In Japan, they call foreigners gaijin. So when Ivan Orkin, a middle aged Jew from Long Island (a gaijin), opened a ramen shop in a Tokyo suburb in 2007, later impressing the country’s top ramen critic Ohsaki-san with his bowls of shio ramen made with a unique chicken and dashi double soup, things sort of went nuts. Later there would be multiple-hour waits for a bowl of this ramen and appearances on Japan’s version of Martin and Lewis. A food company produced over 300,000 servings of instant Ivan Ramen, which sold out fast making the cups collectables. In a country where chefs are placed atop pedestals (this is after all where Iron Chef started), Orkin's life was pretty much da umami bomb.
But as we find out in Orkin’s book, scheduled for release in October — a page-turning memoir (with some recipes) he wrote with Lucky Peach editor Chris Ying — the Orkin story extends beyond white man does good with noodles. “I love Japan,” says Orkin on a recent summer afternoon as we sit in an Irish bar near his soon-to-open shop on New York’s Lower East Side. It is deep love that led Orkin, while in college in 1983, to study Japanese language — then to live on and off in the country. He'd return to the States, bouncing around technology jobs in California and then having a “get your shit together” conversation with his goal-oriented parents. The three agreed that culinary school was a wise move, though a much different kind of culinary school back in 1991. “Years before Kitchen Confidential made cooking seem like a badass — let alone respectable — occupation,” he writes in the book.
To not spoil a very good yarn, jobs with Andre Soltner and Bobby Flay at Bolo sharpened Orkin’s edges in the kitchen and, through tragedy and victory and a whole bunch of hard work, the ramen shop opened. “I got to do the two things I love the most,” he says when asked what he loves more than the noodle soup that earned him fame and fortune. “I created a business in Japan, working with Japanese people — working with purveyors and making friends with my neighbors — and feeding people who had very strong opinions about the product that I was making.” And the second? “Then, I got to cook! I got to listen to The Dead and drink coffee in the morning and I got to do it all. That was a great achievement for me – I got to live like a regular person in the country I loved, while cooking.” We continue talking about cooking in the latest installment of the FR Interview.
What have you learned about the New York ramen scene?
It’s funny because I’ve seen enough of it that I understand it. I’ve seen the Tokyo scene since 1987, when I started living there. To me, the ramen scene in New York, and around the United States, is very much in its infancy.
Can you find good ramen in New York now?
It just depends. I think that the ramen in New York right now still doesn’t have a really Japanese flavor to it, which I hope to change. I really try to be humble though, only because I’m old enough to have seen a lot of things and I’ve opened my own restaurant and know how hard it is. It’s really harsh to be judged by someone who has tasted your food once and then makes across-the-board comments about you.
So let’s be clear. This is no slam dunk. What is keeping you up at night?
There’s nothing that’s a slam dunk. As I’ve said, I’m 50 years old and I’ve seen lots of shitty things happen. There were people that opened brand new businesses and then two airplanes hit the World Trade Center. Everyone fled Tribeca and it was a dead neighborhood for a year and a half. If I had told you two days before that it would have been a dead neighborhood, you would have said, “you’re high.” So, you never know. People opened businesses right before [Hurricane] Sandy that are now destroyed. There is no such thing as a slam dunk, just like there’s no such thing as “free.” Basically, we have been working really hard cooking because that’s what we do.
In the space on Clinton Street?
No, in my house. We’ve been really concentrating on making great food – otherwise, it doesn’t really mean anything. I can talk beautifully in the press and I can tell them I have a great shop in Tokyo, but no one here is going to the shop in Tokyo, they’re going to go to our shop here.
When you say “our,” who are you talking about? Do you have a team?
I have a chef who comes up to the house in Dobbs Ferry. Everybody comes up and it’s been our office – I have a big kitchen there and we work. I’m not going to roll out my recipes without having tested them. I really, really feel strongly that anything I do should have value. To me, writing a book – especially when it has your name on it – is a big responsibility. People are going to go and buy that book and spend $20 on it. I feel this way as a hospitality person.
The restaurant business is really hard because every single person on the line and every wait person and host person is integral to the success of daily operation. Someone can get sick or cut themselves or not show up, or ovens can break or can only get to 400 degrees instead of 800 degrees or the dishwasher stops working. There are all these things that can happen and you never know when they are going to happen. And yet, you’re promising people that you are going to give them a consistent dish day in and day out.
Two of your main ramens are mazeman and shio. Explain the difference.
Shio is just a blend of salts that flavor your broths. A mazeman is a noodle dish with ramen noodles – a wheat noodle with alkaline in it – and sometimes egg, sometimes not. There is very little broth. In some ramen shops in Japan, they only use fat with no broth at all. I tend to like to make a lighter dish and always add some broth. I’ve been doing a mazeman since 2007 and it’s one of my specialties. It’s not a soup dish – there is enough liquid so that you can slurp up your noodles and have lots of flavor, rather than having a dry noodle, which to me is unappealing.
How do you run your businesses in Japan when they are so many hours away?
My businesses in Tokyo are much simpler. They are a 10-seat and 16-seat ramen shop and have very limited menus. I have been very fortunate to have a staff that has been working for me for many years and we know each other very well. We talk everyday on the phone and I get email updates everyday.
How about your instant ramen business?
It’s a seasonal thing that’s not on the shelves all the time. They do 150,000-300,000 units, and when they sell out they are finished.
Is it like limited edition?
A lot of them are. Some of the biggest guys have stuff all the time and I’m not one of them. I’ve done it five times.
Are you evolving the instant product every year?
The instant product is very reminiscent of what I serve — and has a similar flavor profile. Of course, it’s all engineered flavors and it’s noodles that are made in these massive factories several football fields wide that use all sorts of chemicals. Mine have no MSG and I was the first one to have noodles that have whole grains in them. I had a lot of stipulations when I made them. I’ve never been an instant food guy, generally speaking. I’ve only eaten my own instant ramen a few times. I developed the flavor with them, as a job, but when I’m hungry, I don’t generally eat instant food.
Back to New York. Are you seeing that people are now more aware than ever of regional Asian cuisine? You’ve got restaurants doing Yunnan, Northern Thai, Szechuan, Laotian.
I think that in the last 15 years, we’ve all started riding airplanes more and the Internet has evolved. A guy can show you a samosa from India on the Internet — you can learn how to make it live from a guy in a stall in Mumbai. I’m a glass half full guy and I think most people are happy and want to explore and try new things, and having more information makes that easier. If you’ve never eaten something spicy and then give someone a Thai chili to eat, they’re not going to enjoy it. If they start trying spicy things, they might learn to really enjoy and appreciate it.
What else are you going to do at the shop?
I’m going to be doing all kinds of really fun salads – I’m going to do a Caesar salad, which I think is unbelievable. It has a baby anchovy frico and the dressing is tofu-based so that it’s much lighter, yet super creamy and has a bit of a fish thing going on.
You seem very proud of this.
Oh, I love it. It’s the greatest salad dressing I’ve ever had in my life [laughs]. But, every single bowl of ramen I’ve ever handed over my counter I have always salivated over and been jealous.
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