don’t just get it. It takes years to earn it.

My Neighbours the Dumplings

Bec with her mum outside the Victoria Park restaurant