“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.”
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.”