Baltimore chefs drive 6 hours for customer with terminal cancer

Maryland resident Brandon Jones, 37, knew it would be a long shot, but he had to try.

His mother-in-law, who is in the final stages of lung cancer and has stopped treatment, had fallen in love with the tempura broccoli dish from Ekiben in Baltimore, so he emailed one of the owners, Steve Chu, requesting the recipe.

Jones intended to make the recipe for her at her home in Vermont that weekend.

Chu’s response was more than Jones ever expected. The chef, who specializes in Asian fusion cuisine, offered to meet Jones and his wife, Rina, in Vermont to make it fresh.

“I emailed back, saying, ‘You do know that this is Vermont we’re talking about, right?’” Jones told the Washington Post. “It’s a six-hour drive.”

But Chu responded, “No problem. You tell us the date, time and location and we’ll be there.”

For as long as Jones’ mother-in-law has been visiting Baltimore, she has made it a priority to go to Ekiben in Fells Point, where she orders the same dish — tempura broccoli topped with fresh herbs, red onion and rice vinegar.

“She had always told us, ‘When I’m on my deathbed, I want to have that broccoli,’” Rina Jones, 38, told the Post. “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!'”

That Saturday, Chu, Ekiben co-owner Ephrem Abebe, and their colleague Joe Añonuevo, loaded up their pickup and drove the six hours to Vermont.

The next day, the chefs set up a makeshift kitchen in the bed of their truck at Rina’s mom’s house, working against freezing temperatures to get their fryer to the correct temperature.

When the tempura broccoli, alongside tofu nuggets with spicy peanut sauce and roasted garlic, was ready, the team boxed up the food and rang the doorbell.

Rina’s mom couldn’t believe her eyes — or nose.

“My mom kept saying, ‘I don’t understand — you drove all the way up here to cook for me?’” Rina shared. “She was so happy and touched to have that broccoli. She couldn’t believe it.”

Chu also recognized the beloved 72-year-old customer.

“We see a lot of people in the restaurant, but she always stood out,” Chu said. “She loves the food and always made sure to tell us. She’s an amazing, sweet lady.”

Rina told the Baltimore Sun that her mom has struggled to eat because of sores on her mouth from the cancer but managed to devour the special meal.

“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 shared the experience on Facebook, it immediately grabbed the attention of Baltimore City Council member Zeke Cohen.

“We hear a lot about the challenges of restaurants in Baltimore. Yet despite the pandemic, despite crime, some are still thriving. I always point to Ekiben as a business that always models respect for community and treats people with love. Plus their food is amazing!” he wrote alongside a screenshot of Jones’ post.

As for the Ekiben team, it was just part of doing their job.

“To me, it was a huge honor to be able to help fulfill the family’s wishes,” Chu told the Post. “This is about her, not us. There was a lot of good, positive energy in doing this.”

Janelle B. Smith

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