From fast food to fine art: the American chef who helped ramen conquer the world | Noodles

“Ramen is one of the hardest things to make,” says Ivan Orkin with quiet authority. “Even now, I’m wrong.” I had come to this interview hoping that Orkin, a god in the cult world of ramen and star of a 2017 episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table, would help me up my own ramen game, so this isn’t It was exactly what I wanted to hear. But there’s no mistaking the guy’s credentials. Although he was born on Long Island, he spent much of his life in Tokyo, raising a family while trying to, in the words of the Wall Street Journal’s Yuka Hayashi, “outdo the Japanese on noodles,” though I suspect Orkin would argue that he was simply trying to create something that wouldn’t make their adopted hometown laughed at.

After all, this much-loved noodle soup is serious business in Japan, with no fewer than three museums dedicated to it, as well as countless manga (one series even features a character named Ramenman), anime, movies, and books, and a meticulously cataloged database of ramen run by critical (and some might say obsessive) Ohsaki-san, who eats around 800 servings a year in his quest to keep up with new openings.

Ivan Orkin's miso ramen.‘I just couldn’t figure out how they did it’… Ivan Orkin’s miso ramen. Photograph: Felicity Cloake/The Guardian

And it’s not just Japan. The New Yorker has described ramen as “a vehicle for creativity, nostalgia, and deep gastronomic delight, much more than a bowl of soup,” and ramen shops are everywhere from Santiago to Sofia to Soweto. In a sure sign that he’s moving with the times, ramen is huge on TikTok; even Kylie Jenner has shared her own favorite ramen trick (add butter, garlic powder, and an egg… to be fair, she’s an influencer, not a chef). Meanwhile, in Britain, ramen has become so popular that you can get it from Shetland to the Channel Islands with everything from Hebridean lamb to Cornish crab on top. Globally, we ate 116.56 billion servings of instant noodles in 2020.

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So big is ramen in Japanese culture that one would assume it occupies the same hallowed pedestal as sushi, where chefs must learn for years before they’re even allowed anywhere near a piece of fish. However, ramen, believed to have arrived with Chinese immigrant workers in the early 20th century, is only a century old in the sushi millennium and as such is virtually a tradition-free zone. Even Ohsaki-san admits, “I don’t think of ramen as Japanese cuisine. Ramen has become a world cuisine.”

Miso ramen from Bone Daddies restaurant in London.Miso ramen from Bone Daddies restaurant in London. Photograph: Felicity Cloake/The Guardian

There are some rules, of course. Even those only familiar with the instant kind will recognize the components of ramen, most notably the noodles, which come in a variety of forms, but tend to be wheat-based (though Orkin also adds rye), with an alkaline component responsible. of its elasticity. slightly soapy texture and flavor. The liquid they sit in often, but not always, can be divided into two broad groups: either it’s chintan, a light, clear broth (found in most noodle packets), or paitan, a richer, fatty soup like tonkotsu, a pork bone ramen so creamy the noodles seem to float in milk. Orkin is in the UK for a collaboration with London chain Bone Daddies featuring a brothless cheddar and dashi mazemen ramen.

The seasoning comes in the form of a paste or sauce known as tara, which can be soy sauce, salt, or miso-based, and is the most obvious place for a chef to put their own stamp on the dish; Orkin tells me about a small chain in Japan, “where they make everything in house… except the tara, which is a secret recipe. The owner delivers that to each location personally, once a month.” Finally, the bowl can be topped with an almost endless variety of items including, commonly, chashu, or thinly sliced ​​braised pork, eggs marinated in soy sauce, and green onions.

The guys who made ramen didn’t really know how to do anything else. They had a ramen, that was their thing, and they didn’t want to give it away.

J Kenji-López Alt

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There is a great deal of variation possible between these four elements. Orkin prefers a lighter style of ramen—”the tonkotsu was too rich,” so his signature dish is shio, or salty ramen, in a mix of chicken broth and dashi. It was not easy to find him. In the 2000s, there were no recipes available, neither in Japanese nor in English: “Ivan was the first to write it all down!” his wife, Mari, chimes in proudly, mainly because then, ramen shops were, as J Kenji-Lopez Alt has written, “Tokyo’s greasy spoons”: cheap, simple places frequented by students and blue-collar workers, and run by entrepreneurs, rather than trained chefs. Understandably, they were not willing to share. “The guys who made ramen didn’t really know how to do anything else. They had a ramen, that was their thing, and they didn’t want to give it away.”

Having worked as a chef for over a decade in the US, Orkin was already pretty confident in the kitchen. He returned to Tokyo with Mari in 2003 at the start of the ramen boom that took him from fast food to fine art. He was drawn to ramen because he knew it tasted good, but “he just couldn’t figure out how they did it.” The techniques were so different from what she had learned in culinary school that she enrolled in the only training course available at the time, run by a noodle machine maker, which, she says, “helped me figure out the components.” .

The Bone Daddies Cheddar Breakfast Ramen with Ivan Orkin in London.Saying it with cheese… brothless cheddar and dashi mazemen breakfast ramen from Bone Daddies in collaboration with Ivan Orkin in London. Cinematography: Bex Clarke

That said, when he made Mari her first bowl of ramen, “she said it was trash.” She protests, laughing, “I didn’t say that, I said it wasn’t ramen. Too delicate. So he started playing around, lightly infusing Japanese techniques with his own Western training… like using a European-style stir-fry of fried onion, garlic, ginger and apple as a base, or adding slow-roasted tomatoes to the broth. for extra umami. hit. Finally, in 2006, he was ready to open his doors.

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Ohsaki-san admitted that he was somewhat skeptical before his visit to Orkin’s original location in the suburban Setagaya district, but he told Orkin in 2013, “When I ate the ramen, I realized it wasn’t a bowl of ramen. half, it was perfect. I saw that the history of ramen had changed here.” Suddenly, Orkin was on the cover of one of Tokyo’s most popular food magazines, on TV, and his shop had lines stretching down the street.

Of course, there was some backlash, too, both in Japan and when Ivan Ramen opened in the United States in 2013, but having proven himself to Japanese audiences, Orkin wasn’t bothered: “I’m from New York and I really don’t care. I don’t give a shit what other people think. People say, how can a white man make good ramen, which is so offensive? I have dedicated my life to learning about Japanese culture and honoring Japanese traditions. If you don’t like my food, that’s fine. If they say my food stinks, well, I might as well ask them out.”

So, I say, a bit nervous, “Can you tell me any secrets to ramen success?” He tells me that he’s going to tell me something very specific: “Good ramen is all about harmony,” balancing the different components… and then getting “all that flavor to stick to the noodles when you slurp them down.” . And while his own master recipe, from his book Ivan Ramen, is 38 pages long, he says that when he makes ramen at home, he usually focuses his energies on a single item (“you can buy noodles, you can even buy chashu pork”) and then try to make everything else work with it.

Harmony in all things. It feels like a good recipe for life, just like ramen.

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