Chef Tim Ma has owned and operated a dozen restaurant concepts in Virginia and Washington, D.C. He made a name for himself at the upscale, fine-dining restaurant Kyirisan, which earned Michelin Guide BibGourmand recognition in 2019.
The co-founder of Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate and popular Chinese takeout concept Lucky Danger continues to manage a handful of projects at once, collaborating with chefs in and outside of his restaurants (like at Indie Chefs events around the country).
How do you approach recipe development?
In the first year at Kyirisan, we changed the menu every day. A lot of people do it, but it was quite challenging to keep it within the narrative. Over time, as we had friends, family or VIPs come in, we would actually create a new dish on the fly for each of those guests. I had a very talented team, almost everyone on the line was CDC level. I cooked on the line for the first year and had one of my sous chefs expo, and everybody around me was on the same level if not better than me at the time.
When someone would come in, everybody knew: we’d evaluate what we had in the walk-in, go grab it and spit out ideas and then we’d put together a dish in the middle of service. Over time we started to build up this pantry of things for these dishes. When we built that pantry up as far as we could then I’d look outwards. You certainly look at season, we were big proponents of food waste so we’d analyze how to make something out of what would be considered waste in our kitchen.
You’d design personalized dishes for guests?
Especially when chefs came in. We had a good number of chefs in the beginning. For one of these dishes, we’d bring in huge, whole 60-pound rockfish, fillet them for the main part of dishes and be left over with a lot of fish heads. We would cut the head down the middle and spatchcock it, coat it like Korean fried chicken and start to stick things to it. We’d only be able to send that to chefs. We tailored that more toward Asian chefs because we’d use things like XO, chili sauce or miso. Chefs would cut out the cheeks, eat the eye balls and there was a ton of meat within the collar that was really the prize of it all. We’d definitely tailor to who was receiving the special dish.We had special platters for these dishes we would send out.
The dish: All Green Steamed Cabbage, Marinated Green Tomato, Chive Bonito Dashi, Cod
Around 2017, my team at Kyirisan decided we were done looking at flavors for designing dishes and we took a look at colors. I wanted to do a dish that was completely green. Looking overhead at a dish that was green all around was literally the goal. That’s how it started.
We used a fish like cod as the base and made green dashi, cured green tomatoes, and we took a piece of green cabbage, steamed it, sprayed it with lime juice, opened it up and seasoned it with salt and MSG. We pulled this all together and you looked down and you could see a little piece of the fish, but everything around it was green. That was the inception of the dish.
The green dashi was inspired by Japanese cuisine and then French technique beyond that — blanching chives, integrating and emulsifying it was a lot of the challenge. If you ever have miso soup you see the miso floating around in the dashi and then if you let it sit for too long the miso will concentrate at the bottom and you’re left with a less than emulsified soup. That happened with the dashi, all the green would go to the bottom so we had to mess with making it emulsified.
Then it was steaming the cabbage, steaming the fish and curing the green tomatoes, trying to layer different techniques everywhere. Sometimes we vacuum sealed them with chili flake. I don’t think we did it with acid because we had so much acidity in the cabbage. The cabbage was the shocking thing: Cabbage is tasteless, but when you ate it, it was salty-sour cabbage, which was interesting. It was typically just salt and spices.
What inspired you to pick green?
Vegetable colors. In general, with food, you only have a couple choices: It’s probably going to be green or red. I don’t think anybody wants a dish that’s all brown, though I’ve also done dishes like that, that look like a pile of doo-doo. When we did it, it was spring and everything was coming in, and it’s a nice, bright color. That’s really where it all came from. I wanted to look down and see a white bowl with a green mass in the middle of it.
How did you iterate?
The best version of it was actually the first version we putout. We were really happy with the dish so it immediately went on the menu. It was quintessential with what we did. It was a little bit of Asian fusion. It was goofy in nature — it had a goofy narrative to tell. It was something that presented itself elegantly in a fine dining setting.
Eventually we added red chili oil because we were bored of the greens. Typically, we would take it off the menu, let it disappear into the notebooks and then bring it back when we’re looking for inspiration. This particular dish we were so happy with it never got iterated, but it never got brought back.
What makes this dish stand out among the hundreds you developed?
I personally loved the green dish. For one, it came out really nice and not everything you attempt comes out nice. And it’s just one of the more unique perspectives on how to design a dish. I like the froufrou, artistic nature of having a different perspective on food. I think the staff appreciated stuff like that, looking at it differently rather than: It’s spring, let’s do ramps and fiddle head ferns. It’s repetitive year after year. You can’t get inspired by the same things year after year.
How do you start developing a recipe?
I really do the angle where you pick one thing and that’s what you go with. It’s very prevalent in fine dining, which I’m not in anymore. Beet salad is a good example. You try to take one ingredient and process it or technique it in many ways to layer nuances of flavor on multiple levels. That’s always how I’ve done it, choose one thing.
As we’ve expanded our repertoire or toolbox of dishes, techniques and flavors, we started to look outside of that and ask what were the most absurd things that we could do and base dishes on things that aren’t food related. It was interesting, a different way to have a perspective on food.
How collaborative is the process?
Back then, when I had Kyirisan, I had four other restaurants operating. One was your standard neighborhood New American restaurant, one was a Southern American restaurant, one was a Chinese bar, Kyirisan was French-Chinese and then we had this random sandwich shop. I would touch all of them so I was the commonality between them all. Each team was a little bit insulated incoming up with their own dishes other than talking about what other teams were doing. I very much believe in the one team thing: We’d all start together in the morning and end together at night.
Now we look at dishes and the historical context is where we start. The inception of Lucky Danger was centered on the Smithsonian exhibit that featured my family, which was really to look at the narrative of Chinese food in America.
The menu doesn’t change so we don’t have dining, no one comes in. It’s thrown into a box so you lose some of the art of presentation. In a couple weeks we’re doing an AAPI celebration dinner and one of the dishes is beef chow fun. We looked at the history of it and went back to where it came from, what dish it originated from in China and all that. Not the best example here is crab rangoon, which has no historical context in China, it’s kind of like the quintessential American-Chinese dish.
Do you consider guest feedback?
I think my tone on that has changed a lot. At that high level, sometimes people are cooking more for themselves than they are for the guest, and sometimes that’s what people want at a restaurant of that caliber or that nature. They want to go and see a chef’s expression of what they want to cook. I think we’ve reached a crescendo with that at some point. Now you cook to please your guest or you should, but sometimes you get in your own way with that. So feedback played a role but there would be times when I put dishes that we’d sell one of every night and I would keep it on forever because it was of interest to me.
This is the dish that looked like doo-doo: I wanted to do a salad of guts. We would braise tripe, pig ears, chicken hearts and chicken gizzards, and we’d prepare them with different flavors like tamarind and then we broke it down and made a warm salad. I thought it was delicious and my staff loved cooking it, but we would never sell it and I kept it on forever. People would write articles on this salad, but I would never sell it. It cost so much to make and it took so much time and everybody was grossed out by it. Just imagine what a hotel pan of tripe smells like. We’d put it in the prep room to cool down and the cooks could smell it. It wasn’t hot, it wasn’t cold, it was literally warm. Sometimes when you do dishes like that, it’s not for the guest, it’s purely for the kitchen. As we do more approachable cuisine, that’s just not the case.
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