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Big Trouble Little Dumplings: How One Chef Kept Cooking During Covid

three men making dumplings
Photo by John Robson Photography

In March 2020, chef and restaurateur Sam Graf was faced with a dilemma. Lockdown orders were issued for Fort Collins, Colorado due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and he made the difficult decision to close his popular restaurant, Music City Hot Chicken, for six weeks. But what would he do in the meantime? That’s when it hit him. Why not make some delicious food in his yard and see who stops by to try it? With that, Big Trouble Little Dumpling was born. Several days a week, Graf would create and sell his take on dumplings, banh mi and other Asian-inspired bites right out of his driveway, keeping a community well-fed in a time they needed it most.

tray of dumplings

Photo by John Robson Photography

Making dumplings was no flash-in-the-pan idea for Graf. He already sported a fascination with Asian cuisine and had been tinkering for a while on his own, as well as through a successful collaboration with a local food purveyor known as RamaMama. “Then this coronavirus stuff popped up,” he said, and his “driveway dumps” began by word of mouth and on social media. “I was shocked at how many people took me up on my offer to pick up food. Probably 50 people came by that [first] day.” His menu differed each week, ranging from more classic flavors like garlic and ginger-seasoned pork chop dumplings, to twists on American favorites like cheeseburgers and pizza.

The food was always free to customers, but donations were welcome to help keep the program afloat. Lines would start to form around the block before food was even ready, selling as fast as they could be packaged, upwards of 500 dumplings per day. Thankfully, Graf was not alone in his endeavor, with friends and fellow chefs Kevin Kirshner and Steven Skinner stopping by to help. Even Virgil Dickerson of Denver’s KREAM Kimchi would travel an hour and a half to lend a hand.

What started as three days a week during lockdown was pared down to one, as Music City reopened and Graf had to get back to his regular business. But he kept that dumpling date each week until the inevitable visit from the local health department in December, 2020. Despite being in a production gray area, he ceased operation under threat of penalties. But the shutter was a blessing in disguise for Graf, who by then was finding it difficult to keep up with the demands of both chicken and dumplings.

So for now, Big Trouble Little Dumpling will simmer on the backburner as Graf focuses on the growth of the Music City business. But hopefully, a new iteration of the dumpling concept won’t be too far off in the future. “New projects are something that will always be part of my life, and I very much hope this will be the next one,” he said.


AnnMarie Mattila

AnnMarie Mattila is a food writer, recipe developer and pastry chef based in New York. She has a master's degree from New York University in Food Studies and sometimes eats cake for dinner. Follow her at



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