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Any discerning London foodie has heard of the Bao restaurant group, which is famous for its steamed buns, and now operates three London locations as well as an all-day spin-off called Cafe Bao. The restaurant group is often credited for popularising bao (Taiwanese steamed buns) in London, but some diners might be surprised to discover that the restaurant started out as a street food stand, tracing back to the childhood experiences of its head chef.
Erchen Chang was born in Taiwan, where she lived until she was 14. Chang’s school was a rather long commute away from her family home, so she became accustomed to grabbing dinner at the country's night markets while on her way home, sparking her interest in street food. As a teenager, Chang was sent to boarding school in London and later went on to study art at the Slade School of Fine Art, part of the University College London campus.
Here, she met a man called Shing Tat Chung, who would later go on to become her husband. Chang and Chung would take trips back to Taiwan together and be inspired by the thriving street food scene, eventually leading them to decide they wanted to open their own street food operation back in the UK. Teaming up with Tat Chung’s sister, Wai Ting Chung, the trio launched Bao as a street food stand in 2012, as part of popular food market Kerb which has locations across the capital.
The stand was a hit and resulted in Erchen Chang and her co-founders opening a semi-permanent site at Hackney’s Netil Market. The restaurant then went on to receive financial backing from the JKS Restaurants group, which is responsible for some of London’s most-loved restaurants, including Michelin-starred celeb-magnet Gymkhana. Bao Soho, the first permanent location for the group, opened its doors shortly afterwards, with Chang and her husband working in the kitchen, while Wai Ting Chung looked after the front of house.
The Bao group has gone on to open two more London sites, one in Fitzrovia and one in Borough, while a daytime offering called Cafe Bao also forms part of the collective. Away from Bao, Erchen Chang also opened sister restaurant Xu (pronounced ‘Shu’) in Soho. The restaurant’s menu is more authentically Taiwanese than Chang’s previous offerings and seeks to bring mainstay Taiwanese dishes such as pig’s blood cake to a Western audience.