‘One Bun at a Time’ For Ekiben owner and his dad, restaurants are a family business


Steve Chu first started cooking back in Taipei, Taiwan when he was 16.

“I’d take the 6:30 a.m. bus into town, and then I’d catch the last bus home at 11 p.m.,” he says. “There were 21 people cooking in a very, very busy kitchen. I had a day off every three weeks and made about $50 a month.”

It’s between service at Chu’s Pikesville restaurant, Jumbo Seafood, and it’s quiet. His son has brought me here to meet Chu and to have dinner. For years,

I had been hearing about Jumbo as one of the few “really legit” Chinese restaurants from food friends who are tough to impress, but this was my first time here. Now, in front of me are a bunch of dishes, including the sumptuous crispy beef and string beans. Both the meat and greens have a good amount of heat but are not overpowering, and the beef has a nice char. This is how it’s supposed to be, I think.

As I eat, Chu talks. In 1979, at the age of 22 and after a stint in the military in Taiwan, he opened his first restaurant in Norfolk, Virginia with two of his brothers. “We lived upstairs. The place was heated by oil, and it was expensive, so we were always very cold. The restaurant’s equipment was really old, and the location wasn’t great, but we were in America, so we wanted to work hard and be successful,” he says. “We were so young — and maybe a little bit foolish.”

Over the next few years, Chu and his family opened multiple businesses, both together and on their own. Eventually, he opened Jumbo Seafood in 1993, and the Sudbrook Lane restaurant has earned a loyal following over the past 25 years.

“It’s a small operation here, just a few cooks,” he says. “Everything is cooked to order. If I don’t like it, I don’t serve it.”

Christmas Day at Jumbo is legendary, serving an average of 1,000 covers. Many of the orders are carry-out for $500 or more. “It’s crazy. Every year,”
Chu says, laughing and clearly accustomed to the crowd.

So is Steve Chu, 27, his son and owner of Ekiben in Fells Point. He grew up in his family’s restaurants and saw what the life was like. “My dad always told me to work really hard. Save your money. Be smart. Always be on time,” Steve says. He listened.

After Steve graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2012, he wanted to go to culinary school. But his dad thought spending $80,000 to learn to cook was crazy, and he told Steve it was not a financially sound idea. Instead, Steve called upon the knowledge he had gleaned about the food business by working at places like Chipotle and ShopHouse in Washington, D.C., during his college years and as a server at Petit Louis, studiously watching chef Ben Lefenfeld, who now owns La Cuchara and Minnow.

“Between Ben and (maître d’) Patrick Del Valle, I learned a ton,” Steve says. “They were tough, they had to be.”

He left Petit Louis to manage Jumbo Seafood when the general manager there fell ill and then decided to try something completely new: He moved to New York City. There, he cooked at Kin Shop in Greenwich Village with Harold Dieterle, winner of the first season of “Top Chef.”

“I was living in a box in the Lower East Side with some of the dopest places, like (restaurants) wd-50 and Mission Chinese. I was happy to find an apartment I could afford, I worked all the time, and I was learning a ton. Not just about cooking, but how to run a business,” Steve says. “I paid attention. It was great experience for me, just starting out.”

When Steve’s grandfather became sick, he returned to Baltimore to once again help run Jumbo Seafood. He managed his father’s restaurant in the same way that Del Valle ran things at Petit Louis — tough. First, he hired — via Craigslist — a whole new crew of wait staff.

“I wanted there to be more structure, and I learned that from Patrick,” Steve says. “The more training and encouragement the staff got, the better their service became. The tips went up. They were happy.”

Then he had an idea for the business that would eventually become Ekiben. Along with two of his UMBC classmates, Nikhil Yesupriya and Ephram Abebe, he started planning. (Yesupriya has since left the company.) Devotees — and there are many — will remember that it all began with a hot dog cart at the Fells Point Farmers Market. Slowly, but definitively, restaurant goers all over the city started hearing about these guys and the steamed buns.

Chu laughs. “I’ll tell you what happened,” he says. As Steve created the original menu, he and friends tested all of the recipes late at night in Jumbo’s kitchen. Steve only invited friends whom he knew would offer honest opinions, and one night, there were eight diners hanging out in his dad’s restaurant, ready to offer their reviews.

“I walked in said, ‘What’s going on,’” Chu says. “Are you having a party?” It was a party, a party that became Ekiben. With dishes such as the Neighborhood Bird and the tempura broccoli, Ekiben has one of the tightest menus and most loyal followings in Baltimore.

Steve is quick to credit Abebe but also the hustle he got from his father. “Say yes to everything you possibly can,” Steve says. “It’s hard to juggle, but I hate saying no. We want to do it all.” Ekiben also works with kids from Baltimore City’s Youth Works and UMBC’s Choice Program, two endeavors in which they are very proud to participate.

So, what’s next? “We’ll see. One bun at a time. Bottom line? Everything I learned from my dad has shaped me into who I am. Work hard, treat people right, love what you do, take care of your community. It all matters.”

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