Toki Underground’s Erik Bruner-Yang sets sights on a bigger stage


Erik Bruner-Yang stands in his ambitious new project, Maketto, which is still under construction. The Taiwan native worked at several restaurants in the District before opening Toki Underground on H Street NE. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
March 26, 2013

Erik Bruner-Yang has popped a CD from Pash, a little indie band from Fredericksburg, into his car player as we drive to pick up renderings of his latest project, the ambitious two-story Maketto, located just a block down from his insanely popular ramen shop on H Street NE.

The music flowing from Bruner-Yang’s speakers strikes me as big, distorted power pop with a lovely dark undertone, just the stuff that would have inspired utter devotion from me three decades ago. Bruner-Yang sketches out some details of the band, seemingly careful to explain everyone’s role except the one I’m most interested in: his own.

Yes, the chef and owner behind Toki Underground had a life before Taiwanese-style noodle soup: He was the guitarist in Pash, a band that toured, produced two albums and became a darling of the Olsen Twins, of all people. “If we had continued with it,” says bassist Ryan McLaughlin, “I’d like to think we could have done something.”

But one decision, it seems, doomed Pash and permanently altered the course of Bruner-Yang’s career. In the spring of 2008, coming off a tour that might have been the high-water mark for the band, Bruner-Yang started a job as general manager of the new D.C. branch of Sticky Rice, the small Richmond-based sushi-and-tots chain. The Pash guitarist didn’t know it then, but within a few short years, he would become the rock star of an entirely different stage: the D.C. dining scene.

If you talk to Bruner-Yang’s friends and family, they’ll tell you that although he may have left music behind, many of the skills that pushed Pash to the brink of success are the same ones that have taken Toki all the way there (and may bode well for Maketto, too): his discipline. His creativity. His drive. And, perhaps most important of all, his willingness to take risks, even when the self-taught chef had virtually no idea what he was doing.

Sounds like rock ’n’ roll to me.

The improviser

You could say Bruner-Yang, 28, had to develop an improvisational streak from the beginning. Born in Taipei to an American father and Taiwanese mother, he lived in Taiwan for four years until his parents divorced and his mom, Ensheuan, moved him halfway around the world to Long Beach, Calif. In Southern California, Ensheuan met and married Siegfried Bruner, then a journalist in the U.S. Navy, whose job would take the family from the Golden State to Japan to, finally, Woodbridge, Va.

There were minor moves within those major seismic shifts, both for the family and for Bruner-Yang. Changes of address, changes of schools. New friends, new neighbors. Some of Bruner-Yang’s Northern Virginia schoolmates weren’t always so welcoming to the boy they viewed as foreign.

“There were kids that called him names,” says Siegfried Bruner, who now works as a multimedia specialist for the U.S. Army in Maryland; he and Ensheuan divorced in 2006. “But he never complained about it. The only time I found out about it was when he wrote a paper about it.”

This migration to the Mid-Atlantic also solidified, if backhandedly, some of the things Bruner-Yang loved about his years overseas. He had, after all, gone from countries with fresh, vibrant and deeply historic food cultures to a small town in Prince William County with access to all the highly processed junk products that can dominate a boy’s diet.

‘We had so much amazing food in Tokyo,” Bruner-Yang remembers. The quality in Japan becomes “so clear when you come to the States.”

Although known as a talented cook herself, Ensheuan wasn’t aware her son had any interest in food as a child. Neither did his adoptive father. Then again, Bruner-Yang may have been too tied up with the other demands on his time to express much interest in the kitchen.

His mother had a vision for her only child: She wanted him to become a classical musician. To that end, Bruner-Yang studied piano for more than a decade, racking up prizes along the way, although rarely the top one, Ensheuan recalls. “Because he was so smart, he didn’t practice,” she says. “He ended up in second place” all the time. Siegfried Bruner has a different memory of his son’s dedication: He says the boy would practice at least one hour and sometimes four a day. Ensheuan, Siegfried Bruner says, was the “quintessential tiger mom.”

Pash was anything but classical, of course. Bruner-Yang formed the band with Meredith Munoz in 2002, while both were students at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. Bruner-Yang considered studying music but opted for a business administration degree, which would come in handy. During the height of Pash’s relative success, some five years after its formation, Bruner-Yang was not just a guitarist but also a business manager, a responsibility that did not always endear him to one of his bandmates. “On tour,” says McLaughlin, “we wouldn’t talk for three days. We got on each other’s nerves pretty hard.”

The emerging chef

Bruner-Yang’s dual responsibilities within the rock world apparently fine-tuned his aggressiveness. When the musician heard that Sticky Rice was opening in Washington, he applied for a job — as general manager. Granted, Bruner-Yang had some restaurant experience. He had worked both front- and back-of-the-house jobs in school and beyond, but his management experience — outside the small confines of the band — was next to nothing.

If Bruner-Yang was too green for the GM job, John Yamashita didn’t mind; the Sticky Rice partner liked the applicant’s attitude. “I wanted someone to have the passion and drive,” Yamashita says. “He understood that getting dirty was part of the job.”

