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Inside Ekiben’s six-hour trip to make a special dish for customer dying of cancer

Ekiben founders Steve Chu (left) and Ephrem Abebe drove six hours last weekend to prepare a special dish for a longtime customer.
Ekiben founders Steve Chu (left) and Ephrem Abebe drove six hours last weekend to prepare a special dish for a longtime customer. (Brandon Jones/Photo courtesy of Brandon Jones)

It flurried all day Sunday in Vermont. Ekiben co-founder Steve Chu watched the flakes with dread. Snow in the fryer would be trouble.

This is the story of how the owners of Baltimore’s most popular fusion restaurant drove to Vermont over the weekend to cook a meal. It’s also a story about food and love and dying. And really, really amazing customer service.

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It started out simply enough. Canton residents Brandon Jones and his wife, Rina, needed some carryout.

Not just any carryout. They needed the tempura broccoli from Ekiben, the beloved local fusion spot that started in Fells Point.

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Not just for any customer. The dish was for Rina’s mom, who lives in Vermont and is dying of lung cancer.

Rina’s mom, who did not want to be named in this story for privacy reasons, had loved the dish since she first came to visit her daughter six years ago in Baltimore. Although she had traveled and eaten extensively, the crispy tempura broccoli from Ekiben, which she first tried at the Fells Point farmers market, quickly became an obsession; a necessary stop on every trip to Charm City, like crab cakes and Berger Cookies.

“She had jokingly said that she wanted it on her deathbed,” Rina said.

That date came sooner than anyone could have realized. In December, Rina’s mother became ill with cancer. She opted not to go through with treatment, which made her feel awful. Better to live her last days on her own terms. At home.

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The past few months have seen an outpouring of love and support from her community in Vermont, Rina said. Neighbors bring meals all the time. A bowl in the kitchen overflows with cards wishing her well. Rina sees it as an appropriately loving end for a woman who’s spent years giving her time and her heart to her community.

Last week, as Brandon and Rina prepared to make the six-hour drive to visit Rina’s mom — possibly for the last time — they wondered about one thing.

How on earth could they make that tempura broccoli from Ekiben for her? Surely it would turn soggy on the drive.

Brandon, a 37-year-old engineer, emailed Ekiben’s owners and co-founders, Steve Chu and Ephrem Abebe, hoping they could offer some tips. He added one caveat: He’s not a great cook.

Reading his message, Chu thought to himself: “Well … you’re not cooking this.”

Chu wrote back with an offer. He and Abebe would meet them in Vermont. They would cook it themselves.

Brandon was in disbelief, unsure whether there had been some confusion. He forwarded the message to Rina.

“Do they know that it’s Vermont state?” she wondered. “This doesn’t make any sense.”

“They were adamant,” Brandon said. “They’re cooking. They’re meeting us.”

The messages were brief: “Just tell us the date, time and location.”

Again, he wondered if there had been a miscommunication. “Do they not know this is in two days that we’re leaving?”

Could this really happen?

But to Chu, “It was a no-brainer,” he said.

Jones shared the exchange on a Facebook group; it’s since gathered thousands of likes and hundreds of comments, even catching the attention of a news site in India. Baltimore city Councilman Zeke Cohen, whose district includes the Ekiben in Fells Point, shared the story on his Facebook page, commenting: “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!”

On Saturday, Chu, Abebe and their colleague Joe Añonuevo made the six-hour drive to Vermont in a pickup. They pulled up to Rina’s mom’s house the following day. Like magic, the flakes paused.

“We get there — it just stopped snowing,” Chu said.

They set up the fryer in the back of the truck, staying outside to keep things a surprise, and out of concern for COVID-19.

In the cold Vermont air, it took several hours for the fryer to get up to temperature. When all was said and done, Chu said, “It was the most perfect tempura broccoli we ever made.” Made with love.

The smell of the frying food wafted into the house. Rina said it took her mom a moment to realize what was going on.

“This is from Baltimore!” she said.

“We thought she would cry right away, she didn’t cry until later,” Rina said.

Chu called it a “powerful moment” when they met Rina’s mom. Though they hadn’t known her name, they instantly recognized her face from years of friendly visits.

“You see so many people day in and day out … we’ll always remember the faces,” he said. “We all remembered her. She used to come in a lot,” Chu said, all smiles and a million thank-yous.

Rina said her mom, who has struggled to eat because of sores on her mouth from the cancer, managed to devour the broccoli and even the spicy tofu bowls Chu, Abebe and Añonuevo prepared.

“She wanted to lick the bowl,” Rina said.

Twenty-four hours later, it was hard to believe it had really happened.

“It’s still surreal to me that it even happened, and that people would be so generous and kind for someone that they don’t even know,” Rina said. Chu and Abebe, she said, wouldn’t even accept gas money.

Back in Baltimore, appreciative customers have since flooded Ekiben with orders and accolades. Chu shrugs off the attention. It was a way to say thanks for all the years of support from Rina’s mom.

“We’re just glad we could make her happy,” he said. “I think that’s what hospitality is all about.”

No sooner had they come than they left, driving back to Baltimore for work the next day.

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