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

“Ramen is one of the hardest things to make,” Ivan Orkin says with quiet authority. “Even now, I get it wrong.” I had come to this interview hoping Orkin, a god in the cult-like world of ramen, and star of a 2017 episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table, was going to help me up my own ramen game, so this was not exactly what I wanted to hear. But there’s no doubting the guy’s credentials. Though born in Long Island, he has spent much of his life in Tokyo, raising a family while attempting, in the words of the Wall Street Journal’s Yuka Hayashi, to “out-noodle the Japanese” – though I suspect Orkin would argue that he was simply trying to create something that wouldn’t get him laughed out of his adopted home town.

After all, this much-loved noodle soup is a very serious business in Japan, with no fewer than three museums devoted to it, as well as countless manga (one series even features a character called Ramenman), anime, films and books, and a meticulously cataloged Ramen Database run by critic (and some might say obsessive) Ohsaki-san, who eats about 800 servings a year in his quest to keep up with new openings.

Ivan Orkin's miso ramen.
‘I just couldn’t understand how they made 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 profound gastronomic pleasure – so much more than just a bowl of soup”, and there are ramen shops everywhere from Santiago to Sofia to Soweto. In a sure sign it’s moving with the times, ramen is huge on TikTok – even Kylie Jenner has shared her own preferred ramen hack (adding butter, garlic powder and an egg … to be fair, she’s an influencer, not a chef). Meanwhile, in Britain, ramen has become so mainstream that you can get it from Shetland to the Channel Islands with everything from Hebridean mutton to Cornish crab on top. Overall, we ate reported 116.56 billion servings of instant noodles in 2020.

So large does ramen loom in Japanese culture that one would assume it occupied the same sacred pedestal as sushi, in which chefs must apprentice for years before being allowed near a piece of fish. However, ramen, which is thought to have arrived with Chinese immigrant workers in the early 1900s, is a mere century old to sushi’s millennium, and, as such, pretty much a tradition-free zone. Even Ohsaki-san concedes, “I don’t think of ramen as Japanese cuisine. Ramen has become a world cuisine.”

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

There are some rules, of course. Even those only familiar with the instant sort will recognize ramen’s component parts, most importantly the noodles, which come in a range of shapes, but tend to be wheat-based (though Orkin also adds rye), with an alkaline component responsible for their elastic texture and slightly soapy flavour. The liquid they often – but not always – sit in can be divided into two broad groups: either it is chintana light, clear broth (found in most packet noodles), or paitan, a richer, fattier soup, like tonkotsu, a pork-bone ramen so creamy that the noodles appear to be floating in milk. Orkin is in the UK for a collaboration with the London chain Bone Daddies that features a brothless cheddar and dashi labyrinth ramen.

Seasoning comes in the form of a paste or sauce known as the tare, 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 of a small chain in Japan, “where they make everything in-house … except for the tare, 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 infinite array of items including, commonly, chashuor thinly sliced, braised pork, eggs marinated in soy sauce, and spring onion greens.

There’s a great deal of variation possible between these four elements. Orkin favors a lighter style of ramen – “tonkotsu was just too rich” – so his signature dish is a shio, or salt ramen, in a blend of chicken and dashi stock. It wasn’t easy to come up with it. In the noughties, there weren’t really any recipes available, either in Japanese or in English – “Ivan was the first to write it all down!” his wife, Mari, interjects proudly – ​​mostly because then, ramen shops were, as J Kenji-López Alt has written, “the greasy spoons of Tokyo” – cheap, no-frills joints frequented by students and blue-collar workers, and run by entrepreneurs, rather than trained chefs. Understandably they weren’t keen to share. “The guys who made ramen didn’t really know how to make anything else. They had one ramen, that was their thing, and they didn’t want to give it away.”

Having worked as a chef for more than a decade in the US, Orkin was already pretty confident in the kitchen. He moved back to Tokyo with Mari in 2003 at the beginning of the ramen boom that took it from fast food to fine art. He was drawn to ramen because he knew it tasted good, but “I just couldn’t understand how they made it”. The techniques were so different from the ones he had learned in culinary school that he enrolled in the only training course available at the time, run by a manufacturer of noodle machines, which, he says, “helped me figure out the components”.

The cheddar breakfast ramen from Bone Daddies with Ivan Orkin in London.
Saying it with cheese … the brothless cheddar and dashi labyrinth breakfast ramen from Bone Daddies in collaboration with Ivan Orkin in London. Photograph: Bex Clarke

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

Ohsaki-san has 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 was not a halfway bowl, it was perfect. I saw that ramen’s history had changed here.” Suddenly Orkin was on the cover of one of Tokyo’s hottest food magazines, on television, and his shop had queues stretching down the street.

Of course, there was a backlash, too, both in Japan and when he opened Ivan Ramen in the States in 2013, but having proved himself to the Japanese public, Orkin wasn’t bothered: “I’m from New York, and I don’t really give a shit about what anyone thinks. People say, how can a white guy make good ramen, which is so offensive. I’ve dedicated my life to learning about Japanese culture and honoring Japanese traditions. If they don’t like my food, that’s fine. If they say my food sucks, well, I might just ask them to step outside.”

So, I say, somewhat nervously: “Can you let me in on any secrets to ramen success?” He tells me he’ll let me in on a very specific one: “Good ramen is all about harmony,” about balancing the different components … and then getting “all that flavor to stick to the noodles when you slurp them”. And though his own master recipe, from his book Ivan Ramen, runs to 38 pages, he says when he makes ramen at home, he usually focuses his energies on just one element (“you can buy noodles, you can even buy chashu pork” ) and then tries to make everything else work with that.

Harmony in all things. It feels like quite a good recipe for life, as well as ramen.

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