WPA recently spoke with chef Erik Bruner-Yang of Toki Underground and featured celebrity chef for SELECT 2013, WPA's annual art auction exhibition gala.
WPA: Thanks for talking with us today! So, how did you get your start in the restaurant business?
ERIK BRUNER-YANG: Well, I started working in restaurants when I was in high school, just like, waiting tables, washing dishes…my first restaurant job was at Red Robin! And then, through college I worked in restaurants, and when I came to DC I worked at Sticky Rice and Kushi.
WPA: So you really started from the ground up, making your way up through the business.
BRUNER-YANG: Yeah and not really in a glamorous way – I never worked for Thomas Keller or anything like that. Always working at restaurants.
WPA: How did you make the transition into working on your own projects?
BRUNER-YANG: I wanted to be my own boss. I had this really cool idea I had been hashing around in my head for a long time and that’s kind of how we came to where we are.
WPA: Did you study culinary arts?
BRUNER-YANG: I went to Mary Washington and ended up getting my undergraduate in business administration.
WPA: So I would imagine that has helped you with the business end of things.
BRUNER-YANG: Yes, absolutely.
WPA: Where did you get your inspiration for Toki Underground? How long did it take you to get things running?
BRUNER-YANG: I started developing the concept back in 2008, I go back to Taiwan every year, I’m half Taiwanese, and my trips to Taipei kind of encapsulate what Toki Underground represents to me, the family, the culture, the food.
WPA: How would you describe your aesthetic? Both with your food and also with the creative visual work that interests you.
BRUNER-YANG: It’s definitely counterculture. I’m from Taipei, and moved here when I was about four. We want to try to honor where we’re from, where I’m from, but kind of do something that represents a younger generation. In terms of artists, I really like Piet Mondrian, Basquiat, and I just went to the Ai Weiwei exhibit, which was pretty amazing.
WPA: That’s a great show. Where do you find the work for your home or restaurant, how do you collect art?
BRUNER-YANG: I love old screen-printed posters, I’m pretty into those. Kelly Towles, a friend of mine, did a lot of the art here at Toki Underground. I have a couple Mao-era posters, rock show posters, and we collect a lot of little Buddhas and Asian stuff at my house.
WPA: So really, art that directly relates to other areas of culture.
BRUNER-YANG: Yeah, street-art too. Stuff like that.
WPA: Do you think there is a relationship between art and food?
BRUNER-YANG: I think that food, art and music are all forms of creativity. You know, obviously, the restaurant business is a different level of…it functions more as a business than it does an art. But they are all important. Decoration, atmosphere, and music in the restaurant are all heavily influenced by the arts.
WPA: How often do you design new dishes or engage in the creative side of what you do?
BRUNER-YANG: I’d say that 90% of the art of this place was all conceptualized before we opened. Then, after that it is trying to maintain that brand that you worked to really hard to create. You don’t want to stray too far from it, but you don’t want to be stifled by it either.
WPA: Understandable. Do you have a message or perspective that you stick to when you are working?
BRUNER-YANG: Here at Toki we definitely want to honor tradition, and use classic recipes but present them in a more accessible manner, there are a lot of Chinese dishes that don’t look appetizing or a lot of Asian dishes that don’t look or smell appetizing, but they taste amazing, so you want to recalibrate that to a modern identity of what food looks like now, and make it accessible to patrons.
WPA: So kind of repackaging something classic so they will give it a second look.
BRUNER-YANG: Yeah repackaging something that they normally wouldn’t try into something they would try, so they don’t even think about it anymore.
WPA: I would imagine a lot of that is visual, and how you “sell” a dish to the senses.
WPA: Do you think that Toki Underground has a specific audience or clientele?
BRUNER-YANG: I like to say that we are a neighborhood restaurant first, but obviously sometimes we are too busy and don’t get to serve the neighbors as much as we’d like to. But I think we have a super diverse clientele. All different ethnicities – you know, the district is super diverse, and even though we don’t have concentrated pockets of ethnic communities as much as other cities, we have a lot of ethnicities living here.
WPA: In terms of working with WPA, on SELECT 2013 specifically, what appeals to you about working with artists or on behalf of artists to support them?
BRUNER-YANG: I like the idea of being able to do art for a living – or really anyone doing anything that they really want to do for a living, that they are passionate about, and the arts are always the first to get hit when cuts come around. They are things that are important to me, though.
WPA: Yes, unfortunately artists sometimes have a tough time. It takes a lot of entrepreneurship to succeed. Speaking of entrepreneurship, what is your take on all of DC’s food trucks?
BRUNER-YANG: I always say, “the more food the better!” So, the more options the better. It provides a nice, fun environment for the city.
WPA: Agreed. And what can you tell us about the menu you are planning for SELECT? Any hints on what to expect?
BRUNER-YANG: We are definitely doing to do a lot of Taiwanese and Southeast-Asian foods and really do that whole repackaging of dishes that we talked about, presenting them in a formal environment and demystifying the Chinese and Southeast-Asian food for people.
WPA: How is creating food for an event like the Gala different from working on dishes that you present in a restaurant?
BRUNER-YANG: It’s pretty interesting. I’ve never really worked with a giant caterer before, so that kind of collaboration is exciting, and to have the means to do it is exciting. We don’t, at our space, have the means to cater to such a large group. It’s going to be fun. Design Cuisine will be executing the product the night of the event, so right now it’s about, maybe, communicating about a type of food that they might not be familiar with for example, while using their knowledge of how to work big to make it all happen.
WPA: Do you go in and cook with them?
BRUNER-YANG: Yeah, it’s fully hands on. I’m really excited to be doing this and to work after Barton Seaver, he is a wonderful chef and a great part of the sustainable community. I think its great that we were invited and I’m honored to be a part of it!
WPA: Well we are really excited to have you. Thanks again for talking with us today!
BRUNER-YANG: Thank you! WPA's SELECT 2013 gala will take place March 16, 2013 from 6:30pm - Midnight.
February 21, 2013