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.