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‘Chef’s Table’ Recap: Ivan Orkin

A story of loss, perseverance, and undeniable triumph

Ivan Orkin, photographing his food
Chef’s Table

Ivan Orkin, the brash, white, Jewish guy from New York who made his name as one of the best ramen makers on the planet has an unorthodox story and, thus, an unorthodox Chef’s Table episode. That means no tweezer food, plenty of swear words, no slow shots of the chef communing with nature (okay, maybe there’s one shot of him and cherry blossoms). TL;DR: he was a problem child, fell in love with Japan, fell in love with cooking, suffered personal tragedy, and found his reason for being and his ultimate success in Tokyo, in ramen:

Will I laugh? Probably! Orkin is a funny, outspoken character. Just his interaction with his mother where she chastises him for Instagramming at the table is worth a chuckle.

Will I cry? Unless you are a monster, yes. Yes you will. I did a couple of times.

Will there be curse words? Three in the first 43 seconds, and about a dozen thereafter.

Will there be food porn? What’s refreshing about this one is there is still plenty of food footage but it’s primarily noodles and giants vats of soup. It doesn’t pretend to be glamorous.

Who are the random food world talking heads? Peter Meehan, founder and editor of Lucky Peach, and Hiroshi Osaki, chairman, The Ramen Database.

Orkin, carrying a vat
Chef’s Table

To recap:

  • Chef’s Table sets the stage in New York, where Orkin oversees his restaurant Ivan Ramen. We get a sense of his personality right away with his first quote to camera: “I’m a kind of go fuck yourself kind of guy.” Then: “Maybe I’m pigheaded or I’m stupid but you have to be all in to get into ramen.” We learn via the talking heads and Orkin how spectacular his ramen is, how complex ramen in general can be, how obsessive Japanese diners are about their ramen (“It’s like bread for the French, we eat it every day”), and how unusual it is for an outsider to succeed in Japan.
  • Orkin on ramen and its lack of rigidity compared to other Japanese cuisines: “I chose to ramen because I can do whatever the fuck I want. Ramen is the maverick cuisine of Japan.”
Orkin in cooking school
Chef’s Table
  • Orkin’s early life, in brief: He grew up on Long Island, the son of a very successful lawyer father and artist mother. He was the family “fuck-up,” but always had a sensitive palate. He worked in a Japanese restaurant when he was a teenager and then studied Japanese in college. After graduation, he moved to Japan and had a hard time adjusting until he met his future wife Tamie, who was his entree into authentic Japanese life. He followed her back home when she got a job in the States and went to culinary school, vowing that he would one day return to Japan. He worked at Mesa Grill with Bobby Flay, then Lutece, then at corporate cafes for Restaurant Associates when they had their first child, Isaac. Meanwhile he was experimenting making his own ramen and ramen noodles, using different flours, toasting flour, using more water than usual, playing with new sources of umami, like roasted tomatoes.
Ivan’s noodles
Chef’s Table
  • Orkin, on landing in Japan for the first time ever: “As the tires of the plane hit the tarmac I had this overwhelming emotion of coming home. I was almost in tears.”
  • Orkin’s mom: “Ivan was very difficult. He was a nice person but he was hard to live with. He had difficulty in school, he had difficulty with friends ... We were really consumed with just getting through each day.”
  • Orkin’s tragedy: Tamie got pregnant again two years after Isaac was born but died suddenly from toxic shock syndrome. “She got sick on Tuesday and by Friday night she was in a coma and she died on a Saturday.” It turned his world upside down.
Orkin and his first wife, Tamie
Chef’s Table
  • Orkin, on that period: “All of a sudden I found myself with a two-year-old and a very different life ... he would cry for his mother and she wasn’t there so we would both cry until we stopped crying.”
  • He wanted Isaac to still have a connection to Japan, so he went back to Tokyo and ended up meeting a woman, Mari, who also had a child from another relationship. They fell in love over a one week trip. They went back and forth visiting each other and ended up married just three months after meeting.
  • Mari: “He wasn’t my type, but it didn’t really matter.”
Orkin, back when he met Mari
Chef’s Table
  • Mari and Orkin and their family lived in New York for a little while but eventually moved to Japan for her career. She encouraged him follow his obsession and open his own ramen shop.
  • He thinks of the ramen shop as the culmination of his entire life, including the death of his wife, which broke him down so he could be built back up again: “I wanted to do something special, something with real impact, something no one had done before ... I’d spent 20 years working my way up to this moment.”
Ivan’s Shio Ramen
Chef’s Table
  • He opened a 10-seat shop in a non-touristy neighborhood with the goal of only speaking Japanese, and living in a Japanese “and honest way.” He expected everyone would be gunning for him, but the ramen cognoscenti loved it. He ended up in magazines, on TV. People lined up. He was a success.
  • Yadda, yadda, yadda, a decade of success. Then he moves back to New York in 2012, closes down his Tokyo operations, and opens his new shop. They breeze through this in the last few minutes, mostly to note that it’s not a traditional Japanese ramen shop but a restaurant with New York and Japanese influences.
  • To close, a typical Orkin quote “I’m not a ramen chef, whatever the fuck that is. I’m a cook.”
  • A Guide to the Stars of ‘Chef’s Table’ Season 3
  • All Chef’s Table Coverage [E]

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