When the owners of Prather’s on the Alley asked Tim Ma for advice on who should fill the executive chef vacancy at their global-leaning American restaurant in Mt. Vernon Triangle, Ma came back with a surprising answer: he wanted to do it.
After opening and closing a string of well-regarded restaurants in Northern Virginia and D.C. over the past 10 years, Ma had been down to one kitchen. Closing Kyirisan, his French-Chinese place that was suffering from financial problems, in the spring left him to focus on American Son, the lobby-level restaurant that started selling savory potato funnel cakes and tofu gnocchi in the trendy Eaton hotel downtown about a year ago. He plans to keep his hotel job in addition to the new responsibility.
One of the first items Ma is adding to the menu at Prather’s on the Alley (455 Eye Street NW) is a deceptive version of white-sauced chicken wings that became well-known at Kyirisan and his (since-sold) deli in Vienna, Chase the Submarine. Instead of a creme fraiche sauce, these sous vide wings come with a harissa and Duke’s mayonnaise dip — an idea that came from time Ma spent on the festival circuit with Turkey and the Wolf sandwich king Mason Hereford — and chermoula, a North African herb sauce. Other new additions include Wellfleet oysters —with gooseberry cocktail, watercress puree, and pickled fennel — and a monkfish that’s swimming in a foamed brown butter emulsion. Some original dishes will stay on, including the white lentil hummus and the roasted chicken with garlic and cayenne honey.
At Prather’s on the Alley, Ma saw a space he liked with a strong kitchen staff in place and decided he wanted to work with co-owners Dean Mosones and Mark Minicucci, friends he’s known for years. After opening the restaurant in August 2018, Akhtar Nawab stepped down as executive chef in the spring but remains a partner in the business.
Ma also wanted to work with beverage director Hung Nguyen. The bar manager helped open Dante in New York City, which claimed the No. 1 spot on this year’s World’s 50 Best Bars list, and led the bar at Kapnos when it won a local restaurant association award for Cocktail Program of the Year in 2017.
Ma says while he felt “pigeonholed” by the French-Chinese theme at Kyirisan, he liked the ability to riff on different cultures at Prather’s. The ability to cook in a small, neighborhood restaurant was also appealing.
“It just has become something where it’s more fun for me to explore different parts of cuisines,” he says. “Being a smaller restaurant also applied to certain things that I couldn’t do in American Son.”
In recent years, Ma has sold his first restaurant, Maple Ave., and closed Water and Wall in addition to Kyirisan, which filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
He says at Prather’s and American Son, he’s got managers in place whom he can trust to handle daily operations and keep him out of the weeds. At American Son, that’s newly hired chef de cuisine Hamilton Johnson, the Vidalia alum who closed Honeysuckle in April. At Prather’s, Ma is collaborating with chef de cuisine Gary Cooper, most recently of French hotel restaurant Brabo in Alexandria. Trusting those two, Ma says, allows him to be more efficient and diversify his time accordingly.
“I feel like I’m learning how to become an executive chef,” he says.