Chu, 30, specializes in Asian fusion cuisine and is the co-owner of two Ekiben locations in Baltimore. He read the email on March 11 and instantly knew that he could do better, he said.
He quickly replied with an alternative suggestion:
“Thanks for reaching out,” he wrote. “We’d like to meet you in Vermont and make it fresh for you.”
Brandon Jones, 37, was stunned.
“I emailed back, saying, ‘You do know that this is Vermont we’re talking about, right?’ ” he recalled. “It’s a six-hour drive. But Steve responded, ‘No problem. You tell us the date, time and location and we’ll be there.’ ”
Jones and his wife, Rina Jones, were preparing to leave from their home in the Canton neighborhood for Vermont that weekend to visit Rina’s mother, who is in the final stages of lung cancer and has stopped treatment since her December diagnosis.
For the past five or six years, every time his mother-in-law visited Baltimore, the first place she wanted to go was Ekiben in Fells Point so she could order the tempura broccoli topped with fresh herbs, diced onion and fermented cucumber vinegar, said Brandon Jones.
“She loves that broccoli, and I really wanted her to have it one more time,” Jones, an engineer, said about his mother-in-law, who asked that her name not be published in a request for privacy at the end of her life.
“She had always told us, ‘When I’m on my death bed, I want to have that broccoli,’ ” recalled Rina Jones, 38, who works in the health-care industry. “In fact, when I was packing on Friday to drive up to Vermont, I called my mom to see if she wanted us to bring anything special and she jokingly said, ‘tempura broccoli!’ ”
When Chu said he’d be happy to make the dish from scratch in Vermont on Saturday afternoon, Rina Jones said she was elated.
“It’s just so above and beyond,” Jones said. “It’s an incredible act of kindness.”
The next day, March 12, Chu loaded his truck after work with a hot plate and a cooler filled with the ingredients for broccoli tempura, then headed for Vermont with his business partner, Ephrem Abebe, and employee Joe Anonuevo. The trio stayed overnight in an Airbnb rental, he said, then stopped for some additional ingredients on their way to the condo where Rina Jones’ mother lives.
“To me, it was a huge honor to be able to help fulfill the family’s wishes,” Chu said. “This is about her, not us. There was a lot of good, positive energy in doing this.”
Chu said he spent his childhood in Baltimore hanging around his parents’ Chinese American restaurant, Jumbo Seafood, and helped in the kitchen and dining room as he grew older. Six years ago, he and two college friends decided to buy a hot dog cart and sell some of their own creations at the Fells Point farmers market.
When their spicy pork buns and Thai meatballs earned a dedicated following in the city, Chu and Abebe decided in 2016 to open their first Ekiben location, named after the bento boxes that are sold at train stations in Japan, said Chu.
The first time Rina Jones took her mother to Ekiben, she ordered the broccoli tempura and was immediately hooked.
“From then on, whenever she’d fly to see us or take the train, that’s the first place she wanted to go to eat,” she said. “She’s probably been to the restaurant with us at least 20 times.”
When the coronavirus pandemic hit last spring, Ekiben switched temporarily to takeout only, said Chu, but loyal customers have helped keep the grills humming.
“We’ve been doing all right — I really can’t complain,” he said. “We have a supportive and loving city, and we’re fortunate to survive through the pandemic.”
Fulfilling the wish of a 72-year-old customer struggling with late-stage cancer seemed like the right thing to do, said Chu.
As soon as he and his team pulled into the parking lot of the condo building, they texted Rina Jones that they’d arrived, then got to work. They pulled down the gate of the pickup, hooked the hot plate to the truck’s power port and started cooking and deep-frying.
In addition to Ekiben’s broccoli tempura, they made a tofu dish with peanut sauce and fresh herbs and some steamed rice, said Chu. Then after neatly boxing everything up, they knocked on their customer’s front door.
“Go ahead and answer,” Rina Jones said she told her mother.
“As soon as she opened the door, she recognized the aroma immediately,” Brandon Jones said. “It smelled amazing.”
Her mother also recognized Chu and his co-workers, said Rina Jones.
“My mom kept saying, ‘I don’t understand — you drove all the way up here to cook for me?’ ” she said. “She was so happy and touched to have that broccoli. She couldn’t believe it.”
Chu said he also immediately recognized the woman he was there to cook for.
“We see a lot of people in the restaurant, but she always stood out,” he said. “She loves the food and always made sure to tell us. She’s an amazing, sweet lady.”
The Joneses invited Chu and his team to join them for dinner, but they needed to get back to Baltimore after they cleaned up, said Rina Jones. Chu also wouldn’t accept any money from the family.
“My mom cried later about their generosity and so did I,” Rina Jones said. “They made so much food that she had it again the next day for lunch. It’s something we’ll never forget — I’ll carry that positive memory with me, always.”
When Brandon Jones wrote about the family’s experience on a group Facebook page, the post quickly got thousands of likes.
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It was picked up by Baltimore City Council member Zeke Cohen, who wrote:
“I always point to Ekiben as a business that always models respect for community and treats people with love. Plus their food is amazing! Read this, eat their tofu nuggets and try not to cry!”
Loyal customers are now swamping Ekiben’s two locations with orders, but Chu said he’s not looking for accolades. He said the request was such a simple one to grant that he couldn’t imagine not doing it.
“She’s a lovely lady, who has showered us with love at our restaurant for years,” he said. “It was a powerful experience, and I’m happy that we could make it happen.”