Last year, Shion Aikawa left Los Angeles and a cushy corporate gig — company card and all — to move back to his hometown and teach Texans how to eat, and appreciate, ramen. It was a gamble, but Aikawa says he's the kind of guy who doesn't like to have regrets. And he knew he would regret not helping his brother launch Austin's first-ever brick-and-mortar ramen shop.
Opening Ramen Tatsu-Ya, says Aikawa, is exactly what he wanted — even if that meant day after day of scraping crawfish out of an old walk-in freezer and crashing on a foam mattress top in his brother Tatsu's extra room. After years in the corporate world, Aikawa wanted to remember what it was like to put his aching feet up and drink a cold beer after service.
He's only 27, but it's not hard to see why, when Aikawa's Young Guns nominations came in, one industry fan called him the "youngest old man alive." He might be retired from the jet-settiing business world, but as director of operations at Ramen Tatsu-Ya, Aikawa's working harder than ever, giving folks the "awesome" experience of tasting their first authentic bowl of ramen in a strip-mall storefront on a highway service road, deep in the heart of Texas.
Aikawa was born in Tokyo, but moved with his mom and his brother to Austin when he was six years old. That's where the story begins. Well, almost — just as Aikawa gets rolling on his background, a woman swings the front door open at Ramen Tatsu-Ya, perhaps pleased to have beaten the usual queue of patrons braving the Texas heat to stand in the hour-long line typical of dinner service at Tatsu-Ya. Aikawa jumps up to give her the disappointing news: there's no line today ... because they're closed today.
Does that happen a lot?
It does, especially on Mondays. I actually wanted to set up a tripod and a camera right in front of the door, so you can see sad people. It would be funny, but I don't think it would be appropriate.
Let's talk background: have you always worked in restaurants?
After high school, I stayed here in Austin for a year and a half or so at Austin Community College, not knowing what to do, like any other kid. For my birthday, I ate at Uchi. This was in like, 2005. So it was really new, before Phillip Speer was there. And Paul [Qui] was like, rolling maki. Kaz Edwards, at Uchi Houston, he was a fry cook. He was doing the tempura station. So the way I learned to cook — and to clean, first and foremost — was from those guys. It was pretty cool. I was there for a few months only, until I decided to move to San Francisco for university and studied international business. But I kept cooking.
I worked at Alembic, which is on Haight and Ashbury; it's really more like a bar than anything. But it's a small kitchen, you got to do whatever you wanted. Just learning about the local ingredients there, going to farmers' markets. It was a really good learning experience.
From there, I moved to Tokyo to follow an internship. In business, actually. I worked at a Fortune 500 company, but they never had penetrated the Japanese market. They had a new start-up in Tokyo and I was invited to be interning there and then I was a product manager.
That must have been a pretty incredible experience, living and eating in Tokyo.
I got to travel, because being a product manager in a place that didn't have a manufacturing facility, I was able to go to China and Korea to all the factories and visit a lot of places, food places, which was really important to me. For example, Shanghai has these really kick-ass soup dumplings and Korea has these barbecued chicken feet with makgeolli. Every restaurant or hole in the wall would have their own alcoholic beverage. It's really easy to drink. It gets really dangerous at the end because it just comes back at you. And eating really spicy food, man ? I was definitely eating right when I was in Tokyo and abroad. That's one of my strong points is knowing the standard of things and being able to figure it out with my palate.
So I came back a couple months after the earthquake in northern Japan, not because of the earthquake but mostly because I wanted to come back. My green card was also expiring, so I had to renew it back in the States. So I didn't feel like going back to Japan and doing all these, like, ministerial things. At that moment, my parents lived in L.A., so I got a job and moved to downtown L.A. and became a vice president of sales at a manufacturing firm. I don't know how I landed that, but that led me to more travels as well.
Throughout this time, are you thinking you'll stick on this business track forever? Or did you want to get back into bars and restaurants?
I was on the super business track. And yeah, it's great to have a company card and eat at places and whatever, but I kind of missed working really hard. And being tired at the end of the night. And going to a bar and drinking beer with like, dirty friends. Basically, I asked myself: "When was the last time I had fun working? When was it when the beer tasted really good at the end of the night?" It was more about honest, hard work than anything. I was missing that, in L.A. So when my brother decided to open up a ramen shop here [in Austin], I just ripped up my lease contract, took all my stuff, sold all my furniture. Packed everything into my Scion and just drove over here. I don't regret it at all. That would have been last year, in June.
