Words By Logan Hollers, Photos By Franz Mahr
For Jonathan Uribe, the new Executive Chef of H Street ramen joint Toki Underground (to which he is stepping up to as Erik Bruner-Yang is embarking on new projects), the concept of a restaurant crew as “family” is just the way kitchens work. While most chefs use the “family” line simply as a buzzword, Chef Uribe is actually determined to build a close-knit, lasting group that, as he so aptly puts it, “loves coming in to work.” Based on our interview with him: so far, so good.
Uribe’s a life-long chef; originally from Hawaii, his dad was in the Air Force and he was home-schooled. The best part of eschewing the traditional education? “Getting to cook, literally, all the time,” he says. He was the main cook for his family from a young age, even taking over Christmas dinner duties when he was just 8-years-old.
Uribe said he’s always loved feeding others: “The more people I can feed in the shorter amount of time, the happier I’m going to be.” As long as he can focus on that, he said, it’ll be smooth going.
Uribe’s cooking chops were honed ever further right here in D.C.; after brief stints at Union Market, where he worked for TaKorean and Neopol Savory Smokery (“I just love making sandwiches…like, a lot,” he said), Toki and Maketto chef/owner Erik Bruner-Yang approached him about taking over the kitchen at Toki, an opportunity he says, “would’ve been crazy to turn down.” From his “standing reservation (at Toki) every Thursday at 9:00 pm,” to his friendship with the current Toki crew, the match just fit. “I like the vibe, I like the family aspect, I like the food, and with where I was and what I wanted to do next, it just made sense,” he said.
“We’ve been operating for five years, doing really good things,” he said. His goal? “Continue doing that really well and maybe bring in some new stuff in the future.” Uribe’s a workaholic – pursuing perfection is just the natural order for him. Hearing him talk about his craft, one realizes why it’s so easy to see a bowl of Toki’s ramen as more than broth and some noodles…instead, Uribe wants his patrons to recognize the time, effort, and genuine love that goes into each bowl. Rather than a quick bite, he wants people to taste something transcendent.
Soup, he told us, “is relatively easy. But doing it every time, making sure we’re doing it consistently, that’s the hard part…it’s all the details – the prep, the construction, making sure we’re delivering what we’re best at.” Eventually, he says, he’ll start to put his own spin on the menu, with some specials and tweaks to dishes once everyone settles in.
When asked about the future he sees for Toki, Uribe keeps his cards close to the chest. “It really depends on the season,” he said. “Now that it’s getting warmer, we’re looking at some dishes getting lighter, brighter, with more of a vegetable focus, which is kind of what we’re trying to do this year.” Uribe knows that Toki’s tonkotsu broth, while outstandingly delicious, can be a little heavy. Instead of just adding novelty items to make the soup heavier, “why not find additions that can complement the soup itself and really cut through some of that fat?”
His main focus now, he said, is “getting everyone’s legs under them,” making sure everyone’s on the same page, and keeping the focus on the food. “You can always improve – but my goal right now is to make sure we keep doing what we’ve been doing: pumping out perfection.”
Perfection is a common theme with Uribe; he mentioned multiple times his commitment, and responsibility, to maintaining the consistent excellence that keeps lines out Toki’s door. “Why would you do anything if you’re not trying to do it perfect and better? I don’t even know what industry you can be in where you’re not always striving to get better,” he said. “Not any industry I wanna be a part of anyway,” Uribe added.
Uribe’s also obsessed with what he calls “the perfect bite.” It’s the reasoning, for example, why Toki uses pulled pork shoulder in their ramen rather than the traditional slice of char siu pork. “Char siu’s great,” Uribe said (obviously, I replied), “but we went with pork shoulder so it would melt down and break apart as the soup’s eaten, with little shreds of pork coating each noodle.” Each bite, then, is composed, and all the elements work in harmony, complementing one another rather than battling for supremacy. “Our goal,” he said, “is to make sure it all works together.”
Honing his craft has taken time, and effort; he and Bruner-Yang recently took a trip to New York specifically to gather intel, see some new ideas, and eat a shitload of ramen. To wit: “One day Erik and I got in – our train got to New York at 11:45, and by 1:30, we’d already had five or six bowls of noodles.” These recon trips not only let Uribe check out what other ramen shops are doing, but also rekindles his love for the dish. “Whether you see the new fusiony-type dishes, or the simplest bowl you can find, I just love it. I love eating it, and I really love cooking it.”
Uribe’s also free of the oft-cited slavish devotion to “traditional” ramen (whatever that means). According to him, “We’ve never claimed to be a replica of a Tokyo ramen-ya. We’re a Taiwanese-Japanese interpretation of ramen noodle soup.”
But let’s get back to that whole “family” thing. It’s more than mere fluff for the new Executive Chef: Uribe’s honestly committed not only to pumping out dynamite bowls of ramen, but to also ensuring Toki is a place where people want to work. He’s instituting a new program where anyone, front of house or back, can sign up for free ESL classes. In addition, Uribe’s started financial management classes for his staff.
When asked what he wanted most for Toki, Uribe’s clear: “I’m psyched to be here, you know?” For him, “Wanting to be part of this family for so long, and now being the de facto head of this family? It’s an awesome opportunity, and it’s a responsibility that I take very seriously. Continuing the vision that Erik had for this place…helping to create the vision that he had, but also taking it in my own direction, that’s what I’m most excited about.”
Toki Underground is a ramen and dumpling house. Uribe made clear they’re always going to have that stuff. He, however, is eager for the opportunity to train his staff exactly how he wants, making sure they’re able to execute and perform at the highest level they can – a perfect fit for Toki Underground. “Everyone here works harder than the person before, because no one wants to be the one that’s not working,” he said.
For Uribe, it’s all about having fun. When people go to Toki, he said, “they know what they’re getting into, and, if we execute, they leave happy.” Well said, chef – well said.