First, Ivan Orkin won over Tokyo with his ramen — no small feat for a gaijin. Then, in 2012, he returned home to New York, where his Ivan Ramen and Slurp Shop restaurants have won the hearts of critics and ramen obsessives. Now, Orkin intends to take on the world: The noodle master is working on a ramen franchise concept, and plans to open 100 locations worldwide over the next five years.
Orkin, who many will know from Season 3 of Chef’s Table, says he’s been approached with numerous offers for expansion partnerships over the past decade: “I turned them all down, for lots of reasons,” he tells Eater. Until now, that is. A newly formed franchise investment group, Corlex Capital, is backing the project, first financing the development of a prototype restaurant with intent of expanding it into a global chain. Corlex’s partners have previously worked with big names like Guy Fieri and restaurants ranging from Arby’s and Le Pain Quotidien to Red Farm and Scarpetta.
“Before [Corlex] ever said ‘we want to invest in you,’ we developed a friendship,” Orkin says. “They come with many years of franchise and scaling experience… but finding people you actually like and will have your back [is essential], and they believe in Ivan Ramen.”
The new concept will carry on the Ivan Ramen name and will be “a blend” of both of Orkin’s NYC ramen restaurants, the full-service Ivan Ramen on the Lower East Side and the counter-service Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop inside Gotham West Market in Hell’s Kitchen. Both of the current restaurants serve several ramen varieties, including shio (salt-based), shoyu (soy sauce-based), tonkotsu (pork-based), and triple garlic mazemen, a less soupy, more saucy noodle dish that’s become one of the chef’s signatures. The restaurant will serve ramen and appetizers, in addition to a craft beer program that Orkin says is meant “[to capitalize on] these relationships we’ve developed with all these small breweries all over the world.”
It took the chef years to master the craft of ramen, but he says he’s long been thinking about the day when he would translate all that experience and knowledge into systems that can be replicated across dozens of locations.
“Believe me when I tell you, I thought about this moment the day I decided to open my tiny [ramen shop] in Tokyo back in 2006,” Orkin says. “I made myself promise that I would do things by the book, meaning I would weigh everything, write everything down, have formal standardized recipes for anything I serve to a guest.” Orkin is certainly no stranger to converting his techniques into recipes: He published an acclaimed ramen cookbook in 2013, and has another book currently in the works.
“I’ve been in [the restaurant] business for many, many years and I think the secret to a restaurant success is consistency — and the only way to have consistency is to standardize everything,” the chef says. “I’m a craftsperson, I’m an artisan, I’m a very serious cook, but if your food doesn’t taste the same every time you lose customers. It’s a crushing feeling when you go back to have [a dish] you fell in love with and it’s not the same. I don’t care if you open three or 300 or 3,000 — successful restaurants all have systems.”
Orkin was reticent about naming any specific locations for the future restaurants, but would say he’s looking beyond New York, citing it as “a really tough market.” The first prototype restaurant, which is currently in development, will be on the East Coast — “somewhere close enough we can get to it without a plane” — and will hopefully open within the next year.
While the U.S. is home to numerous chain ramen restaurants, nearly all of them are Japanese-born; no homegrown ramen concept has struck it big in America yet, and Orkin and his partners are clearly hoping to change that. The chef says he foresees ramen eventually being bigger than sushi in the States, calling it “the uber comfort food.”
“Going out for ramen is just fun,” Orkin says. “It’s like when you go out for barbecue and you get your hands and face slicked with sauce — ramen is much the same way. You might splash soup on your face or stain your tie, but it’s a blast.”