An Engineer Returns to His Restaurant Roots

Atlanta, GA

All roads led to the restaurant business for 37-year-old Georgia Tech alumnus Tim Ma. All, that is, except for one that originally took him to Atlanta.

Ma literally grew up in restaurants, beginning in Maumelle, Ark., where his parents worked around-the-clock to keep open their small Chinese restaurant. Later, his family moved to New York in the 1980s, and some of the chef’s favorite childhood memories played out against the backdrop of his uncle’s much-acclaimed nouveau Chinese eatery, Paul Ma’s China Kitchen.

“We’d go almost every weekend to my uncle’s restaurant and see the entire family,” Ma recalls. “I remember being a little boy running around the restaurant. It was like one big dinner party.”

So it’s not surprising that the proud Yellow Jacket would eventually go on to open not one, but two successful restaurants of his own. It’s just that he didn’t realize that’s what he wanted to do with his life—he originally decided to try engineering.

“Georgia Tech was the last school I looked at,” Ma says. “I went on a campus visit and I immediately thought ‘I want to go here’.” He wound up choosing Tech despite being offered full rides to several others.

Ma studied hard for five years then graduated in 2000 with a degree in electrical and computer engineering. He then went on to get a master’s degree, and started to build a lucrative career as a government contractor in the Washington, D.C., area. By all outside accounts, he was doing more than well, but Ma couldn’t quiet the call of the kitchen.

And that’s when he did the contemporary version of running away to join the circus: He quit his job and went off to culinary school.

“I was in L.A. around 2006 visiting my sister and brother-in-law,” he says. “We were in a Japanese restaurant eating sushi and I kept thinking about how the food scene defines a city. By the end of the meal I told them that I wanted to open a restaurant.”

Despite lots of push back from his parents, Ma eventually moved forward with his plan. He and his now wife, Joey Hernandez, sold everything they had to move to New York City where he enrolled in the French Culinary Institute, which is now known as the International Culinary Center. The couple did a lot of couch surfing and bunking down in some pretty terrible apartments—some plagued with rats—to make it through. “At one point we were essentially homeless for 10 days,” Ma says.

But Ma had found his passion. And the demanding environment at Tech helped him conquer all his obstacles. After an externship with Chef David Chang of the Momofuku Empire and a short stint cooking in St. Thomas, Ma and Hernandez moved back to the D.C. area to open a place of their own, all on a shoestring budget.

In 2009, the couple leased an old decrepit doughnut shop on a strip in Vienna, Va., dotted with more auto shops than four-star restaurants. It was the only space they could afford and it sat decidedly outside the city’s vibrant food scene. “We found the place surfing Craigslist,” Ma says. “No broker would even talk to us.”

Together with the help of friends and family, Ma and his wife did everything to make the nine-table Maple Avenue Restaurant, as they dubbed it, into a reality—from hauling out the old fixtures to putting up drywall themselves. Ma and Hernandez, who serves as Maple Avenue’s general manager and shares her husband’s passion for restaurants, financed the venture with credit cards.Lots and lots of maxed-out credit cards.

It didn’t take long for their money and credit to run out. “I couldn’t even get a $500 Home Depot card at that point,” Ma admits.

At first, the barely 1,000-square-foot dining room sat empty most nights. Closing seemed inevitable. But just as Ma started dusting off his engineering resume, Maple Avenue had its very first day where it almost broke even. Then came a few more where it actually turned a profit. The critics started paying attention. Great dishes led to even better reviews, and the buzz brought in diners from across the region to sample Ma’s menu of American cuisine enhanced with Asian and French flavors.

“The dichotomy of Maple Avenue is that you walk into a building that is physically barely hanging on and get great food,” Ma says of his little restaurant that could.

In Maple Avenue’s early days, there were two nods to his time at Georgia Tech on the menu. The first was his take on the Southern classic—fried green tomatoes. The second was a pineapple steak that he loved eating at a Houston’s near campus that he went to all the time during college. “That item was such a rip off of that steak,” Ma jokes.

Building on Maple Avenue’s success, he and his wife—now parents of three children—opened a second restaurant, Water & Wall, in late 2013. This time the couple had no trouble getting a broker to answer their call or to lure customers into the spacious, professionally designed spot.

Ma rarely uses his engineering training anymore but says he does not regret his first career. “Through engineering I got to learn a lot of leadership qualities,” says Ma, who enjoys trading stories with the many Tech grads living in the D.C. area who frequent his restaurants.  “And my security clearance from my engineering days always helps when I apply for a liquor license." 

This story originally appeared in Vol. 90, No. 1 of the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine.

Last revised August 1, 2017