Open here for a recipe curated just for The Sunday Roast News June edition by a local celebrity chef!
Welcome back to The Sunday Roast! I am so very excited for this edition. I know I say that every month, but this is a chef I’ve admired in the D.C. food scene for a while, and he was so incredibly generous with this time to help create this final product. I was a bit starstruck when speaking to him, so if you recognize his name or places like Emilie’s, American Son and Prather’s on the Alley, then you’ll really enjoy this, too!
This month: As you may recall, my last edition was a special one to highlight a local-based national campaign during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. I was lucky enough to snag a ticket to one of the last Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate dinners and an interview with one of the co-founders, Chef Kevin Tien. After highlighting the newsletter on social media, I managed to connect with the other co-founder, Chef Tim Ma! And while this is the June edition, it will be a bit different because Tim created a recipe especially for my lovely Sunday Roast audience! Make sure you take the time to read this incredible edition and test out the delicious recipe.
A note on receiving emails: Make sure to add my sending address to your address book to avoid the newsletter regularly ending up in spam. I found this helpful article to walk you through adding me as a contact in Gmail that will hopefully help.
Tim Ma is a jack of all trades. He’s a former engineer, a trained chef, a restaurant owner, an operations manager, a chef consultant, a food and beverage entrepreneur and the co-founder of a national charity campaign. He’s always busy cooking up something innovative or groundbreaking in the D.C. food scene, so when he finally had a chance to breathe last Friday after winding down a month-long national program, I grabbed a half hour of his time to talk about his busy life as a well-known chef in the DMV.
Tim has called the DMV home for about 30 years now. He grew up in a family of restauranteurs in Northern Virginia, but his family pushed him towards an engineering career, and he originally only say food as sustenance. So he set off on a 12-year career after earning a bachelor’s degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University. Around age 26, Tim decided to he wanted pursue opening a restaurant and then at age 30, he did it. He quit his job and went to culinary school at the International Culinary Center in New York City, where he learned the classic French style of cooking. His original intent was just to gain a fluency in that professional environment and not become chef, since he didn’t know how to properly hold a knife at 30, but he got really into the technical part of cooking, and ended up during an externship up at 2-Michelin Star Momofuku Ko, and cooking at the highly regarded Momofuku Ssam.
Then, in a brief foray to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands to cook and formulate the plan for a restaurant, Tim returned to Virginia in 2009 to purchase a restaurant on Craigslist with his last remaining credit card. His friends and family helps make his dream come true, and even helped remodel it, before opening as Maple Ave Restaurant in 2009. Since then, Maple Ave was ranked the #1 restaurant in NoVa and he has helped launch several more critically acclaimed restaurants, including: Water & Well, the American sister restaurant to Maple Ave; Chase the Submarine, a craft sandwich shop; American Son, the Bib Gourmand restaurant at Eaton DC featuring American immigrant cuisines; Kyirisan, a Chinese-French concept that also earned a Michelin Guide Bib Gourmand; and now, his Chinese-American take-out pop-up, Lucky Danger.
Before Lucky Danger launched, Tim took over as executive chef of Prather’s on the Alley in Mount Vernon Triangle in November of 2019 after they asked for a recommendation for a chef and he suggested the best: himself. At the same time, Tim signed on as culinary director for Laoban Dumplings, a local company offering fresh frozen dumplings, and his family was honored by the Smithsonian Museum of American History with an induction of family heirlooms from the history of their restaurants. It was a busy time for him, but almost 50 members of his family came from around the world to celebrate. He says that at that time, the sense of family and the mark you leave was overwhelming. He had always done French cuisine in difference capacities, mostly with Asian accents, because it was what he was trained in and what his love for food and cooking grew from.
In that moment, and partially as a result of the pandemic when everybody stopped and slowed down, Tim thought, “Why is Chinese cuisine not strong enough to stand on its own?” He knew that Chinese food in America was part of the cultural fabric since there was not a town in the country without a takeout place, but there was still a perception that it was cheap and the tendency for it to be marginalized or made fun of. Tim then realized he should highlight that cuisine in its purest form, with the Chinese American dishes everybody loves with a few actual Chinese twist here and there, so that was the beginning of Lucky Danger in the Prather’s on the Alley space.
Discover Tim’s Instagram.
Discover American Son’s Instagram.
Discover Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate’s Instagram.
Discover Laoban Dumplings’ Instagram.
Keep scrolling for more on Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate + Tim’s recipe.
The story behind his recipe.
While the Lucky Danger concept at first was meant to be just like Chinese takeout where a customer can call in and pick up dinner minutes later, and Tim kept his name quiet in an effort to keep that mission central to the concept, eventually, the secret got out and led to 6 months of sold-out pick-up times. They were originally making a new dish every 7 seconds because of how many orders they received, which is why Lucky Danger switched to a pre-order system.
