When you’re an award-winning chef both locally and nationally acclaimed, people flock to your projects. To say that people flock to Chef Erik Bruner-Yang’s Toki Underground is almost an understatement. Upon its opening in January of 2011, Toki instantly became a hot spot in the D.C. dining community, serving up Taiwanese-style ramen, dumplings and asian-inspired cocktails. Patrons from both a local and celebrity scope wait salivating to try a bowl of steaming noodles and broth in what is easily H Street’s most discussed eating establishment. All of this fame, of course, rocketed Erik Bruner-Yang, chef and co-owner, to the top of the District dining game. He’s become somewhat of a local hero, an illustrious and talented twenty-something with an incredible restaurant, so of course we asked–what does he cook when he’s not in the spotlight? Erik kindly opened his fridge door to us to clue us in on just what the celebrity chef makes in his spare time…
It’s because of Bruner-Yang’s ethnic culinary prowess that I expected to find bottles, pastes and knick-knacks from around the world, so it’s understandably a shock when I opened the fridge and immediately set my sights on a lone Lunchables (of the lunchmeat-and-crackers variety, for those wondering). He laughs. In the fridge, it’s mostly snacks due to his hectic schedule of overseeing Toki, working on a new H Street restaurant, taking meetings all over the DMV and, well, you get the idea. If ever you find yourself staring into the light of Erik Bruner-Yang’s fridge, you won’t find tupperware full of leftovers or stacks upon stacks of ramen; when you move past the Lunchables on that middle shelf, you might just discover almond milk, various broths, multiple Red Bulls (did we mention he’s busy?) and some homemade soy sauce. Tucked even further behind these is Don Ramon, their Mexican fridge elf via an Asian grocery store’s pots and pans aisle. Chef laughs again. The piggy bank that was originally purchased as a gag gift has become a permanent fixture in their home.
“Me and my wife we go through phases so a lot of condiments will be left over from those. Like maybe we’ll go through a turkey sandwich phase so we’ll have a bunch of mustard and mayonnaise left over.”
This draws my attention to the fridge door, packed with every type of hot sauce you can imagine, as well as the intriguing bottles I was initially expecting to find. There are chili sauces, tabasco, a large bottle of Sriracha, something spicy called “Snake Oil,” in addition to the aforementioned mustards (Smoky Onion mustard and delicatessen-style mustard with relish, again for those wondering).
Mixed alongside these sauces there lie packages of organic smoky tempeh, almond and cashew cream, almond milk (in addition to the large box on the middle shelf), multiple containers of flax oil, Pom juice, and, of course, local darlings Gordy’s Pickles. Bruner-Yang notes that he and he and his fiance Seda (whom he already affectionately refers to as his wife) love to shop at the H Street Farmers Market when it’s warmer because of support of local business and the ease with which he can do it; the market is, after all, right in front of his house.
I find more evidence of local support on the top shelf of the fridge with local peanut butter, and iced coffee in a Trickling Springs milk jar. Beside these are Mangastines (a lychee-like fruit) in mason jars and grass jelly, which Bruner-Yang opens and explains is just like eating Jello but with some brown sugar on top.
In the crispers I find the typical staples you might find in any fridge; bacon and a healthy amount of Italian and provolone shredded cheese, but also fresh noodles and sauce packets written in a foreign script. The celebrity chef mentions he’ll run to Harris Teeter for the basics and hit up Asian grocery stores whenever they’re out of the District proper, just whatever they’re closest to in Virginia at the time. This is echoed by the carrots and dumpling wrappers in the vegetable crispers, as well as the intriguing foreign food like persimmon syrup and organic Adriatic fig spread. (Let’s not forget his homemade Asian sauces in various containers.)
While this may surprise some of you (and will more likely leave culinary veterans with a lack of shock), Bruner-Yang says he doesn’t really cook at home. Once or twice a week, he says, he and Seda whip up a stir fry and veggies or pastas, but a constant regimen of tasting at Toki and running to and fro leaves little inclination for full meals, especially lunch. It’s something he’s been working on; enter the Lunchables.
“What about Toki?” I ask. “Do you ever eat a full meal there?” No, he says with clear conscience, they don’t really eat at Toki because they don’t want to take up seats–a thoughtful gesture toward any and all who wait hours for a coveted stool. The chef divulges that he usually only eats there when there’s a meeting but will often eat a staff meal (typically a late dinner) when he’s working.
When he eventually does sit still for a full meal, you will most likely find him with Seda at local favorites Shawafel or H &pizza for something quick. On Sundays, they’ll go to Seda’s mom’s house. She’s Cambodian so they’ll almost always have leftover Cambodian food. (By the time I arrived toward the end of the week, there was little evidence–a testament to great cooking.)
In the freezer I find some salted Mekong River fish from her Cambodian family, plus or minus a frozen pizza (“Deluxe”), and a box of ramen noodles a Toki regular shipped from Japan (from the ramen museum, no less) as a gift to one of his favorite chefs. It’s just one of the many rewards of Toki and its H Street location, Bruner-Yang says. “It’s a real community.”