Meet The Chef: Tim Ma, Maple Ave Restaurant
Former engineer brings a set of eclectic influences to seasonal, locally-focused menu
When Tim Ma first told friends he wanted to own a restaurant, most people told him he was crazy.
Ma was an electrical engineer, with a degree from Georgia Tech and a rising career at Raytheon in Falls Church. To some, he fit the stereotype of an uninvolved investor who opens a restaurant without much stake in whether it succeeds or fails.
"People told us, 'You're just going to be another engineer who opens a restaurant, crashes and burns,'" Ma, 32, said. "That could still happen. But I'm in this to make it work."
Today, Ma's restaurant, Maple Ave, is celebrating just more than a year of business as one of the few restaurants in Vienna with a rotating, seasonal, locally-focused menu.
While cooking has long been in Ma's blood – his relatives opened and managed several restaurants in the New York suburbs – he knew running a successful restaurant meant starting from the ground up. That meant selling his car, packing his bags and heading to the French Culinary Institute in New York City, where he did an externship with chef David Chang at Momofuku Ko.
After graduating, he moved to St. Thomas to continue practicing his skills. While there, on the beach, he wrote a business plan with manager (and fiancée) Joey Hernandez.
After a lot of help from family and friends, including his parents, who made pot-stickers by hand, Ma opened Maple Ave, a restaurant that focuses on "eclectic American cuisine," in August 2009.
Despite a "rough few winter months," the restaurant, which sits in the former Anita's building, now has five chefs – most of whom are culinary school trained. The fifth is a James Madison High School student who works about 15 hours a week doing pastries.
The chefs bring a diverse set of influences to their dishes. Ma is trained in the French style, but also incorporates Asian cooking flavors and techniques because of his Chinese heritage. The "1,2,3 Shrimp" appetizer, a classic Chinese dish made with a Ma family recipe, is a staple on the menu.
Another chef is Burmese, but was trained in the UK and has cooked for the queen, Ma says.
What also sets the restaurant apart from many others in Vienna, Ma says, is a rotating menu. Maple Ave focus on seasonal ingredients, which means customers may not see exactly the same dishes each time they come in for dinner, but they will always see the freshest ingredients, Ma says.
The restaurant gets much of its produce and proteins from local farmers and butchers, whose inventory plays a large role in dictating the menu as well.
"I may have one plan, but someone will call us and say 'Hey we have a ton of jowl,' and I'll take a look at it and say 'Yeah, we'll take it,' and we run a special for a few days," he said.
Fresh ingredients is one of the most important keys to success in the kitchen, Ma says.
"You can follow a recipe all day long but if you don't use quality ingredients you'll fail in comparison," he said.
Are you a new cook? Aside from using fresh, quality ingredients, Ma also says knife skills are important in the kitchen. They can make a big difference in both cooking time and quality, and presentation, he says.
And if you want to bring some Maple Ave into your own kitchen, watch the video to the right as Ma makes Asian-style Steamed Mussels from the restaurant's menu.
Maple Ave is also having a knife skills class at 6:30 p.m. on Monday. Students will learn knife skills and enjoy a meal with the chef. Cost is $65.
1/2 pound of PEI mussels served in a saffron coconut milk broth with Thai chiles and Chinese chorizo topped with fresh herbs.
Maple Ave Restaurant is located at 147 Maple Ave W, Vienna. It is closed on Mondays. For full hours and menus, click here.