With origins in China and a blossoming history in Japan, ramen, wheat noodles in broth, is one of the world’s best examples of a culinary sensation. While its best known form in the United States consists of instant noodle packets, America has experienced a glorious ramen renaissance in the past decade.
At Anime NYC’s Ramen Summit, we got to talk to three pivotal ramen figures, Chef Shigetoshi “Naka” Nakamura and Chef Ivan Orkin, whose restaurants Nakamura and Ivan Ramen have enjoyed tremendous success in both Japan and the states, and Sun Noodle’s Kenshiro Uki, who oversees the company’s successful operations in the Northeast.
Otter (AsianCrush): When did you realize that ramen was a passion for you? And when did you know you had made a really good bowl of it for the first time?
Ivan: Well, he (pointing to Kenshiro) was like six years old!
Kenshiro: I’ll leave that question for the chefs.
Ivan: There was no ramen in America when I was interested in Japan. I really wanted to eat ramen. I lived in Japan for a brief time, for a couple years. I came home. There were no ramen shops for me to go to really. I thought about eating ramen A LOT, so when I went back to Japan to live in 2003, I was so excited to have all this great ramen. There were so many wonderful ramen shops, so I was eating a lot of it. In 2006, my wife and I decided we should open a restaurant. She kept coming back to this idea of me opening up a ramen shop, which I thought was really stupid, but she talked me into it, and later that year, I agreed that having a ramen should would be really interesting. And that was maybe the first time I wanted to make my own version of it.
Otter: What was that process like? Were you trying out recipes that you had been given or found and tweaking them? Or was it all from scratch?
Ivan: I went to this really weird ramen school run by Yamato, the guy who manufactured the noodle making machine that I ultimately bought and used. I met him at the World Ramen Expo, and actually found it online. I found the website online and I showed my wife. When I was there I came across their booth and they said “Well, if you’re gonna open a ramen shop, you should come take our class, and then you’ll know if you wanna have a ramen shop or not.”
At the time, there was no place to learn about ramen. There were no books. Everybody either lied or there was nothing written. This was like a chance to sort of figure out the mystery of ramen for myself. I went there and it was a six day class.
I mean, I was already a chef for 15 years so I didn’t really need anyone to teach me how to cook because I was already a good cook, but there were some difficult aspects of ramen that I couldn’t understand.
So after just those six days, it was like “Ohhh, okay, you do this. You do that! Okay! I get it” And then I was able to go home.
Again, I’m a good cook. You can put something in my mouth and I can taste it and think about it and I can cook it, but sometimes I need a little help or a little bit of explanation or even a little bit of inspiration.
But mostly, I just made it all up.
Naka: I consider myself maybe to be part of the next generation of the ramen world. Those before my time, they really knew what ramen was and more in terms of authentic ramen. But for me, I had eaten instant ramen from a very young age, and I love it. I loved the instant ramen. I could eat it every day!
And of course, my parents brought me to the ramen store near my house. Still, it was my passion for instant ramen. It is really the best in the world!
When I went to San Diego to go to college, after going to high school in Japan, I surfed a lot. That’s why I chose California. And you know, the Pacific Ocean is very cold, so I always made soup for myself to warm my body up.
Then after four years in San Diego, making soup every day, I went back to Japan, and I thought “I want to go back to the United States to live, but I want—I need to do something and make a great leap by and for myself.”
I already had my soup, so I tried making ramen when I was 21-years-old, and then I opened my first ramen store in Japan when I was 22 years old.
I remember the first day was very full. Like 300 people came, but when I tried to make the ramen by myself, I could only make like 20 bowls. It was very good, my friends and family said, but the first day of my shop went terribly.
I don’t even remember what I served. It was ramen, and my friends and family also said it was very, very salty ramen. I was very tired and the taste was just too intensely salty.
And then a week later, nobody was coming to the store. There were no customers. So I went and I practiced ramen a lot, making it little by little. And people came back after two months. And that was my first ramen.
Otter: And Ivan, what was the first ramen you served?
Ivan: I’ve always sold the same: shio and shoyu. I’ve added in other kinds over time.
Otter: So Kenshiro, you help run Sun Noodle. I’ve been to so many ramen shops in the NYC area, and they all talk about getting their noodles from you. When did Sun sort of become the go-to noodle manufacturer for NYC?
Kenshiro: We actually started in Hawaii. 1981. That’s when my father started the company, but there were only like three ramen shops and there were 20 noodle manufacturers back then. So for us, it was always working with the chef one on one. Now there are about 100 ramen shops in Hawaii with about five noodle factories. Now, we supply most of the shops in Hawaii.
Growing up in that environment, one where we were already working with ramen shops, that was a given, Same thing in LA, but when I came to New York, we realized that none of the shops were buying our noodles. We had a really bad reputation–actually no reputation at all six years ago here! That really drove me to prove myself and see if I could turn it around or not.
We’ve been fortunate: Ivan and Naka have very much championed us in the media and in their restaurants, so today, we’re fortunate to work with at least 80% of the ramen shops in New York. When did that exactly happen? I’m not sure. Gradually. But it started when we first moved out here five years ago, and we offered fresh noodles to the markets in the city, Whole Foods and a bunch of other grocery stores now carry our fresh ramen kits. Gradually.
Otter: So, here’s another question for the chefs. When testing dishes, how do you account for your own preferences and flavor biases? Are there any flavors, ingredients, and dishes that you love too much to test on your own?
Ivan: Well, making food in a restaurant is always a process. I cook whatever I want. I don’t cook because someone goes to me and says “Oh I wish you had this kind of ramen.” I won’t make it. I make what I like and want. I mean, if EVERYBODY’s saying “I wish we could have tonkotsu ramen” I might make a tonkotsu ramen if everybody’s asking for it.
But the flavors are always flavors that I like. I make food to my palette. I still present to my customers.. I’ll make a dish, and we’ll do a tasting, and I’ll work with my chef and I’ll say to my chef “I want a tonkotsu ramen, make a tonkotsu ramen,” then we’ll work on it. He’ll present it and we’ll all taste it. I’ll say “That’s good, but it needs to be creamier. Maybe we need this or that” and we’ll work on it until it gets to be where we want it and everybody on staff agrees that it works.
We also create dishes based on what we hear our customers would really like. Maybe we could use two new vegetarian dishes. A lot of people want vegetarian dishes. Or they would like to have a gluten free ramen item.
And in a restaurant, you have a list of dishes and every week you’ll look at how much things have sold, and you certainly want to offer things that will excite your customers, and make them happy, while also cooking to what your gut says wbat’s good.
Naka: Yeah, I would say that for me, I don’t really do a tasting party. I decide just for me when a dish I want to share is ready, and if it makes my customers happy, then I’m happy.
Also, I believe that ingredients are the main part, more so than the chef. The chef has to work to get everything out of the ingredients and how people enjoy them.
Ivan: The chef gets the diner to experience the ingredients as they are.
Naka: Yes, yes. The ingredients are the greatest part. So I’m always looking at how to cook or use a particular ingredient. I don’t want to put too much dressing or anything on what I make. That’s overkill on the ingredients. When I find a great ingredient, I just try to think how can this best be used in my ramen.
Otter: Do you have a favorite ingredient? Something that you add whenever you can? Or is it always specific to every dish?
Ivan: Well, when you run a business you have to be very careful with your menu. To me, if I go to a certain restaurant and the menu has a certain ingredient in half the dishes, to me that chef is not very good. Unless you are a pumpkin seed restaurant and that’s why you’re putting pumpkin seeds in everything.
Ivan: But if you’re not a pumpkin seed restaurant and pumpkin seeds are showing up in every dish, then it means you’re not a very good chef. And it’s what separates a really good chef from a mediocre chef. You need to learn how to diversify what you use and make. If you’re a musician and it’s only ballads, you need to call it a ballad album. Otherwise you’re turning it on, everything is slow, and nobody wants to listen to that album. Unless you’re in the mood for slow music. In a restaurant, you want to have lots of variation so that everyone who shows up is satisfied. There’s something for people who like their food really spicy and something for people who only want vegetables. The hardest thing for us is coming up with a great mix of dishes so that everybody is excited whenever they come.
You might love something and say “Come to Ivan Ramen, he does dashi really well,” and one of your friends might really just not like dashi. And you can say “Don’t worry, he’s got a paitan, that’s all chicken and it’s really delicious.” And then you’ll both have a great time.
At the end of the day, if you wanna be a really successful chef, you have to be a business person and create a business that satisfies your guests. You have to be looking and seeing what sold. I might love a certain dish, but if nobody’s buying it, you have to take the dish off the menu and replace it with something that sells. It just doesn’t make sense otherwise.
And that requires discipline. A lot of chefs believe they are artists and they are like “I have to have”–No! It’s not about you! It’s about the guest, and what they love.
If you keep serving something the customers don’t like, you’ll lose customers and business, lose all your money, then your clothes, and kill yourself!
Otter: Can you tell me the exact origin and history of mazemen? Brothless, mixed ramen. I haven’t been able to find much on it anywhere. The type you find in the United States is so different from what is served in Japan.
Ivan: Well, I’ve been doing mazemen since we opened. When I first started cooking ramen, I fell in love with the mazemen style, and it was still relatively uncommon then. It’s a difficult dish to explain to anybody, even Japanese people don’t really get it to tell you the truth. You say to customers “it’s very little broth,” and then when they get it they get very angry and say “There’s no soup.” And you say “I told you there was no soup” And they say “No you didn’t!”
The thing that I like about it from a chef’s perspective is that mazemen, like tsukemen, it’s a dish where the noodle is a little bit more forward. When you put a noodle into a hot broth it starts to soften,and in mazemen it doesn’t overcook as quickly. It’s a great thing.
Naka: The history of mazemen and tsukemen is basically that it started off as like a family or staff meal. Broth is the most expensive part of most ramen, so a popular ramen restaurant will want to save as much soup as possible for customers. They needed a no soup dish, so mazemen came about. Every Japanese ramen restaurant has its own family and staff meal, but some customers want to eat what they’re eating. Very popular and successful ramen restaurants can afford to come up with very creative family meals. So that’s the history of mazemen.
Over here, in the U.S., it’s different. Mazemen in the states is very popular and people love it because it’s very easy to eat. No broth and less temperature. Their meal is more like a pasta then. They can use a fork.
Ramen with a fork is pretty hard to eat. It’s a style that is an adjustment for people who don’t want to use chopsticks too.
Otter: Thank you Chef Ivan, Chef Naka, and Kenchiro!
Believe it or not, I immediately left this interview and headed uptown to the Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop, where I was glad to gorge myself on Ivan’s Chicken Paitan!
Who am I kidding? I went to the Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop multiple times that weekend. I also got the Triple Garlic aMazemen with gluten-free tofu noodles. Truly delicious!