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Dumplings are a large part of Ross’ legend. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

In 1960, chef Rosa de Carvalho Ross moved from Hong Kong to London with her new husband, Australian advertising executive Ron Ross. Although she grew up loving the food around her, she never learned how to cook. 

“I was in my twenties when I left Hong Kong and I didn’t know how to cook,” said Ross. “One day [my husband] asked if I could heat a can of soup. I said, ‘Of course,’ and went to the kitchen, washed the label off the can, and put the whole can into a pot of water and boiled it.” 

It is easy to assume that professional chefs always knew they wanted to work in the kitchen — that they often spent their childhoods with their parents or grandparents learning the skills they carry with them into their careers. 

But Rosa Ross — teacher, student, entrepreneur and author — isn’t like other chefs. 

Born in British Hong Kong in the 1930s, Ross is a member of one of the oldest Portuguese families in Macao. While traditional Chinese cuisine was often served within her household, Ross had a smorgasbord of flavors around her. The cosmopolitan commonwealth meant British food, and the influences of Indian and Malaysian cuisines, were around every corner. Ross even frequented bakeries owned by recently relocated Russians, who fled the Bolshevik revolution.

Growing up, the majority of her meals were prepared by servants, which was not uncommon among families living in Hong Kong during that period. 

“It’s not like we were super wealthy; everyone had them. They were a part of our family,” said Ross. “Even though Hong Kong was a British territory at the time, it was quite multicultural and I ate a lot of different things growing up.” 

A legend creates a legend

Soon after “the soup incident,” Ross purchased a copy of Good Housekeeping magazine from a London shop in the hopes of figuring out how to cook. She also began talking to her neighbors and coworkers and amassed enough tips and tricks to produce a collection of a few simple meals. 

By the time Ross and her husband moved to Italy in 1962 — Ron’s career in advertising caused the couple to move every year or two — Ross had the basics down. However, it was a chance encounter at a dinner party that finally led her to discover her love for cooking.

“It was my first day in Milan, I was seven months pregnant and I didn’t speak any Italian,” she noted. “I was seated next to the only other person who could speak English, Marcella Hazan.” 

Hazan, hailed as the “godmother of Italian cooking in America,” made a name for herself with her popular instructional books on Italian cuisine. But in 1962, she was still an unknown. 

“To put a freshly made meal on the table … is an act of binding intimacy directed at whoever has a welcome place in your heart,” Hazan once said in an interview. That philosophy was evident in her relationship with Ross. When Ross became a new mother, she was terrified and alone. Hazan was there to support her, cooking — and teaching Ross how to make — her now famous pasta sauce. 

“She took me under her wing,” said Ross. “We would go out to dinner and Marcella would ask if I knew how to make it and when I said no, she would teach me how. I was her first pupil and I got quite good.” 

Hazan taught her how to shop in the Milanese markets and how to prepare food according to the basics of Italian cooking. During that year, Ross’s skill in the kitchen grew exponentially. She discovered she could make anything by working backward through taste. 

The student becomes the teacher

It was the early 1970s when Ross and her husband moved to California — again for Ron’s job — and at that time, hosting fashionable dinner parties was all the rage. Ross was intrigued by the Chinese restaurants in the nearby Chinatown and used her keen sense of taste to begin teaching herself how to make food from her homeland. Forever a student, she was aided by those in Chinatown markets and was soon preparing Chinese food for cocktail parties around town. 

“When I moved to New York, my co-workers said they were taking Chinese cooking classes from Madame Chu [one of the first Chinese chefs to teach non-Chinese culinary pupils] and they told me they learned how to make fried rice with eggs and bacon,” said Ross. “I went, ‘You paid money to learn that?’ I soon quit my job to work full time on my cooking classes, called ‘Wok on Wheels.’ ”

Wok on Wheels was Ross’ mobile cooking school. In 1980, she began teaching clients along Park Avenue how to cook basic Chinese meals. The catering service exploded in business, leading Ross to write multiple books about Chinese cooking, including “Beyond Bok Choy” and “New Wok Cooking.” 

