Last month, I dined at Water and Wall for the Finding Fortessa campaign. Although I was taken by the delicious food, I was even more taken by the story of Chef Tim Ma and his wife, Joey Hernandez-Ma, the owners of the restaurant. To me, food is a story. In talking with many chefs, I am always intrigued on how these stories translate into a dish. I had an opportunity to sit down with Chef Tim Ma and learn about what inspires him to create at his restaurants.
Q&A WITH CHEF/OWNER TIM MA OF TIM MA RESTAURANT GROUP:
Water & Wall, Gather + Feast, Chase the Submarine (Opening September 2015), & DC Restaurant (Fall/Winter 2015)
You were an Engineer before becoming a chef. Do you find that your prior career has helped you become a better chef?
Yes, my prior career definitely helped me become a better chef, but even more importantly, a better owner and overall businessman. Especially when it comes to the organizational aspects of running a business. Mise en place is one thing, but to understand the business inside and out has truly helped me be more efficient with my time because being a chef and an owner are two separate things.
You mentioned you and your wife, Joey Hernandez-Ma wrote your first menu in St. Thomas while you lived there. How did travel inspire your creative process?
Watching beautiful fresh fish constantly come through the back door of the kitchen I was working at while in St. Thomas is something I will never forget. It was witnessing the ultimate level of freshness. Looking back on our experiences in St. Thomas, I find that most people are creative in times of quiet and being in St. Thomas is very creatively quiet. We didn’t have much to overthink while we were there because there were no other distractions. It was peaceful, quiet, and an important time for us to reflect – especially for me after completing culinary school in NYC. We didn’t really have to worry about anything—designing menus, raising kids, etc. We would just show up at the restaurant and work.
Your parents are Chinese and you grew up in a Chinese restaurant. Tell us more how you incorporate that into your modern American menu.
I really enjoy taking aspects of the food I ate growing up and the restaurant that my parents ran and further elevating the dishes into creative new twists that my parents and uncle roll their eyes at. I think that is the best way to put it actually. Not as a dishonor or anything to them, but more as a way for me to push myself and create something completely new and unique and explore it in my own way instead of ways that are dictated to me.
If you could open a restaurant outside the United States, where would it be? Why that location?
Definitely St. Thomas. It’s the place that inspired what we have built restaurant-wise here in Virginia – our home. It’s a chapter in our lives that’s very nostalgic. The calm before the culinary storm. Who doesn’t want to cook on an island! It was pretty wild to see chefs from some of the most celebrated restaurants all over the world showing up in kitchens throughout St. Thomas for so many reasons – some to take time off, some to refocus, some to reconfirm their love and passion for the culinary arts, and some like Joey and I looking to create a new culinary chapter.
Water & Wall has partnered up with Fortessa to raise funds for Capital Food Bank. Can you tell us how you became involved in the charity?
We have been such big fans of Fortessa since it first launched — and we’ve have literally grown as Fortessa has grown throughout the past few years. It started as a hidden gem and now it has become such a significant staple in the hospitality world. They are growing outside their box, which is exactly what we are doing, so we look forward to continuing our relationship with this exciting brand. It was also Fortessa that put us in touch with Capital Area Food Bank through this initiative. Joey and I have always believed in the importance of giving back to our community, and Capital Area Food Bank is such a worthy and important cause. Anything we can do to bring additional attention to their mission of giving communities access to quality and healthy food, is something we take very seriously and are honored to be involved in.
This post was a sponsored by Fortessa in order to promote their #FindingFortessa campaign. Fortessa is a maker of restaurant grade tableware and works with many restaurants nationwide. Fortessa is donating $5 to a selection of regional food charities such as Capital Food Bank for each photo tagged #FindingFortessa from participating restaurants.