That's a pretty big leap of faith to take in any business, but especially on a ramen shop in Austin, Texas.
Thankfully, my brother had a room. It's still, like, empty. All our furniture is a whole bunch of chairs from the ramen shop. I have no couch. I didn't have a bed for like the first five months. I was sleeping on those foam tops. It was the most awesome thing ever when one of my friends moved out of her house and I got to snag a double-sized bed for like twenty bucks. I was like "Yeah!"
Did you get a chance to catch your breath, between moving from L.A. and starting work on the ramen shop?
Not really, no. When I drove over here, the next day we were gutting out the previous shop. Scraping off a lot of grease from the previous restaurant. It was disgusting. Crawfish in all the crevices of the walls. It was really gross. No matter how much you scrub, you smell like crawfish and cayenne pepper. We managed to fix it up, though.
What were your expectations for Ramen Tatsu-Ya before it opened?
I was very optimistic. My brother and Tako [Matsumoto] thought we would only do like, 100 bowls a day. But walking around town, learning the heartbeat of what the scene is here, I imagined we'd be doing a little bit more. So there was always a question of like, how much broth to make today. My expectation was high. It's always been high. It'll always be high. My title is director of operations, which is a very ambitious title. So hopefully, this operation would catch up to the name that I have.
Say you're going to hire your replacement. What do you tell them about how to do the job?
That's really hard. Right now, the title of director of operations is mostly pertaining to the front of the house, but also being able to plug yourself into various tasks during service. At some point, if your dishwasher is in the shit, you would just pop in there and do it. If the bathroom's dirty? Clean it. If the cashier needs a break, you get on the register. If somebody's sick, as a runner, you just plug yourself in as a runner as well. It's just a job that you need to learn everything and be willing to do anything just for the shop. I have a lot invested in me, for the restaurant, so I feel that every job is very important. I like to tell all my front-of-house kids, whatever duties they have, even cleaning the bathrooms, just do it knowing that we're working at the best ramen shop in the world. Just take everything with pride.
So I also manage the front of the house, but it's not really managing because of the fact that everybody here who we've hired has been a customer before. So they know what the customer perspective is.
You only hire customers? To be fair, they literally are lining up for the ramen.
One part of the interviewing process is I ask them to wait in line one day, eat the food, see if you like it. If you like it and you're excited about it, and you're excited about dropping off a bowl of ramen to somebody who's never had it, then you know what your expectations are. We're here to educate people, because we are the first brick-and-mortar ramen shop in town.
So that's how we operate. Be proud of what you're serving.
What's it like seeing someone have their first proper bowl of ramen?
Oh, it's amazing! Growing up here in Austin, my mom used to make those packaged ramen. And of course because I was a little kid, like a baby, before that in Japan, I didn't really know what ramen was. So my first experience with real ramen was when I was 17, when I went back there to work for the summer. I always wondered, why isn't there specialized places for Japanese food around here? You can think there's the population factor, but at the same time, I would understand it to be that there's sushi all over the place, so why not other specialized foods?
So coming back here, you see on Saturdays and Sundays, Japanese parents with their kids, and I imagine myself being that kid. It makes me feel like I'm a part of something that wasn't there a long time ago, when I was growing up here. It's a great opportunity for us, too. To serve people. I didn't have the opportunity back then, to eat a bowl of ramen. Being able to serve it to some kid who is about to be growing up here, it's something that is pretty cool, I think.
We have customers saying, "We don't have to go back to Japan for ramen!" And they're all Japanese people. From like, Houston or Dallas or San Antonio. They drive over here and eat the stuff. I always wondered why people would drive all the way, like two to three hours. But then I remember, something that I missed in Tokyo was barbecue. I would probably drive like an hour away to eat barbecue if it was legit.
We've heard people call you the "youngest old man alive."
I don't know what that means! I guess I've lived a few lives. Just because I have grey hair? One of the things that I stand by, what I try to do is do everything. From high school on, I think I've lived a life that had a lot of adventure involved. I have a high standard for things. And I have the experience to back it up. I feel like I have lived more lives than other people.
I'm 27. Not a lot of people can say that they've been the vice president of a company before they were 26, 25 or so. Not a lot of people can say they've traveled all over the place for a job. It's sort of my mantra to do everything that I can. I don't want to regret, on my death bed, "I should have done this. I should have done that." I'm very furious about doing as much as possible while I'm here.
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