In 1983, Ross came into contact with Peter Kump, founder of the New York Cooking School (renamed the Institute of Culinary Education in 2001), the first cooking school in New York City. He asked Ross if she could teach classes on Asian cooking, which also gave her the opportunity to learn international cooking from some of the most famous chefs in the industry, such as James Beard and Jaques Pepin. 

“I enjoyed teaching because I loved the rapport with students,” said Ross. “When we moved out to East Marion in the late ‘80s, I wanted to have my cooking school.” 

The scrimshaw years: dumplings dominate

Ross attempted to host a few cooking classes after moving to the North Fork, but she found the people who signed up for them were more interested in socializing and drinking wine than in learning techniques. 

For as long as Ross was teaching cooking skills, she never worked in a professional kitchen — aside from a brief stint as a consultant for a New York City restaurant in the late 1990s. However, it was an aspect of her culinary career she was always drawn to. 

On the North Fork, Ross and her husband became close friends with the owners of the family that owned the wharf in Greenport. To Ross, the structure that sat on Preston’s dock seemed like an ideal spot for a restaurant, and in 2004 she made the leap from teacher to restaurateur. 

She named her establishment Scrimshaw — after a carved whalebone — as an allusion to Greenport’s rich maritime heritage. To complement the name, the restaurant itself was decorated in a relaxed nautical style. 

When she decided to put dumplings on her specials menu in 2007, she didn’t think they would sell. 

Her ever-changing menu of eclectic American fare featured a collection of pasta, chicken, duck, and steak dishes. While she still carried a love for Chinese cooking, dumplings never seemed like an option. 

“I never intended to keep them on the menu; they’re extremely labor intensive,” she said. 

Little did Ross know that her dumplings would become a permanent fixture not only on her menu but of her North Fork legacy. 

The dumplings became a mainstay at Scrimshaw and although they required extenuated effort to prepare — each needed to be folded by hand — Ross discovered people would pay anything to eat them. 

“We would serve six dumplings in tiered steamer baskets for $16,” laughed Ross. “There was a woman who came in weekly and would order them but only eat three. One day I asked her why she never ate the other three and she said she had no idea there were more dumplings underneath. She liked the dumplings so much she was perfectly okay with paying $16 for three.” 

Traditional pork dumplings accompanied Ross’ own chicken dumpling recipe. Often she would include a vegetarian dumpling as well. Along with dumplings, Ross introduced Chinese spring rolls with duck confit, featuring duck from Crescent Duck Farms in nearby Aquebogue. 

Scrimshaw closed its doors in 2016. Today, 82, Ross, now 82, devotes most of her time to writing and has two books currently in the works. One is non-fiction, about her life growing up in Hong Kong. The other is a novel, a thriller set during World War II.

Once each week, however, Ross still prepares six dozen dumplings for The Market, a Greenport store specializing in local organic and specialty food. 

“We sell out every week,” said owner Shelley Scoggin. “I took a cooking class about 15 years ago with Rosa and we’ve been friends ever since. She’s honest and straightforward. I have a great respect for what she’s accomplished.” 

Both chicken and pork dumplings are available in frozen packs of six, accompanied by a dipping sauce, for $18. 

“Nowadays, I try to write 3,000 words a day for my books and make dumplings once a week,” said Ross. 

Chef, author and entrepreneur Rosa Ross settled in East Marion in the 1980’s. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

Chicken Dumplings Recipe

(Original recipe created by Rosa Ross)

Makes about 3 dozen

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast 

15 water chestnuts 

1 cup cilantro leaves, loosely packed 

1 tablespoon hoisin sauce 

2 teaspoons soy sauce 

2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil 

1 tablespoon cornstarch 

Salt and pepper, to taste 

1 package thin round yellow dumpling skins (about 80 sheets per package) 

Vegetable oil 

1. In a food processor, combine water chestnuts and cilantro leaves and chop finely; move to a bowl.

2. Cut chicken into chunks, place in a food processor and process. Add hoisin, soy, sesame oil, cornstarch, salt and pepper, and the water chestnuts and cilantro leaves. Pulse to combine. 

3. Place dumpling wrappers on a clean surface, a dozen at a time, and form dumplings into creel shapes. Oil bottoms and place in steamer baskets.

4. Steam for about 10 minutes until dumplings are cooked through.