Erik Bruner-Yang, 29, is owner and chef of Toki Underground on H Street NE and the soon-to-open Maketto, a two-story marketplace combining retail, restaurant and cafe, also on H Street.
Everyone has a food they despise. What’s yours?
When I was a kid I hated mustard greens. Chinese food always has a plate of greens and rice. My mom would always make us eat mustard greens, and I just couldn’t do it. It was like a big tension between the two of us for a long time. Then fast forward to now, and it’s, like, my main vegetable in my ramen.
It’s very hard to get into Toki. What are some the creative methods people have used to get a seat?
The trick is to come with a grandmother, specifically an Asian grandmother. If you rolled up with your 80-year-old Asian grandmother or if you’re eight months pregnant, you were golden.
Have you considered adding another location?
No, I really love standalone concepts and their uniqueness. One day Toki will not be as busy as it is now, and it will go back to being the neighborhood shop I had envisioned it as.
What’s the worst kind of customer to have in a restaurant?
One you can’t help. There’s always a customer that no matter what you try to do they either don’t want to be accommodated or sometimes there’s just nothing you can do to make the person happy.
Okay, you have to have lunch at McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway or Jack in the Box. Which do you choose?
McDonald’s. That’s what I grew up on. I love McDonald’s. [Laughs.] Whatever, I don’t need to explain myself. But I also really like Taco Bell. Taco Bell is like a treat. Every time we used to go to Pentagon City mall I was like, “Yes! Taco Bell.”
There’s a lot of anticipation about Maketto opening. What’s its status?
We’re getting there. Hopefully we’ll be open by this summer. We’re supposed to have a baby in August, so I’m prepared for both to happen on the same week because that’s just how the world works. But if it happens prior to August, I’ll be really happy.
In the last 10 years or so, chefs have become much more celebrities than previously. Is that a good thing?
I read this book recently, and a chapter of it was about how before the Roman Empire collapsed the last group of people that became famous were the cooks.
So that’s where we’re headed?
That’s where we’re headed. [Laughs.] No, I think it’s a good thing. It’s definitely been beneficial in my life. You can be a big fish in a small pond here, and I don’t think I would have the same success if I were in a different city. Maybe, maybe not.
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