For the Love of Ramen
Ivan Orkin’s path to culinary greatness is somewhat like folklore. A Jewish guy from Long Island falls in love with Japanese culture and cuisine, marries a Japanese woman and moves to Tokyo. In 2007, he opens a ramen shop as a gaijin (foreigner) in a city where residents are passionately opinionated about ramen. And yet, he quickly gains notoriety for his handmade noodles and complex broth. After opening a second location in Tokyo, Orkin moves back to New York City to open Slurp Shop at the Gotham West Market and a 50-seat U.S. flagship Ivan Ramen (coming soon). We chat with Orkin about developing his signature ramen recipe, his favorite Tokyo restaurants and what’s next.
AndrewZimmern.com: Where did your fascination with Japanese culture and cuisine come from?
Ivan Orkin: My first job was as a dishwasher at a Japanese restaurant on Long Island when I was 15. I write about this in my book. I had a transformational experience with a bowl of rice with a raw egg and seaweed that at first horrified me, and then blew my mind. After that, it was all over. I wound up majoring in Japanese culture and literature in college.
AZ.com: As an American, what were the biggest challenges of opening a restaurant in Tokyo?
IO: Ironically it is the same challenge as opening in the United States: convincing people that an American can be fluent in this cuisine, and really understand the culture.
AZ.com: How did you to develop your signature recipe at your original ramen shop in Tokyo? What were the deciding flavors and components? How long did it take?
IO: I have been a ramen freak for a long, long time. I ate tons of ramen in Japan and almost always felt bloated, and overfull. The fattiness of most ramen did not agree with me at all. Once I decided I was going to open a shop, I settled on the “double soup” style of ramen, which is what I am known for. It is a much lighter and brighter soup that is half whole chicken broth and half dashi. The fat is added at the end rather than emulsified into the broth. The entire process of developing my style took many years in a way, but once I took the idea seriously, it took me about 4 months to get it down where my Japanese wife gave me the seal of approval.
AZ.com: Now that you’re a full-blown restaurateur, what’s next? Do you plan to explore other aspects of Japanese cuisine?
IO: I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I think we have done a great job with Slurp Shop in the Gotham West Market, and our flagship will open soon on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but in short, yes. My knowledge base is: Japan, Japanese culture and cuisine. My team and I have several concepts and ideas we are developing that branch beyond Ramen and noodles, but we need to concentrate on the tasks at hand and get these two spots in NYC perfect before we move on. I am very comfortable bridging both cuisines and languages, so you can always expect my food to be a comfortable blend of my NY Jewish roots and my deep love of Japan and it’s culture.
AZ.com: With restaurants in Japan and NYC, how do you split your time?
IO: I have a great team in Tokyo who essentially run the day-to-day operations of my two restaurants there. I do travel there about every 6 weeks or so to keep involved and spend time in the city getting more inspiration.
AZ.com: Beyond ramen shops, what are a few must-visit restaurants in Tokyo?
IO: My favorite place in Tokyo is Kirakutei in Kugayama (03-3332-2919). It’s a Kappo Ryori place, which is Washoku (Japanese cuisine) made at a counter with some latitude from the classical style. The chef, Asakura San, is a genius. He’s originally from the Kanazwa region, which has some of the best seafood in Japan. Most of what he serve is fish and shellfish but he can make anything and always surprises. As far as I know there is no English spoken but his Omakase is pretty reasonable (usually around $120 with some drinks) so maybe you can just say “omakase” and sit back and enjoy the ride.
Fukumachi: This is a tempura place in Kyobashi, which is one town over from Ginza. I always get the Ten Don, which is an assortment of seafood and vegetable mixed together in a tempura batter and fried into a disc, served over rice with a sweet soy sauce. It’s not cheap ($25) but it’s worth every penny, served in a serene setting and is just plain delicious!
Florilege (03-6440-0878): This is a creative French place in Aoyama section of Tokyo. It’s tiny (18 seats) and reasonable ($48 for lunch and around $110 for dinner). The chef does the protein two ways often taking a prime cut and then also serving offal from the same animal and serving it in concurrent courses. I always love my meals there.
AZ.com: What’s the right way to eat ramen?
IO: I’m so glad you asked this. One of the reasons I got so interested in making ramen is that it is one of the few Japanese foods, which actually has “No Rules.” I feel too many operators have these strict rules on how you MUST eat ramen. Truth is, you should eat it how you most enjoy it. I would say that some important tenets for me are: 1. Eat it as hot as possible as it does taste better and the broth, fat and noodles are at their best at this stage. 2. Learn how to slurp: we actually have a sort of cartoon tutorial, which teaches our guests to properly slurp. Once you get this technique down, you can effectively eat ramen when it is very hot and really get the most from the bowl. 3. Think about your bowl of Ramen. This is not instant soup with dry noodles. Ramen is an artisanal product with many hours of hard work and slow simmering going into every bowl. Savor it and appreciate it.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
IO: Because my family is multicultural and we all breeze effortlessly between Japanese and American cultures, our family fridge is quite a sight. My wife loves shiokara (fermented squid guts), which she puts on all sorts of stuff. My kids love Natto, the slimy, fermented soy beans that my friends lovingly call “Snotto.” I can’t live without American cheese, whitefish salad, and my freezer is always stocked with frozen dumplings and real NYC bagels, cut in half and ready for the toaster.
Get Ivan Orkin’s recipe for Eggplant Mazemen.
Ivan Orkin’s story is one of legend in the food community:
A self described “Jewish Kid from Long Island,” Ivan realized his dream of cooking while doing it in Japan on his terms.
Armed with a degree in Japanese from the University of Colorado Boulder, Ivan immediately moved to Japan upon graduating and cemented his love of everything Japanese.
He returned to the US in 1990 and after some career experimentation, found his way to the Culinary Institute of America where he finally found his calling. Upon graduation from the CIA, and stints at Mesa Grill, Lutece and Restaurant Associates, Ivan returned to Tokyo to rediscover his Japanese “roots.” While putting his time in as a stay at home dad, Ivan realized it was time to combine his love for Japan and cooking, and in 2007 the first Ivan Ramen was born.
This move seemed destined for failure in a country where ramen enjoys a cult-like status. Incredibly, Ivan not only succeeded, but became one of the top ramen shops in Tokyo, an unheard of accomplishment for a foreigner. In 2010 a second shop, Ivan Ramen Plus, was opened. In 2012, Ivan returned to NY with the hopes of opening a business back home, while continuing to operate his two shops in Tokyo.
His first venture in the US, Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop, opened at the Gotham West Market on 600 11th Avenue in November of 2013 to huge crowds and critical acclaim. Soon after, his 50-seat US flagship, Ivan Ramen will open at 25 Clinton Street on New York’s Lower East side.
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