You are here

Member on the Menu: Tim Ma

September 1, 2016

Tim Ma is the chef/owner of Kyirisan (Washington, DC), Water & Wall (Arlington, VA), and Chase the Submarine (Vienna, VA).  He started my career as chef/owner of Maple Ave Restaurant (Vienna, VA), but is no longer involved with that restaurant.  He has been cooking for 8 years, but had a former career as an Electrical Hardware Engineer for the defense industry.  Tim has a Bachelor’s degree from Georgia Institute of Technology, and a Master’s degree in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins University.


What is the hardest part about owning and opening a restaurant?
The hardest part of owning a restaurant is staffing, the restaurant succeeds or fails according to the staff.  It’s not up to one person, it’s takes a village, and owning a restaurant is like having a child.  And given the current climate in Washington DC right now, talented staff is spread thin with so many new restaurants.  I would say the hardest part about opening a restaurant is the process and the multiple disciplines you have to know just a little bit about to get open is more than any other industry.  You need legal, accounting, hvac, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, you have to navigate federal, state, and local processes.  It can overwhelm you very quickly, if you let it.

…and the most rewarding part?
Happy customers and a full dining room.  Happy employees that drink the kool-aid and believe in the mission and the ultimate goal of just creating an environment where people come not just to eat, but to be happy.

Where do you look for inspiration when putting your menu together?
Other restaurants, cookbooks, travels.  I draw a lot of inspiration from dishes I’ve encountered not as an adult, but as a child.  Dishes I never understood what I was eating, and how it became what it was, but that exploration as an adult has fascinated me.  I didn’t grow up in this industry, so I’m constantly searching for dish origin because everything is new to me.  We currently have a congee dish, growing up I ate congee all the time, but not realizing how flavorful it can become, because eating it at home was a function of sustinence, not flavor.  So it was also just plain white rice with water.  At Kyirisan, we flavor it with black truffles, chicken stock, ginger, szechuan peppercorn, white pepper, fermented soybean, oxtail aspic, pickled ginger, scallions, chili oil, black vinegar, white soy sauce, and an egg yolk.  Its a whole new meaning to me now.

How are your restaurants influenced by the neighborhood they are located in?
Kyirisan is in Shaw that saw a restaurant explosion as of late.  The cuisine is not really influenced by the neighborhood, but the depth, complexity, presentation, and that push to be better certainly is influenced by the neighborhood.  Shaw probably has one of the highest densities of the top restaurants in the city right now, so standing out is a function of always pushing ourselves to be better, to be more interesting, to be more artistic on the plate, to have better service, etc.  Just trying to stay relevant is hard enough.

How did you get started in the business? What was your first job in the industry and what did you learn from it?
My parents and my uncle both owned restaurants.  I never really worked in those restaurants, but I grew up around them.  Knowing the hard work that goes into it never really deterred me, but the excitement that goes along with it drew me in quickly.  I clearly remember saying as I left my old career is that I wanted to feel tired, I wanted to work a day and have the feeling of exhaustion but satisfaction.  I got that and so much more.

Where do you see yourself in five years?
Hopefully being a great chef, respected by customers and peers alike.  I’m a great cook right now, sometimes a good chef, but to be a great chef is more than just being a great cook.  I’d like to be able to lead my staff to execute what I envision my food tasting and looking like, without having to do it all myself.  I think that is where you really become a chef.  If I own a couple more restaurants by five years time, that won’t be so bad either.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Work hard, talk less.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Well I attempted engineering and while fun and for sure secure, you lack that interaction that I enjoy in the restaurant.  I think I’d like to attempt teaching, any subject, but inspiring and passing down what I’ve learned so that the future generation is better than me sounds pretty satisfying.

What song always makes you happy?
Bell Biv Devoe - Poison

What is your favorite ingredient?
Currently its bonito, we use it to garnish hot fish dishes.  Whenever it hits the hot fish, it starts to curl and move and wave.  When it hits the table, it makes the fish look alive.  And it adds that punch of umami through a garnish.

You’re hosting a dream dinner party.  What three people would be at your table?
Obama - Because he’s Obama
My Dad - Because he’s my dad and never ceases to amaze me with saying inappropriate things
My wife Joey - To document this occasion, and well, to meet Obama.

It’s the last meal of your life  - what’s on your plate?
Hiyashi Chuka - I’m a sucker for cold noodle dishes

What are your pet peeves?
Unfolded towels in the kitchen

What is your favorite way to give back to the community?
Educate young kids about food and the industry, anyone can write a check.  To interact and actually affect or inspire a certain person is more powerful to me.

What’s your favorite go-to junk food?
Skor Bars - Chocolate and Toffee, that’s all you need.