Lucky Danger: Heritage shapes menu, the times shape service
Tim Ma is busy, but the co-founder of Lucky Danger, executive chef of American Son and Wild Days at the Eaton Hotel DC, culinary director of Laoban Dumplings, and executive chef of Prather’s on the Alley took time out to take us through his journey innovating during COVID-19.
The pandemic hit the restaurant industry hard. How did you respond?
We did what was best for the public health and closed the Eaton Hotel DC and its food and beverage outlets, American Son, Kintsugi, Allegory, and Wild Days. But we didn’t stay dark for long. We used the kitchen facilities and staff to provide meals for those in need. We partnered with World Central Kitchen, Real Food for Kids, Hook Hall Helps and many other feeding programs to produce more than 2,200 meals a week.
We also turned the hotel kitchen into a community to-go kitchen. We combined 10 years of my greatest food hits (including dumplings) in one all-star takeout menu, and we created meal kits to sell with virtual cook-alongs. Many of our plans came together quickly because we needed to make money.
We also got creative with outdoor dining, alcohol-to-go sales, and wholesale food options as food and beverage regulations relaxed.
In the beginning, it was all about survival. It still is now, but we’re more optimistic. Since the initial onset of the pandemic, American Son and Wild Days at the Eaton DC have reopened. We kept Laoban Dumplings open for delivery only and transformed Pranther’s on the Alley to Lucky Danger.
So, what is Lucky Danger?
I drew on my family heritage to develop Lucky Danger during the pandemic. My uncle, Paul Ma, was a successful restaurateur in the 80’s; his work—and our family—is showcased in the Smithsonian Family History Museum.
I borrowed from my family to create food and a menu at Lucky Danger that is “American Chinese by a Chinese American.” I’m excited to present the food I knew and grew up with. It’s not about fusion or any amalgamation of cultures, but unapologetically American-Chinese food presented through my modern lens.
Chef Andrew Chiou is my co-founder and partner and leads the kitchen for Lucky Danger. The menu features familiar favorites such as Crab Ragoon, Pan Seared Pork Dumplings, Duck Fried Rice and Broccoli Beef. And less familiar, but still American-Chinese items such as Pig Ear Salad, Crispy Aromatic Whole Chicken, Cucumber Pork, and Eggplant with Basil. Lucky Danger is a ghost kitchen for now (i.e. take-out only), until we choose to expand to a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Looking forward to a post-pandemic climate, what will you carry with you?
Restaurants and hotels are vital to the culture and life of a city. But we have thin margins and have been shown that we can go from thriving to closed in a matter of days. I think a lot of good innovation in the space of carryout, delivery, outdoor dining, and sanitation are here to stay. You will see hospitality businesses diversify in these and many other ways so they can make money. To think this will be the last pandemic we’ll experience is a bit naïve. It will happen again, or something else will, so having a dynamic hospitality model will be key to surviving.