A week before his 60th birthday last December, Mark Kuller walked into Ruan Thai in Wheaton with a thick black binder under his arm. A tax lawyer turned restaurateur, Kuller still was doing consulting on the side for longtime clients, and it was only natural to wonder if he was preparing for a case.
“This?” he said, letting out a loud, squawking laugh. “This is the contents of my cellar.”
With the big 6-0 looming, Kuller—who owns Proof in DC’s Penn Quarter and Estadio in Logan Circle—had asked one of his staffers to catalog his 7,000-bottle wine collection, and the product of that epic but not thankless task (the employee’s reward: World Series tickets) was this binder.
A man with the soul of a boulevardier and the brain of an actuary, Kuller isn’t one for half measures, and he didn’t come to one of the area’s foremost Thai restaurants merely to eat a late lunch. He had a purpose. Kuller is regarded in the restaurant community for approaching his new line of work with the fanatically meticulous preparation with which he approached his legal work.
A few months earlier, he had consumed more than 100 meals in three weeks, gorging himself on the cooking of Thailand and Vietnam with his executive chef, Haidar Karoum. A year before that, Kuller had spent a couple of weeks exploring the most renowned Thai and Vietnamese kitchens in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland. It was all part of a yearlong effort to school himself in the nuances and complexities of the dishes that would make up his menu at the Southeast Asian-influenced Doi Moi, his third restaurant, slated to open in mid-August off Logan Circle.
Now, as he waited this afternoon for the first of seven dishes to arrive, Kuller—his old-school Bullets cap perched on his head, his glasses off—paged through his sheaf of spreadsheets, deciding which of his 7,000 wines he’d bring to the birthday bash he was throwing for himself.
To commemorate the “hideous milestone” of turning 60, he had rented out 2 Amys, the popular Cleveland Park pizzeria. A hundred of his closest friends were coming. It was important that they not only eat well—Peter Pastan, the chef at 2 Amys, would see to that—but drink well, too.
“I was thinking about a bottle or so per person,” Kuller said.
Was this maybe a little excessive?
“No such thing,” Kuller said. All that was missing was the judge’s gavel.
Kuller is large—six-foot-six—and his outsize personality makes him seem even larger. He lopes through rooms with the swagger of a man who possesses some secret knowledge, dresses as if he’s never given a thought to anyone’s opinion, and curses like a standup who relishes working blue. The adjective “Falstaffian” was made for men like Kuller. His appetites—for food, for drink, for the good life, and, before he recently remarried, for women—are enormous.
One night last January, I sat courtside with him at a Wizards game, where, before shouting down the refs (“He f---in’ hacked him, ref!”), he downed a hot dog with sauerkraut, a roast-beef sandwich, some Swedish meatballs, and a beer. After the game, we settled into a booth at Proof, across the street from the Verizon Center, for a bite: two salads, two pâtés, a flatbread, some foie gras, and a couple of glasses of wine.
“I’m minding my diet,” Kuller had said before placing the order.
It’s hard, when you’re in his booming presence, to fathom that he wasn’t one of those men who come stomping out of the womb and begin imposing their will on life not long after they leave grade school. But in fact, Kuller is the product of a transformation so unexpected, so extreme, that the transition from tax attorney to restaurateur seems comparatively insignificant.
• • •
In Judaism, there’s a rabbinical concept that aims to articulate the dualistic nature of man and the universe—the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara.
Hatov in Hebrew means “good,” and the yetzer hatov is generally translated as a force for good. In some interpretations, it’s said to be the conscience. The yetzer hara embodies a contrary impulse. Not evil exactly. But selfishness. A hunger to satisfy one’s own personal needs above those of others.
Some interpretations posit that the rabbis were intent on identifying two clear directions in life and that it’s up to people to choose which one they pursue. A Jewish version of free will. Others argue that the sages were wrestling with something far more complicated than right or wrong: the warring impulses that exist within all of us.
Kuller takes the latter view. “The Jewish yin/yang,” he calls it one day over lunch at Matchbox, a couple of blocks north of the construction site of Doi Moi, and the smile on his face is dark and knowing.
It’s a smile that says: Take it from me, I know from warring impulses.
• • •
Kuller grew up in Monticello, New York, a small town in the Catskills, the eldest of Sol and Millie’s three boys. Jason, the youngest—a lawyer and onetime standup comic—insists his mother was a saint; he calls her the “Jewish Mother Teresa.” She had a mild disposition, was kind and loyal almost to a fault, and devoted considerable time to charities and other social causes. She kept a kosher household, sent the boys to yeshiva, observed the sabbath.
Millie had staked out one extreme, Sol the other. If she was the epitome of the yetzer hatov, he was the yetzer hara. “Whatever my mother gave to the less fortunate,” Jason joked in an HBO comedy special, “was offset by what my dad took.”
Sol was a bookie who worked for the Mafia. “If anyone asks what your father does,” Millie instructed the boys, “you tell them he sells clothes.”
He did sell clothes—hot clothes that he peddled from his trunk. Sol spent nights on the phone at the kitchen table, taking bets (recorded on flash paper so he could touch them to a candle flame if the cops came) and making them, too, as he smoked his way through his pack of Pall Malls. He took pride in flouting his wife’s devotion to Jewish ritual, sneaking ham into the house and feeding it to the boys as if, Mark remembers, they were a pack of “yapping dogs.” The effect on a coddled young Jewish boy was considerable.
“Once you taste ham, it’s like smoking crack,” Jason quipped. “Pretty soon after, you’re hocking your yarmulke for bacon.”