Tim says that while that does help him and his co-founder Andrew Chiou know how much they need to cook that evening before they even open, it’s not the original concept of an “accessible, egoless venture” they had in mind, so they’re making operations changes over the coming months to keep up with demand. Tim says the concept is built for massive growth, like Panda Express type growth, so they should have no problem expanding, which is what they plan to do with a new location in Arlington opening by the end of the month and more to follow.
The most popular dishes at Lucky Danger are, of course, Kung Pao chicken and orange beef, but the dumplings fight for that number one spot, too. Tim’s happy that those dishes are so popular because they are very classic Chinese-American dishes.
But still, his creativity is shown at the pop-up in the non-top sellers at Lucky Danger. He says that on the back end, they experiment and try to add more Chinese dishes to include a Chinese narrative, even though Chinese and Chinese American restaurants are two very different things. At Lucky Danger, though, you can get your Kung Pao chicken and your pork belly with mustard greens.
But anyways, on to the recipe. When I spoke to Tim on the phone, you could just hear in his tone how driven, ambitious and kind he is. I described the concept of my newsletter to him and despite his uber busy schedule, he immediately offered to sift through his archives and create one specially for me.
I am still a bit in awe of his talent and giving nature, so when he came back with a recipe that was unique and delicious while still staying fairly simple, I was ecstatic. Tim says that for most food interviews, he typically offers to cook up a new recipe to share, rather than pull one from his arsenal. “I try and keep it interesting so that each news piece has a different angle,” he said. “If someone is taking the time to write something about us, it’s respectful to give them something unique.”
For this month’s edition, the recipe is one developed for the opening of Lucky Danger back in November 2020, and one that Kyirisan carried a version of as well, according to Tim. While this recipe was one that already had a bit of development prior, I asked Tim about his recipe development process and how he’s able to come out with delicious dishes so quickly.
He admitted to have stacks of composition notebooks that he doodles his ideas in, which can come from any direction, like a dish he once created around the color green. He said about the dish: “I didn’t care what was in the dish, it just had to have many many shades of green when you look at it from above.” Recipe writing is constant for Tim and any chef, so throwing out new recipes is part of his skill set, but whether those recipes work or taste good is another story.
Tim’s menus have always leaned heavily into seafood since he has an affinity towards it. This stuffed bronzini is based on a classic Chinese steamed fish dish, and he says he featured that fish in particular because its consistent in quality and flavor, so it’s frequently on restaurant menus. Tim actually was kind enough to provide me with a scaled and gutted bronzini, wrapped beautifully in a gorgeously bright Lucky Danger bag, so I can attest to its great quality. This bright, summery dish is not only one Tim would and did serve at his restaurants, but it’s one he would make for dinner at home, too.
The fish reminded me some of the seafood dishes I had received as part of the Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate dinner on May 23. Tim, while managing to be an award-winning, locally acclaimed chef, owner and manager of several venture, still managed to start a national campaign with his close friend and fellow D.C. chef, Kevin Tien (who I featured last month).
The two decided to collaborate and utilize their cooking skills and platform in D.C., which Tim says gets them people to buy their food and listen to their words, after they started to see the increase in violence against Asian Americans in the U.S. There was a sense they just had to do something, like Tim says, since they had a platform that gave them some sense of responsibility to help educate others on what it has been like to be Asian in America.
That sense then snowballed from a one-time dinner with friends and fellow chefs in D.C. donating their skills to fundraise for organizations combatting hate, to 45 chefs in D.C. signing up for nine more dinners throughout May, to launching a nationwide campaign in San Francisco and New York. Tim says him and Kevin are bullishly driven long-time friends, so when Kevin called for help, Tim said, “F*ck it, let’s do it,” and lended his operations experience to the cause. He said the conversations usually started with Kevin calling like, “Hey man, let’s try this thing,” and Tim would agree, in a groundhog day type cycle.
Both own restaurants and have several full-time jobs, but still launched Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate. Tim was able to devote most of his energy to the campaign during May because Andrew, his partner at Lucky Danger, took over managing the pop-up and he had a great support system that helped give the bandwidth to make Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate successful. He also credits the national team of volunteers that helped set the framework for setting up the initiative nationally.
The campaign has raised over $100,000 to donate to local organizations and has wound down for a pause during the month of June. Tim says that balancing all his businesses and Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate was difficult and alluded it to when times he’s been in service at restaurants when it’s so busy that “you feel like the castle is about to crumble, but you dig yourself out of the hole by putting your head down and getting it done.” So, once the busy month of May wrapped up, Tim took a couple days off to decompress before setting off with the rest of the members of the campaign to reorganize to become a sustainable campaign. One of his biggest fears, which he says has already been seen, is that AAPI Heritage Month will end and attacks will keep going on, but the spotlight will move on. But Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate has put in the application to be an official 501c and more dinners, especially in-person ones, will be coming as the campaign formulates plans for the rest of the year. Keep an eye out for how you can support Tim, Kevin and their team as they take the chance to bring to the forefront the struggles of growing up Asian in America.