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15 Minutes with Duolan Li

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Photographs by (Duolan Li) Rachel Doblin & courtesy of (Ghee clarified butter) Purity Farms/Organic Valley, (pottery) Cone 10 Studios, (toner) Thayers, & (moisture meter) Luster Leaf Products

May 27, 2015

15 Minutes with Duolan Li

If you’ve ever feasted at Xiao Bao Biscuit, you’ve probably witnessed co-owner Duolan Li working the floor with a smile. Read on to learn more about this down-to-earth gal and get the scoop on some of her favorite people, places, and things

written by Allston McCrady

CM: Earlier in your career, you worked in finance in New York City. How’d you wind up in Charleston running a restaurant?
My husband [Josh Walker] and I met while living in New York in our twenties, but we were ready for a change when we got married. We quit our jobs and traveled in Asia for seven months. After our travels, we settled outside of Charleston, where Josh has family ties, then decided to move downtown when the idea of Xiao Bao Biscuit took hold.

CM: Xiao Bao Biscuit (XBB) is located in a former gas station. How did you use that history to foster the restaurant’s unique ambiance?
In terms of renovating and decorating, we took a less-is-more approach. We loved the intrinsic feel of the building and wanted to preserve that while invoking the spirit of places we’ve seen through traveling. A lot of the décor is very personal to me, as it speaks to a China that I remember but that no longer exists. You can see remnants from my childhood—vintage thermoses, photos, tin cookie jars.

CM: Did you grow up in China?
I’m ethnically Mongolian but was born in China and came to the States when I was six. I grew up eating mostly home-cooked northern Chinese food: simple stir fries, congee, steamed buns, noodle soups. I went through a period in my teens when I hated eating rice, which concerned my parents because in Chinese culture, everything is served with a side of rice. That obviously didn’t last.

CM: We’ve often spotted you gardening outside the restaurant in your sun hat. How’d you get your green thumb?
I didn’t start until we opened XBB. We wanted plants to soften the brick-and-cement elements of the building and create understated warmth. Gardening can be quite expensive, so I took my time and learned through trial and error. But these days, Matt Skinner—a former XBB employee who now runs his own landscaping company—actually does the bulk of it for us.

CM: You’re frequently out on the floor as a hostess. How does this fit into your work philosophy?
I’m used to family-run restaurants, where the owner is omnipresent. You lead by example. For us, it’s important to take pride in everything we do, and it’s also our job to make people happy. No task is too small. Hard work is its own reward.

CM: What’s it like to run a business with your husband?
We’re best friends, partners in crime, so we do well with spending a lot of time together. We’re also comfortable enough to always be honest. Josh cooks, and I play the critic. I’m there to provide perspective.

CM: Do you and Josh have any home cooking traditions?
We’ve always made dumplings during the Lunar New Year. Before Josh started cooking Asian food, I taught him to roll dumplings. It’s something we brought to XBB; we always have made-from-scratch dumplings on the menu.

CM: You’ve got some pretty fierce style—we recently saw you rocking bleached tips and a denim jumper. Where do you shop?
I like Worthwhile and Madewell on King Street and the thrift store next to H&L Asian Market on Rivers Avenue in North Charleston. It’s hard for me to pin down my style. I’m a little all over the place, but I have a lot of fun with it.

CM: What’s on XBB’s playlist?
We’re into Body Language, a group based out of Brooklyn. We even took the staff on a field trip a couple years ago to see them play in Raleigh. Their music makes me happy and when I hear it, I can’t help but want to dance.

Five of Li's Favorite Things:

Ghee Clarified Butter: “I grew up using clarified butter. In the mornings, I spread it on toast with salt or jam,” she says. Whole Foods, $12

Cone 10 Studios: Li takes classes at the downtown ceramics studio, where she also buys gifts such as this locally made sake set.

Her Hair Stylist: “My favorite hairdresser, Jamie Dorothy Ellis, just opened The Beacon, her own salon,” notes Li.

Rapitest Moisture Meter: To avoid over-watering plants, she tests water levels with the handy tool. Hyams Garden Center, $15

Thayers Alcohol-Free Witch Hazel Toner: She explains, “With its light rose scent, it’s refreshing during our humid summers.” Whole Foods, $10

For more articles on eating and drinking in Charleston, click here.

For a tempting peek at Xiao Bao Biscuit’s menu, click here.