Life After the Vendy's: We Chat with Lumpia Shack Co-founder Neil Syham

Lumpia Shack

I first encountered Lumpia Shack last year at Williamsburg's Smorgasburg. The summer long foodie event is host to over 50 food vendors, where almost every type of cuisine is represented. Lumpia Shack is a stand that serves delicious Filipino-inspired fried and fresh lumpia (loom-pee-ah), or spring rolls. Our team ran into them again when we covered the 2012 NYC Vendy Awards where they were nominated (and won) for the Best of Market Vendors Award. Unlike other food vendors, Lumpia Shack doesn't have a truck. Its sole location is at Smorgasburg from April to November. Although Lumpia Shack has only a seasonal spot, foodies from every borough already know about their menu items. Their win is well deserved. Perhaps I am a bit biased because I'm Filipino but I get so giddy about vendors, restaurants and chefs who are making Filipino dishes accessible for everyone. I recently caught up with Neil Syham, one of the founders of Lumpia Shack to talk about the Vendy's, their ingredients and what's in the works for this year's Smorgasburg.

Still high from your Vendy win for ‘Best of Market Vendors’ Award? Yes! It was an amazing event and we are still so happy and honored to win the first-ever Best of Market Vendor Award!

Did you guys expect to win at all? Of course not! We were competing among other well-known, successful vendors and Smorgasburg friends. We were thrilled to be invited to participate, but we really had no idea what to expect and were mostly focused on how we were going to feed so many people in such little time!

Has your win from the Vendy’s affected your business? How? Of course winning the Vendy’s has affected our business in a good way! It helped spread our name and let everyone know that we are an established vendor at Smorgasburg. We just want to keep producing great food for all our fans and customers to enjoy.

Lumpia Shack is your take on the Filipino version of the Chinese spring roll- how many times do you find yourselves trying to explain this to customers? I think “Filipino-Inspired Spring Rolls” which is written on our banner, as well as our menu, explains a lot already. And many of our customers usually have already been introduced to lumpia from their Filipino friends before, but we do find ourselves explaining our concept and goals quite frequently to our customers or to people who happen to just walk by and are curious.

Out of all the Filipino staples, why did you go with lumpia? We grew up eating lumpia at home and it was something I enjoyed making for friends and family as I grew older. People always like eating spring rolls and the Filipino version are small and tasty. We felt it was the perfect medium to introduce people to Filipino food and culture. It’s a tasty snack to eat by yourself or to share with a group of friends.

What makes Lumpia Shack different from traditional lumpia? Most importantly, we strive to use the best ingredients by focusing on local and organic products from NYC greenmarkets and purveyors. We also try to come up with creative recipes by incorporating classic Filipino dishes and flavors into our spring rolls—sisig, sinigang or pinakbet, to name a few.

Do you feel with the birth of the foodies, that you can incorporate Filipino ingredients confidently? We are confident that by combining seasonal ingredients with classic techniques and Filipino flavors that everyone can find something that they can really enjoy from our menu.

You’ve included ‘pinakbet’ (a traditional Filipino vegetable dish with shrimp paste and squash as the main ingredients) in your lumpia, what other dishes do you wish to put your spin to? We have many new ideas for this coming year but some of our more popular specials have been our Adobo, Sinigang, Sisig and Inasal (BBQ) lumpia.

I’ve been a fan of you since I first had your chicken adobo lumpia at Smorgasburg. I’m quite familiar with the ingredients you guys use- what’s the strangest meat or ingredient that you’ve ever used? Ever want to use elk or ostrich? Coming from a Filipino-Chinese background we are pretty comfortable using unaccustomed cuts of meat. I guess the strangest ingredients would have to be pig ears, snout, and jowels specifically for our Sisig Lumpia. We are always trying to incorporate new ingredients to our fillings but mainly want to stay focused on playing with the ingredients of traditional Filipino dishes. So elk and ostrich won’t make it to the menu yet but the future looks bright for goat and oxtail!

Do you offer something for vegans as well? If so, would you say that your vegan dishes have just as much good flavors as your meat-based lumpia? We don’t have a vegan dish available yet as we use an egg wash to seal our rolls, but we do offer some vegetarian options! Our Truffled Adobo Mushroom Lumpia is one our bestsellers at the market.

Neil, you're a seasoned chef- how was working at Gramercy Park Hotel different from tending to a small food stand? My first gig out of culinary school was at the Gramercy Park Hotel. Like any other cooking job I’ve had since then, it was long hours and lots of hard work doing repetitive tasks. However, the pace was different. Usually, at restaurants or hotel kitchens there are periods where it’s busy and then it quiets down in between services. At Smorgasburg, we have a similar kitchen brigade system (aka the line), but our production turnover time has to be much quicker. Also, working outside where we have to pretty much bring our kitchen to the market as well as being subject to varying weather conditions also makes each week quite unpredictable. Propane tanks run out, ice melts, and tents have flown away. Now I’m the one managing the whole operation and not just ‘on the line’ so there’s much more I need to take into consideration to running our stand than just frying spring rolls!

You state that you ”incorporate seasonal ingredients purchased locally at farmer’s markets,” how important is this for you? This is very important part for us. Not only to support local businesses and promote sustainable food production but we also feel that it makes our food stand out. We buy and use the same ingredients for our own food and home cooking and wouldn’t have it any other way for our business as well.

Where do you guys like to eat in NYC? We mostly like to cook at home but when we do go out, some favorite spots include Soy NYC, a cozy LES restaurant that serves home made Japanese food; Ihawan for traditional Filipino food in Woodside, Queens; Eat Greenpoint, The Brooklyn Wok Shop, and Pie Corps are local eateries we frequent. After long Saturdays at Smorgasburg markets or after any late night, we often go to Best Pizza in Williamsburg for a quick slice.

What are your best sellers? Our best sellers are our Truffled Adobo Mushroom and Sinigang Shrimp Lumpia!

Will you guys be at Smorgasburg this summer? YES!! Lumpia Shack will be at Smorgasburg this year alongside our second stand Adobo Shack from April to November!