Matt Murtagh-Wu was supposed to be a banker. Instead, he's making whisky and pork belly dumplings.
Photos by Hakan Burcuoglu (The Curatorialist)
He did what he was expected to do. He went to university, got a degree, and went on to get a big boy job in finance just like his dad. It paid the bills, but it didn’t feed the soul. Half-Chinese, half-white, the self proclaimed Dumpling King might not fit into any conventional boxes. Regardless, his handmade, hand-rolled, hand-delivered dumplings are the real deal. In the past two years, he has folded and sold over 70,000 dumplings— sourcing and creating his food right out of Vancouver’s Chinatown.
Matt Murtagh-Wu was born and raised on Vancouver’s west side. On the outside, he had the quintessential middle-class upbringing. His father immigrated from Hong Kong and started his career at a bank in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown before changing lanes to real estate. His mother, born and raised on Vancouver Island, was an office worker.
“When I was a kid, we used to go to Chinatown every weekend,” Matt recently told me over the phone about his weekly childhood pilgrimages, and how they shaped the way he saw food. “We’d go in the mornings for breakfast at a Hong Kong cafe, then go to the butcher or get fresh fish. Having a steam bun while following my parents around are some of my earliest memories.”
When his father switched careers a second time to become an investment banker, Matt never understood the significance. He later learned that it was his mother, the family’s matriarch, who was behind the change—she wanted a husband who could spend more time with their children.
“She said, ‘Go do it,’ and he just executed. Like a machine,” Matt recalls.
Most investment bankers fail within two years, but Matt’s father rose to the top. However, the elder Wu’s life of constant hustling and financial exams left its mark on Matt. Feeling that he could never emulate his father's lifestyle, Matt used his daddy issues to help fuel his dumpling empire.
Well, eventually. After university, Matt followed in his father’s footsteps and started working at a bank. In the office, his father was revered, but at home, he was short-tempered and impatient with his only son. He didn't seem to understand Matt, and felt that choosing your career course was a luxury.
“My dad didn’t show much for emotions,” Matt says. “But he cared deeply for his family—in the Chinese way; making sure you are fed, clothed, and have an education.”
Eventually, Matt threw in the banking towel and picked up shifts washing dishes at a few local restaurants. He soon found that he loved the hustle and bustle of working at a late-night kitchen. Still jazzed after work, he would head home to smoke a joint and experiment with food. It was here that growing up in a multicultural household really benefited the soon-to-be Dumpling King.
Matt started putting unexpected ingredients such as Macallan Single Malt scotch, Glenfiddich, pork belly, celery, and whatever else he found lying around into his dumplings. It was through trial and error he developed his signature Johnnie Walker Black Pork Belly & Scallion dumpling—the dish that started it all.
Having the privilege of classical culinary training can only take you so far. Matt taught himself how to make dumplings; the folding, the repetition, everything. He says he wants his food to be a creative but respectful riff on tradition.
Smoking joints and moonlighting out of his kitchen as a private chef, Matt soon recognized that his business had potential. One day, he put his phone number on Instagram, where he currently solicits most of his clients, and asked his followers if they wanted locally sourced, hand-folded dumplings delivered to their door by the man himself.
“[I even remember that] my first customer's name was Kyle. When he texted my for dumplings, it clicked—there is potential in this,” he told me. “I'll never forget it.”
This was just before before DoorDash or UberEats came to Vancouver, and brought with it the growing infrastructure of decentralized food delivery.
“The fact that I am delivering what I made by hand, I think people take value in that.”
After he receives an order through his website, he’ll reach out to his customers directly to arrange a drop-off location for the dumplings. For most people, it’s home delivery, but he’s delivered to Safeway parking lots, bus stops, offices, or even alleyways. That’s the type of service you get from The Dumpling King—he brings his homemade goods straight to you.
Since then, he took a page out of his father’s book and started to hone in on the business side of things. Media coverage, learning the ropes of online marketing, continuously practicing his skill sets, hosting his own pop up events, and even food writing has let The Dumpling King grow into a formative local business.
Since the business’ inception just two years ago, the Dumpling King has held three successful pop-up events in Vancouver. For his first two events, he collaborated with a non profit called Hives for Humanity, a grassroots organization that employs members of the Downtown Eastside via beekeeping and honey-making. He describes those events as his “coming out party,” a way to show people he wasn't just a guy who delivers dumplings in his car, and that he did really care about Chinatown, and the historically troubled Downtown Eastside community.
Through exercising complete quality control over his products, Matt hopes to continue establishing himself as a Chinese-Canadian cook. He’s developed relationships with his butchers and relishes his weekly trips to Chinatown.
Now, Matt’s business has come full circle, back to the place he feels most connected. Gone are the days when he questions his potential for success; everything from his roots in Chinatown to his father’s career in banking as the token Cantonese-English speaker to his late grandmother’s long-running local hair salon have shaped his direction in life. Matt Murtagh-Wu’s story is the story of Vancouver, and he’s going to do this city proud on his own terms.
“I don’t question who I am or how I fit anymore—I pay sweat equity, everyday hustling. Vancouver is ready for something different and real. I want to be the greatest this city has ever produced."