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Tim Ma has been sleeping on the couch of a model apartment with a fake TV for three days. The landlord of his new Shaw restaurant, Kyirisan, has let him stay in one of its neighboring units—so long as he sets it back up for prospective tenant tours before he heads out the door.
At least he doesn’t have to sleep at the restaurant. He’s done that for other openings.
It’s five days until Kyirisan’s March 22 official debut, and construction is ongoing, the menu still needs to be finalized, and, well, things are a little nuts. Ma hasn’t even seen his kids—ages one, three, and five—in a few days except for a FaceTime call.
The night before was Ma’s first practice run for family and friends. But by the afternoon, the chef still hadn’t gotten one of his major food deliveries. It turned out the entire order had been dropped off at Glen’s Garden Market next door. The grocery carries many similar products, and so their staff had unpacked all the goods and started stocking them on shelves.
“It was spread out throughout Glen’s, and I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Ma says. He mobilized his entire 10-person staff to go over and pick their stuff off the shelves—three hours before the restaurant was supposed to open. “They’re like, ‘I was wondering why we have four magnum bottles of white soy sauce.’”
Such is the craziness of opening a new restaurant. His fourth restaurant, to be exact.
Ma has gained plenty of recognition and acclaim in the suburbs of Virginia with Maple Ave Restaurant, Water & Wall, and his latest, a deli/butcher/wine bar called Chase the Submarine. But he knows that Kyirisan will still be many Washingtonians’ first introduction to his Chinese-French cooking. “I feel like a lot of people in D.C. have never eaten my food,” he says. “A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, I know who you are. I’ve heard of you.’”
Ma’s brand of fusion is the natural result of his personal history. He’s the son of Chinese immigrants but trained at New York’s French Culinary Institute (now known as the International Culinary Center).
“I enjoy things that are Chinese in flavor, but I only cook them the way I know how to cook,” he says. The result is dishes like pickled quail with prawns, braised leeks, and “Chinese hot pot sauce,” or scallops with coconut risotto and basil ice cream. And then there are dishes like a Filipino scrapple with pig ears and pork belly that was initially created for a staff family meal at Water & Wall.
Growing up in Arkansas, Ma’s parents owned a Chinese restaurant for a couple of years when he was young. But the restaurant did so well that its chef left and opened his own restaurant across the street. “That decimated my parents,” Ma says. “They were really broken by that.”
Ma went on to earn an electrical engineering degree, but dreamed of opening a restaurant of his own. His parents weren’t so keen on that idea. “They worked so hard in life, they didn’t want me to fall into the business that had failed for them,” he says.
Ma’s now-wife Joey Ma pushed him to finally make the move, and at the age of 30, he finally enrolled in culinary school. He says he didn’t want to be a chef, just a restaurateur, but he didn’t want to be “strangled” by a chef like his parents. If his chef left, at least he would know how to cook.
Then an unexpected thing happened: Ma realized he actually liked professional cooking.
When the couple opened their first restaurant, Maple Ave, in 2009, they pretty much built the place with their bare hands on a shoestring budget. An architect friend with a contractor father helped out, but they were the ones putting up the drywall and doing most of the handiwork. The tables and chairs were leftover from the Mexican restaurant that had previously occupied the space.
Ma sold Maple Ave to former employees about a year ago and is no longer involved. He says the place was starting to fall apart and the maintenance was getting to be too much. “I don’t have a repairman, so I’m the guy. I know way too much about plumbing, equipment repair,” he says. “Some people are good at running 20 restaurants. I’m not good at running a large group like that—not at this point.”
But Ma knew he wanted to open a restaurant in D.C. Three years ago, he became among the first tenants to sign on to the new mixed-use Shaw development, The Shay, which now hosts the likes of Glen’s Garden Market, Warby Parker, and Compass Coffee. He had no idea the neighborhood would be quite as saturated with eateries as it is today. “I was like, ‘Oh man, we’re going to be one of the only restaurants.’ And now, we’re just another blurb.”
In design and construction, Kyirisan couldn’t be more different from Maple Ave. The Mas hired a respected design firm, GrizForm Design, to oversee the look of dining room. This time around, they’re not the ones with the hammers and paint brushes in hand. With the opening approaching, a crew of workers paste the wallpaper and adjust the light fixtures.
But in many ways, Kyirisan echoes back to Maple Ave. The couple risked everything for their first restaurant, and they’re doing so again at their latest.
That’s because Ma has zero investors in Kyirisan—a rarity in D.C.’s dining scene. His landlord, JBG, gave him “a good amount of money” in tenant improvement funds (although he declined to say how much). He’s also financed the restaurant with his savings over the years, his credit cards, and a “sizeable” bank loan.
“I put up my entire life against that loan as collateral,” Ma says. “This is the risk.”
The restaurant is also highly personal in other ways. Take the name Kyirisan. Ma explains that 20 generations ago, his ancestors gave different names to each of the subsequent 20 generations. For example, Ma’s middle name is Bing, which is shared among all the cousins of the same generation. Their children—the last of the 20 generations—were given the name “Kun” (pronounced “quin”). The K in Kyirisan comes from Kun, and the following letters are based off the Chinese phonetic spellings of numbers one (yi), two (ri), and three (san), representing the Ma family’s three children. (If that sounds complicated, consider that the restaurant was initially going to be called Freehand, until they ran into trademark issues.)
Meanwhile, the dining room is relatively small and decorated simply, with slanted ceilings that make the space look a few stained glass windows away from a church chapel. “We want people to feel like they’re walking into our home,” Joey Ma says. “Intimate, personal, not flashy because that’s just not us. We’re just very simple people.”
To that end, Kyirisan won’t use OpenTable or any other online booking system, but they will take day-of reservations by phone beginning at 10:30 a.m. “How would you eat at somebody’s house? You would call them,” Ma explains. Half of the restaurant will still be devoted to walk-ins.
He also doesn’t want Kyirisan to be an “experience”—a term thrown around by restaurateurs so often it’s become meaningless jargon. Again, he compares his aspiration to those of his first restaurant: “People who came to Maple Ave were seriously only coming for the food. You could not love anything else about that restaurant,” he says. Parking was terrible. Tables wobbled. The ceiling leaked when it rained.
“They literally just came because it was good food and good service,” Ma says, “and so I hope that we capture that feeling here again.”
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery