Yesterday, Eater's Paula Forbes took a first look at Tokyo ramen chef Ivan Orkin's new cookbook, Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo's Most Unlikely Noodle Joint. As she noted, this particular book is more a narrative of how a foreigner hit it big in Japan's ramen world rather than a recipe book. But nonetheless, there is still a 43-page recipe included for Orkin's double broth shio ramen.
Orkin talked with Eater about writing the book (with Lucky Peach editor-in-chief Chris Ying), breaking into Tokyo's ramen brotherhood, and why he doesn't have too much attitude about buying pre-made ingredients. On the verge of opening two new locations of Ivan Ramen in New York City, Orkin also discussed the comparative difficulty of opening in New York and what he wants to offer his new diners.
I really enjoyed your cookbook.
Oh good, that was the whole point. This sounds stupid, but my fantasy is that it's going to sit on someone's night table and they're going to enjoy reading it as well as having it in the kitchen and cooking from it. I think we achieved both.
Yeah, the first half is a pretty compelling memoir. You have told your story thousands of times in Japan. How was it different for you writing this for an American audience?
You know what? It really isn't. It's interesting. Obviously, I've told this story just ten thousand times, but writing it in a book, you really need to craft it so that people can get a good picture. I think one of the good things about my story is it's just about what a lot of people want to do. A lot of people would love to leave where they've been for a long time and go on an adventure. I certainly didn't plan it that way. It was a very organic experience. As are a lot of things when you look back on them. I didn't have a plan to have this body of work.
But the only thing that might have changed is there is a real fascination with Japan. I'm a stumper for Japan. I'm a Japanophile-turned-chef, not a chef-turned-Japanophile. There's such scant information on how to make ramen. So it was an exciting opportunity to try to open a window on Japan — what it's like to live there and what it's like to do things there — for people who haven't really been given much information because it's an under-reported place.
Right. And a tough place to break into as a foreigner. You wrote that nobody would talk to you there about how they made ramen.
And they still won't. (laughs) Yeah, I mean, that's the whole ramen thing. It's a real mystery. A lot of people who run ramen shops, they're not chefs who went to cooking school and worked in restaurants and then opened a ramen shop. It's a guy who never cooked before, got a job in a ramen shop, really likes it, works there for a number of years, and starts to learn how to make the chef's specialty. And then at some point he says to the owner, "I think I'm ready to have my own shop." And a lot of the time the owner will give him his blessing and he'll go make a ramen that is similar to what he's been making all those years, but he changes a little bit. And nobody really talks about what they do. No one shares recipes.
When I hang out with chefs in New York, we're all like, "Hey, I made this recipe." And I'm like, "Really, how'd you do it?" And they're like, "I'm going to write it down for you." Or "Let me tell you where you can get this amazing chicken," or whatever. I think in Tokyo they're a little more secretive. There were books about ramen-making, but somehow they would leave a little something out or it's somehow vague about what the exact ingredients are.
I felt a little bit nervous reading the section where you're perfecting your recipe right up to the opening.
I tend to do a lot of work in my head, and I had been thinking about my ramen recipe for a really, really long time. I started cooking more toward when I got the space. Even the noodle recipe, I hadn't even gotten that machine until two weeks before we opened. So I hadn't really tried any of my recipes on the actual machine. I was using this little tiny hand-crank machine I bought in Little Italy for $11 in 1991.
And you thought ramen was easier to break into than other types of Japanese cooking. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Well, the funny thing is I really see ramen as like a maverick cuisine. It has no real rule book. It has a brief history. And it's the one thing in Japan that is a bit of a ragtag cuisine. Sushi and tempura and soba, they all have a rich history. There are very, very specific ways to make those. And if you don't do it that way, it's pretty glaring. Unless you're a genius, it's pretty hard to convince anybody that what you did was good. Whereas ramen is sort of the opposite. It's like there are no rules. You can use any ingredient, do any kind of technique you want, and if people like it and they think the atmosphere is good — being an owner with charisma really helps — you can get accepted.
That's not really why I chose it. I chose it because I was absolutely intrigued by ramen and I loved eating it and just thought it was such a great thing to try. And the start-up is not that expensive. So it really made sense for me. But I also knew deep down that it was the one thing that being a white guy in Tokyo, I had the best chance of being accepted. The people that go to ramen shops, they're very judgmental food-wise, so if the food's not delicious, they'll be like, "This guy's a jerk" and they'll never come back. But if the food is good, I really felt like the clientele would be more willing to say, "It's really good, I like it, and I'm going to go again."
I know in DC the ramen shop owners here call themselves the ramen brotherhood. Even without the recipe-sharing, does that exist in Japan as well?
Absolutely. I'm friends with a lot of the guys who run ramen shops and every year they have a year-end party they call a bonenkai. It's not just ramen. All people have bonenkai every year, it's sort of like the year-end parties. And there's specific ramen bonenkais that we go to. And they have competitions and everybody gets together. I would definitely say that we all stick together. I did one really big festival that was definitely like we were all in it together and it was really fun.
You interview some of them in the book, too.
I wanted to do even more. I know so many interesting people. [Ramen master] Shimazaki-san is amazing. He's really become a very good friend of mine. He's so real. You look at his clothes or his hairstyle or some of the rules he has in his shop and you'll be like, "Oh man, he's so quirky." Yet he isn't. He's super, super serious. He's as serious as any serious chef I've ever met. He's really true to his craft and he makes amazing food and he seeks out the best ingredients and the best style of everything. The guy is just really remarkable.
He's the one who has the no-talking rule in his shop?
Yes. And it's funny because before I met him, I heard about him and we had met each other in passing a few times, but I had never been to his shop. He's opposite from me. I think people when they're eating should laugh and let their hair hang down. I think people go out to do that. So the idea of making people be quiet was really weird to me. I was like, "God, he sounds like such a jerk. I can't believe that." And then I went to the shop and while I was sitting there, not allowed to speak, not allowed to read my cell phone, not allowed to look at the newspaper, I watched him. And he was so serious. He didn't look at his cell phone, he didn't talk to anybody, he didn't look at a newspaper, he didn't step away from the line once. He just worked with such intensity and such passion. I walked away with this incredible newfound respect for the guy. I was like, "You know what? If he can put that much energy into what he's doing, I can be quiet and wait." I felt really good about it. From there, we became really good friends and we've formed a great relationship.
It's neat that there are so many different styles of ramen shops, even just culturally.
There's eight or ten thousand shops in Tokyo, and there's a lot of run-of-the-mill places, but some of them really are just genius.
[Photo: Paula Forbes/Eater]
Also the book includes the full recipe for your shio ramen, which is pretty long and intimidating. But you're really aware of that in your introduction. How did you approach that section?
This is what I'll tell you about that. I've been back here for a year and a half or so. I still don't have my restaurants finished. They're getting close, but they're not ready yet. Every time I do an event or any time I need to test a recipe or whatever, I do exactly what's in that book. And it takes me three days. Do I work faster and more efficiently than a home cook? Of course I do. But I still need to make chicken soup and it takes six hours, and the sofrito takes four or five hours, and the bellies take three hours. Then, as each thing is ready, I chill it and clean it up and put it in a tupperware and label it and put it in the fridge and do the next ingredient. Sometimes it takes me three to five days to get every single ingredient ready.
Then, when I need to make the ramen, I lay out all the ingredients and heat everything up and it's this whole process. And I'm like, "Jeez, this is such a pain in the ass, why did I ever choose ramen? It's such an ordeal." And yet when I get the bowl together... I really feel like this book is so honest. We worked really hard to let people know what I really do think and feel. Like I said, I have the confidence, I made up all the recipes, so obviously I'm not intimidated. But it's still a commitment when you want to make a bowl of ramen. But it's also so worth it. Once you lay it all out and you push each bowl in front of your friends and family, it's deeply satisfying and it's delicious and it feels like a real accomplishment. It's worthwhile, as is anything that takes effort.
Right. And I like how you straight-up say that you expect people to go and buy half the stuff from the grocery store pre-made.
You can't have too much attitude about this stuff. Seeing that we're in an age where there are some families that will only eat things out of the boxes... I'm really sympathetic. I have three kids, we have a busy life, I know what it's like. Believe me, I have opened cans and dumped 'em into [a pot] and used them. We've all done that. I wanted to make this easy for people. The most important thing about cooking is being able to make mistakes. You can substitute something and when you're done you can say, "You know what, next time I'm going to try to make that. I didn't like it that much." But you have to try to know. There really isn't a right or wrong way.
I have a few friends who are very confident cooks who did some of the recipes and I could tell that it was easy for them to sort of say, "Oh I don't have time to make dashi, I'm going to look for instant dashi," or, "I don't have time to make pork. I'm going to buy pre-made pork." And they were really comfortable doing that and it made it easy for them. And my friend who made my ramen, she said, "Ivan, until you open your shop, I have the best ramen in New York.
I thought it was really fascinating in the book how different opening a restaurant seems to be in Japan with the permitting being kind of a breeze. I'm sure you were prepared for it, but were you still surprised how hard it has been comparatively in New York?
Yeah. First of all, I'm mildly culture shocked. It's taken me awhile to get used to New York again. I spent so much energy acclimating to Japan. I think that happens to a lot of people who live in another country for a long time. We spend so much time trying in earnest to be like everybody else. Japan is really different, obviously. The language is different, the culture is different. It takes time to figure out that whole thing. When I moved back here, I'm such a confident New Yorker — I've always been sort of the Woody Allen fast-talker, and I've always prided myself on my New Yorkness — I realized I kind of lost it a bit. It took me a little while to get back.
Yeah, things are easier there. The towns I opened restaurants in were really supportive of getting them open, so if there was anything I ever needed they'd say, "Sure, any day. You tell us when you want an inspection. You tell us when you want something done." It's a little more common sense there, but you know, I love both places and they both have good and bad points. We're figuring out what we need to figure out, and we're getting closer. We think we're going to offer New York a really great place to get a bowl.
It looks like the Gotham West Market is opening soon, right?
Yes, we're getting very close.
Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop at the Gotham West Market. [Photo: Eater NY]
How do you balance reworking things for the New York audience and wanting to teach them about authentic Japanese ramen?
First of all, I'm a chef first. I don't dumb down my flavors ever. Two of my recipes are pretty close to what I serve in Japan. New Yorkers have very sophisticated palates. I think they get it. I just mean when I [say I] make recipes for New York, I'm really looking around me saying, "Hey, what ingredients are available here and what do people in New York love to eat?" So I did this one crazy pork dish. I just thought it'd be fun. There's bacon and pork and pork fat and garlic and all these flavors that people love here. Really pungent and intense. That was what I meant.
I think also part of it I was living in Tokyo for all those years. When I left, there was no Eater. There was none of this stuff. I left in 2003. Obviously, New York has had an amazing dining scene for a hundred years, but it's really changed a lot. I've listened to NPR every morning and every night since I was 10 years old and that didn't stop when I lived in Japan. And I read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal every day, and I've been totally up on what's happening. But I missed the whole Spotted Pig thing and all the crazy pork products and the bacon explosion. So when I came back here, I felt compelled to answer that and do something that would be along those lines. It'll be fun.
Any last words on the cookbook?
I hope a lot of people get a chance to read the book. We really worked hard on having a book that anybody could enjoy and understand. I just hope a lot of people have the chance to read it. It was a real labor of love. We had a lot of talented people helping. Chris [Ying] is a super talented guy. It was a real coup to get him on the project. He's really geeky about crafting a book. Not necessarily even a cookbook. A book is a book, to me. It's gotta be appealing to people and it's gotta make sense. I think this one does.
What was the collaboration like with Chris?
Oh it was terrific. I obviously know what I'm talking about and know what I want to say. I've always been a person very much on-message, and I'm clear about how I want to communicate. But I'm not a writer. I can write. Compared to your average person, I'm a pretty good writer, but he was able to ask really great questions. I would ask these very surface questions and he would say, "No, go deeper. We really need to have this story be fuller and rounder and make more sense." He would keep pushing for all these great questions and we would do all these great interviews together. It really worked out quite nicely and I was really happy to have him collaborate.
And he did the design. So I got this double treat because I got this guy who's a brilliant editor and who designs one of the hottest new magazines in America. And he had his team help here and there. I think the book cover was his idea, and I think it was a great idea. And we had Daniel Krieger do the photos. He's Mr. Hotshot right now and rightly so. And my gal in Japan, Noriko [Yamaguchi], who's also really talented. I was very excited to have the opportunity to work with them. I couldn't be happier.