When Tim Ma, MS ’05, left his job as a senior hardware engineer with Raytheon to attend culinary school, his parents, both Chinese immigrants, worried. After all, they had “come to America to work insane hours in a Chinese restaurant so their kids wouldn’t have to work in restaurants,” Ma says.
But Ma didn’t let his parents’ aspiration for him to “work as a doctor, lawyer, or engineer—that was their American dream,” he says—deter him from his passion. He negotiated an engineering consulting gig, snagged an unpaid internship at a Michelin-rated eatery, and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) in New York City. “Before this, I had never really handled a knife,” says Ma.
After culinary school, Ma and his wife moved to balmy St. Thomas to slog long hours working and learning in the finest restaurants while spending downtime on the beach, dreaming up plans to open a restaurant. But moving back to the continental U.S. came with obstacles. “I’d barely been a line cook, and we struggled to find funding,” Ma shares.
Eventually, Ma bought a restaurant off Craigslist in northern Virginia and went on to run a series of bistros serving contemporary eclectic cuisine. In 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Ma surprised everyone with a return to his roots. He opened a temporary Chinese takeout restaurant, Lucky Danger, in Washington, D.C., which he later relocated to Arlington.
Part of the appeal came from the pandemic-fueled business opportunity in takeout. But another came from an intrinsic interest in his heritage. “People in this country perceive Chinese food as takeout, and I wanted to explore the food’s history and what it means to be Chinese-American,” Ma explains.
Ma describes Lucky Danger as “updated Chinese-American takeout.” His menu features traditional dishes like spring rolls with twists like whitefish with pickled mustard greens.
With plans underway to open a second Lucky Danger in Washington, D.C., Ma not only cooks and sells food but also uses it to combat the wave of anti-Asian attacks coinciding with the pandemic. “The situation reached a boiling point,” Ma says. “I had no choice but to help.”
He and another chef, Kevin Tien, devised a way to donate proceeds from takeout to organizations fighting anti-Asian crime while teaming up with chefs nationwide to do the same. “We raised more than $200,000, and we’re applying for our nonprofit status to continue the work,” Ma says.
“We’re just using what we know how to do: cook food,” he adds.