I met Tim Ma a good while back through work friends, knowing him only as the brilliant engineer that loved good music and going out around DC like the rest of the crew. When my buddy Kevin mentioned to me that Tim was moving up to NYC to attend culinary school, I was surprised. “Tim likes to cook?” “Are you kidding? That kid is always cooking. He’s serious in the kitchen.” How was it that, as a fellow food dork, I didn’t know this sooner? As Tim progressed from the French Culinary Institute to time in the kitchen with David Chang (!) to his own award-winning restaurant, Maple Ave, in Vienna, Virginia, I got to live vicariously through his culinary exploits. I asked Tim if I could interview him for my site because he is the perfect reminder of how in this very short life, if we refuse to take the simplest path and choose to pursue what truly makes us happy (and in his case, what he’s brilliantly gifted at doing), we can make modern miracles out of seemingly nothing. Plus, Tim is fucking great. But you’ll understand once you read all about him.
Tim generously offered two incredible recipes for you to prepare for yourselves, and I hope that for any of you guys that don’t live in the DC Metro area and can’t eat at his restaurant, that you cook both tonight. I mean it. And if you CAN go to his place, get in your car and go eat there now. It’s very very necessary.
Tell us about your journey to becoming a chef and restauranteur.
I spent many years a professional student at Georgia Tech, then Johns Hopkins. After some time working for a couple of government contractors, I decided to throw all the money I spent (and still owe) to learn engineering so that I could spend more money learning how to cook. My parents owned a restaurant back in the day but shut it down after losing the head chef (and also because of some drunk douche bag who ran his truck through the front of the restaurant). My uncle, now residing in Chantilly, also ran a restaurant in suburban New York – he ran it for many years and now is retired living off all the money he made in a single decade of his life. So it is sort of in my blood. In attempting to learn the lessons through my elders’ adventures, I decided if I were to open a restaurant, I would not be leaving it up to some head chef whether my restaurant would live or die. And I didn’t want to half-ass it assuming that I could cook professionally without some proper instruction. Cooking is not just knowing good food – it’s knowing good fundamentals so that you can cook anything, and learning the discipline that it takes to do this professionally, day-in and day-out.I realized I was not a young spring chicken anymore, so I wasn’t going to battle it out with rich punk kids at CIA. FCI (The French Culinary Institute in NYC) was a natural fit for me. Short program and great instructors that taught you what you needed to know and introduced you to who you needed to know. I had the great support of Joey (Editor: Tim’s fiancée and partner at Maple Ave Restaurant), so much that she quit her job and moved to NYC with me, supported me through FCI and the intensity of NYC. I got my introduction to David Chang, earned an externship at Momofuku Ko, learned a ton in my short time there, and then we moved to an island to gather our thoughts and map out our route to where we are today.What is your earliest memory in the kitchen?
My grandfather who would make Chinese bread every morning of his life. A master of it, he loved it, not for anything else but his own satisfaction. Imagine having that kind of commitment to something as simple as flour, yeast, and water. And not for fame or money, but only because that is what he found enjoyment in.
How would you describe your cooking style in three adjectives?
Schizophrenic, classic, fun
How has cooking professionally changed the way you approach the kitchen and ingredients?
I never knew the plight that farmers go through for sheer survival. How they truly have to live day-to-day, and how the term farm-fresh has been so skewed that we have to differentiate between farm-fresh and “other”. Doesn’t all food come from a farm?
I’ve learned that 99.9% of small-business restaurants survive on the slimmest of margins, and the difference between shutting down and success is less than 10%. I’ve learned the difference between a good night and a bad night at a restaurant all lies in the preparation and organization of your line, your staff, and surprisingly, your customers. Service is a delicate orchestra and if someone or something is out of tune, the entire performance is f’ed. I’ve learned that your food is only as good as the raw material, and it’s not just a saying. Customers may not be able to tell the difference between Polyface chicken and Tysons chicken, but they know the difference between a good chicken sandwich and a bad one. They may not know why, but they know.
What food trends or ingredients do you currently have a crush on?
Pop-up restaurants. It’s exciting for the staff and for the customers, but the menu has to be something different. I just can’t move Maple Ave to a temporary spot and cook the same menu and expect people to enjoy it in the same way they enjoy it here.
As for ingredients, I like discovering ingredients that I have never used before, I’m still new to this game, so there are a lot of ingredients. Galangal, salsify, stinging nettles, to name a few, have been used for years, but I am just now discovering. I grew up on rice and whatever was on sale at the supermarket. There aren’t typically a lot of sales on stinging nettles at the supermarket.
Who inspires you in the kitchen?
My staff, especially my sous-chef, Nyi Nyi Myint. He has been in this game for a long time and he comes to work every day like it’s his first. He treats the restaurant as if it were his own, and his take on food comes from angles you would never see. I find myself saying “Who the hell would combine those two things?” quite a lot, but very often it works.
What technique or skill do you believe is most important for home cooks to acquire or improve upon?
Plating. It’s amazing how much the way food looks determines how food tastes. Also, not everything needs to be well done, but everything needs to be prepared fresh and eaten quickly. Chinese people say that you gotta eat it while its hot or it loses the “essence of the wok.” I don’t use a wok (well not all the time), but you get the idea. Stop taking pictures of the food – it’s getting cold. Start eating.
Describe your most favorite meal.
Daddy’s potstickers – the textures of a crunchy bottom, chewy shell, juicy middle (and it should be juicy, not soup dumpling juicy, but there should be some juices) are simply amazing. The bottom should be just nearly burnt to give it some bitterness, seasoned well, and dipped into a slightly sweet and sour dipping sauce. Spicy if that’s your thing.
What is the one food or dish that you wish people would never eat again?
McDonald’s cheeseburgers – that’s not meat, people. But I eat them all the time. It’s like crack – you know it’s gonna kill you, but you still hit up the corner and get your fix.
What is your creative process in crafting new recipes and dishes?
I would like to say I have a calculated process where I map out a dish, then cook it over and over and continue to refine it until it has all the flavor profiles and complexities of the perfect dish, then present it my team of chefs and we discuss it for many hours, then do a test run of blind tastings to see what the general public says. But the honest truth is we will cook something for family meal at the restaurant, and if we think it’s that good, we will cook a version of it that night as a special. Or someone will mention something they are craving, and we will try our rendition of that dish even though we may have never cooked it before. Or I over-ordered pork belly for the week, but I’m not returning it because it’s my fault and not the farmers, so we design a couple dishes to move the product. More so, menu items are designed because it’s something I wanted to eat, and to justify cooking it for me to eat, I have to cook some to sell as well.
What is your favorite food destination and why?
New York City, because the city revolves around food (and money), and even the pizza in Penn Station is delicious.