Gourmet cuisine is not a phrase commonly associated with Whole Foods Market, but that’s exactly what the upscale grocery chain got from a stand by a local ramen chef.
The Foggy Bottom location recently landed a high-profile collaboration with Erik Bruner-Yang, who was the executive chef at Toki Underground – an absolute must-visit on any D.C. ramen tour. Bruner-Yang’s stand, Paper Horse, started serving up two types of ramen at Whole Foods last week.
Fans of Bruner-Yang’s rich, porky tonkotsu ramen will no doubt appreciate “All Business,” which includes four slices of shochu pork, potatoes, spinach, scallions, eggs, extra fat and, of course, the noodles.
Its vegetarian counterpart, “Keeping It Light,” is a vegan and gluten-free dish with braised daikon, fried brussels sprouts and shiitake mushrooms.
Customers can order both dishes for $12 a bowl.
Whole Foods executives first saw Bruner-Yang’s potential a year and a half ago, when Julia Obici, the vice president of purchasing and “culinary conscience” of Whole Foods, tried his ramen at Toki Underground and called for a company dinner on-site, said Annie Cull, a Whole Foods spokeswoman.
Cull added that Whole Foods staff have to consider food preparation requirements and whether a stand will fit the pre-existing layout when they collaborate with local vendors.
“Ramen was a perfect fit,” Cull said. “You have the fresh ingredients there. You have the broth made – it fit the service model well.”
As for the name, Bruner-Yang chose “horse” because of his daughter’s Chinese zodiac sign and “paper” simply because it fit.
“He’s a real whiz for names,” Sue-Jean Kang, Bruner-Yang’s former publicist, said.
Bruner-Yang had connected with the Whole Foods team and saw the collaboration as an opportunity to spread his food to the students, businesspeople and medical professionals that frequent the Foggy Bottom location, Kang said.
“Erik’s always been based on H Street,” Kang said. “That’s where he lives. That’s where Toki Underground started. That’s where Maketto is. It’s always fun to discover a new neighborhood.”
Kang said that one of the most difficult parts of the partnership has been deciding which parts of the dish to scale up and which aspects to scale down to match the vendor.
Ramen fit the profile Whole Foods was looking for perfectly, partly due to its reputation as “the Japanese businessman’s lunch.” In Japan, ramen is often an easy, affordable and accessible lunch for busy workers – a trait that Bruner-Yang hopes to replicate with Paper Horse.
“It’s a light, to-go meal perfect for the busy life at Foggy Bottom,” Kang said.