In Conversation With James Ooi, Little Bao Boy

Every chat should start with coffee and doughnuts and Doh’hut was perfectly placed on my journey this morning…….. After almost having the life blown out of me on a very blustery Leeds day, I met and chatted with James Ooi, founder of one of Leeds’ favourite food places Little Bao Boy.

North Brew Tap on Sovereign Street was unrecognisably quiet, but it was 10am! Every time I have visited previously or walked past it has been full to bursting, a sign of how popular this place has become.

After agreeing how just good Dohhut doughnuts are, we quickly began talking about the main event, Bao Buns, coincidently one of my favourite foods. It wasn’t until a trip to China 8 years ago I truly understood how delicious and satisfying they are. They are now popping up regularly on menus across the UK, and for me serve a similar purpose as a taco (another one of my favourite foods), a vessel for stuffing with tasty goodness, perfect for experimenting with different flavours and fillings. Also, both tacos and bao buns are perfect for eating with beer!

Originally from the North East, James moved to Leeds for university, followed by a number of years working in hospitality, including chef training at La Iguanas. After a spell working as an investment broker and living in Hong Kong, James wanted to return to his true passion: food.

Food is clearly in his blood. James’ dad opened up the first noodle bar in Middlesbrough some decades ago. The business boomed, with locals clearly wanting an alternative to the Parmo* (another one of my favourites).

Little Bao Boy was launched in 2016, initially as a pop up, with a dodgy gazebo and a growing social media following. Two and a half years later the opportunity came up with North Brewery Taps for Little Bao Boy to use their small kitchen and hatch at their Sovereign Street bar, right in the heart of Leeds City Centre. It was the first beer and temporary food collaboration in the City. The initial six months soon passed and they have never left!

Now it’s time to introduce Jack, who wasn’t around today as he had more pressing issues of moving house! James describes Jack, or JB as he goes by, as someone who “gets stuff done”. Their relationship almost got off to a fiery start when a local food writer was determined to brand them as rivals over who made the best fried chicken in town! This wasn’t the case though when they met. With business booming, James needed additional hands on deck, so the two fried chicken experts eventually joined forces and never looked back.

North Brewery Tap will always be Little Bao Boy’s first ‘home’. However, as their popularity has grown they have taken on a second location in Leeds. You can now get your bao boy fix down at Springwell Brewery at weekends. Panko Spam bao boys with hash browns and siracha ketchup for weekend brunch anyone?

As James and JBs roles are now more operational and business focused, away from the cooking side of things, they rely on their experienced chefs when it comes to menu development with new monthly specials. February’s special is braised and fried duck, cucumber, sticky hoi sin and spring onions. There are still original recipes on the menu from when Little Bao Boy first set up, which are a mixture of east meets west, such as their slow-cooked pork which includes apple, but also more traditional eastern flavours of Chinese 5 spice, ginger and soy. Aside from bao buns, there are always loaded fries, noodles and gyozas on the menu. James’s dad has also made appearances for noodle nights, and now that he has sold his North East noodle bar, this may become more of a regular thing!

It is clear speaking to James how closely Leeds food independent businesses work together and support each other. For example, to keep up with the demand of making bao buns (up to 10,000 per week in the height of the summer), Leeds bakers Gilchrist take some of the workload, ensuring that they use the original dough recipe. Collaborations and pops up continue across the City at venues such at Chow Down, various Leeds food festivals and private functions, all which see Little Bao Boy back to their roots, but now with more robust weather proof gazebos. Little Bao Boy products, such as their crispy chilli oil, can be seen on independent shops’ shelves at places such as Out of this World and the Bottleshop in Meanwood.

Recent developments in the business have seen more brewery food openings in other UK cities, including Manchester and Birmingham, as well a 6 month pop up at gastro pub The Sun & 13 Cantons in Soho, London. A big focus this year is also on increasing their franchise business model, which has seen 32 Little Bao Boy sites opening up across the capital, some of which are Deliveroo kitchens. Their ambitious target is to have 80 open by the end of the year.   

Right, well I know where I’m going for brunch this weekend! I’ll let you know how I get on.

Get your Bao Bun fix from one of their Leeds venues below. There are always vegetarian and vegans options available.

*Parmo – fried breaded chicken breast smothered in a bechamel cheese sauce for extra naughtiness.

Photographs provided by Little Bao Boy.

North Brewery Tap Room
3, Sovereign St
Leeds, LS1 43R
Fri & Sat: 11.30am – 9.30pm
Sun – Thurs: 12pm – 9.30pm

Springwell Brewery

Buslingthorpe Lane
Leeds, LS7 2DF
Fri 5pm – 10pm
Sat: 11am – 10pm
Sun: 11am – 7pm

Instagram: @littlebaoboy

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