One Of D.C.’S Hottest Chefs Follows His Passion, Changes Careers
“One of D.C.’s hottest chefs follows his passion changes careers”
By: Marlena Chertock
Years ago locals came to 147 Maple Ave W. looking for a doughnut. Now, the restaurant at the same location serves American food with a flair. There’s beet salad, scallops and duck.
Tim Ma, the chef and owner of Maple Ave Restaurant, opened the restaurant almost four years ago. Last month Ma was voted one of the hottest chefs of 2013 in the D.C. region byEater.com and Northern Virginia Magazine named Maple Ave Restaurant as the best restaurant for both 2011 and 2012.
The restaurant is surrounded by shops, apartments and other restaurants on a small main street in Vienna, Va. It seats 28 and serves about 600 people a week.
Ma and his co-owner and wife, Joey Hernandez, went from bankruptcy four months after opening the restaurant to having extra seating in the back during brunches or Friday and Saturday night dinners. There are high tables with stools and a bar in the back.
Ma didn’t start out as a successful chef. For eight years he was as an engineer, working on construction projects in the Virginia area that sometimes took four years to complete. “I never saw the end product,” Ma said. “I never met the people who were using the things I was building.”
It’s the opposite with cooking, which is what draws him to it. “Here, what you’re working on you see an immediate reaction,” he said. “Your end-user is immediately able to tell you if what you made is good or bad. It takes 10 to 15 minutes a dish, not four years on a project.”
Ma knew he eventually wanted to open a restaurant. It’s in his blood. Many of his family members owned Chinese restaurants in New York and Arkansas. But he knew nothing about cooking.
So he went to the French Culinary Institute, now the International Culinary Center, when he was about 30. He survived long hours in the kitchen and criticism. “A lot of people don’t realize the true reality of being in the kitchen,” Ma said. “It’s not TV, it’s not “Top Chef,” it’s not even “Hell’s Kitchen.” Yes, there’s yelling. But in a real kitchen when you do something good you don’t get acknowledged for it. You just understand that if you’re not getting yelled at you did something good. It takes a certain personality to be able to withstand that.”
Ma credits his methodical, meticulous and patient personality to his engineering background. He enjoys the repetition in professional cooking.
“A lot of people take that for granted in this business,” he said. “Success is defined by your methodical and meticulous repetition and being able to convey that to other people. Because you’re not the only one cooking back there and you have to rely on other people’s skills.”
Ma said he is grateful he can rely on his counterpart and wife to help run the restaurant. Hernandez manages the front of the restaurant, marketing and public relations, while Ma usually manages the back and the kitchen. That’s the structure for most mom and pop restaurants, he said. And Maple Ave Restaurant is a true mom and pop — they opened on a few credit cards and money from Ma’s parents.
“I think most people speculate that it would be extremely hard (to work with your spouse) but if you both have a passion it makes it easier,” Hernandez said. “Lucky for us this was a dream that we both share.”
Hernandez is so determined in this dream that she sent wine orders to the restaurant from her BlackBerry while she was in the hospital after she gave birth to her daughter. She also plans to have her daughter, 2, and son, 8 months old, help out as soon as they can hold menus.
“We’re both perfectionists,” she said. “We will literally give every single thing to make it work. You just learn to adapt to a new lifestyle. Our life is just a little bit different than your average 9 to 5 person.”
That is one of the hardest parts of owning a restaurant — trying to balance family, personal life and being their own bosses. They spend their weekends and holidays cooking for others.
But connecting with people through food is also rewarding. “I can’t tell you how many people we’ve met since we’ve opened,” Hernandez said. “We’ve seen their kids grow up, or now they have grandkids, or their kids got married. Being able to be a part of that is great.”
Ma and Hernandez will have to learn to balance a bit more since they’re opening a second restaurant in Arlington later this year. They won’t abandon the Maple Ave restaurant, since “it’s our baby,” according to Ma. But they are excited for another.
“There’s a lot of things that we’re going to learn,” Hernandez said. “That’s one of the things I love about this business. There’s always something new.”
She’s also happy that Ma will get a proper kitchen and more space to create. The kitchen in the current restaurant is small. “It’s amazing how much food goes out of that tiny kitchen,” she said. “The more amazing part is people enjoy it and keep coming back.”
Daphne Domingo contributed to this report.
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