After a few crash-course training sessions in Richmond, where he learned everything from restroom maintenance to sushi-making, Bruner-Yang was thrown into the deep end at the D.C. Sticky Rice, which was slammed with patrons the moment it opened. “We were really struggling to stay on top of things,” Yamashita recalls. “I don’t think he had as much chance to sing as he does now.”

Bruner-Yang didn’t have a lot of professional kitchen skills yet, either, but he still wanted to cook. And he wanted to cook the foods of his birthplace, the ones his mother had kept alive and the ones he tasted mainly in the strip malls along Rockville Pike. He wanted to bring Taiwanese cooking to H Street.

The urge intensified when his grandfather died in 2009 and Bruner-Yang returned to Taipei for the funeral — and for its one-year anniversary. The oft-repeated story about the second trip usually gets told as a ramen-epiphany tale, in which Bruner-Yang apprenticed in a Taiwanese ramen shop and suddenly realized he needed to reimagine the street-food concept he’d planned for Toki Underground. Most of which is true.

What the story misses, however, is the importance of Bruner-Yang’s grandfather, known as Yeh-Yeh, who fled the Chinese Revolution to live in Taiwan. Both mother and adoptive father say that Yeh-Yeh, in the way he never lamented his troubles in life, influenced his grandson. “He showed Erik the strength of a man to carry on,” Ensheuan says.

Bruner-Yang would need to draw on that strength once he signed a lease with Tony Tomelden, owner of the Pug, who decided to rent out the tiny space above his H Street watering hole. Toki Underground would not only run into the usual bureaucratic delays but also face a financial shortfall. It would finally open in April 2011, a year later than expected. An “angel” investor provided the cash, while Tomelden provided mercy on rent payments. Bruner-Yang provided something just as important: his sobriety. For two years starting in June 2010, he put down the bottle, that unspoken accessory of pop music.

“I realized that I had to decide if I wanted to open this restaurant or mess around,” says Bruner-Yang, who’s now engaged to Seda Nak, once just a customer. “When I quit drinking, I got a lot done.”

The delays seemed only to heighten anticipation for Toki, which immediately had to deal with a logjam of customers. More worrisome, Bruner-Yang and his team were essentially winging it. In the beginning, they had no set recipes for the ramen. Bruner-Yang remembers constantly mixing and matching various amounts of dashi, pork and chicken stocks to build his soups. It meant the same bowl of ramen might vary from one visit to another. Even worse, the kitchen might run out of ramen while H Street was still hungry.

“I knew how to make it for 12 people in my house,” Bruner-Yang recalls about those early days. “I won’t be in business if don’t serve all my customers.”

The professional

Bruner-Yang will be the first one to tell you he has changed much about Toki since then. He created general recipes. He found better suppliers. He developed better delivery systems. He also has come to understand the importance of time off, a lesson he eventually absorbed last year after the suicide of Thang Le, a chef at Toki. Bruner-Yang, former rocker, now has the respect of his peers in the hospitality business; he was nominated this year as one of Food & Wine magazine’s “up-and-coming chefs” in the Mid-Atlantic.

Toki “is one of the best restaurants in the city,” says Bruner-Yang’s friend and colleague Johnny Spero, a trained chef who recently shuttered his short-lived experiment in modern cooking, Suna.

Toki began as a small, poorly funded solo project, but the 5,700-square-foot Maketto will roll out with more structure and support, making it more like Bruner-Yang’s major-label debut. The joint food-and-fashion project with Will Sharp of the local Durkl clothing line has already hired a chef de cuisine, James Wozniuk, formerly of Lyon Hall, who has been working with Bruner-Yang on a menu. Housed in a two-story brick building at 1351 H St. NE, Maketto will be designed as a Westernized version of the night markets in Cambodia and Taiwan where patrons will wander from stall to stall searching for good food and drinks. Bruner-Yang, Wozniuk and team plan to produce between 75 and 100 percent of the dishes at Maketto, from Chinese doughnuts to pork buns.

Upstairs, the Vigilante Coffee Company is expected to roast beans while serving up fresh joe, breads, juices and pastries; as the day progress, the Asian dishes will become available and the coffee shop might even transition into a second bar in the evening. On the weekends, Bruner-Yang envisions a full dim-sum menu and a farmers market in the open-air space out back. He expects all this to happen in six months, too, although demolition just recently began.

Despite the grand scale of Maketto, the partners have structured the project to prevent overextending themselves, whether at the bank (more than $300,000 was raised via a unique crowd-sourcing method) or in the kitchen (Bruner-Yang and Wozniuk will create a large roster of dishes but will rotate in only a dozen or so a day).

“I don’t want to do anything safe,” Bruner-Yang says about Maketto. “I want to make sure the deal is safe.”

Her son’s ambition and rapid success compelled me to ask a question to Bruner-Yang’s mother, the one who wanted a classical musician, not a chef: Did she see any similarities between the two professions?

Music “really carried him on for what he wanted to do,” Ensheuan says. “It’s all about his hands. That’s why he can work so fast.”

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.
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