Tokoyo ramen shop owner opens restaurant in New York

New York TimesDecember 24, 2013 

— At 50, Ivan Orkin appears to have pulled off a series of unprecedented feats.

He is the first American brave (or foolish) enough to open his own ramen shop in Tokyo. (He now has two.)

He is the first chef to publish a cookbook/memoir, “Ivan Ramen,” in the United States before even opening a restaurant here.

And last week, he may have become the first chef in Manhattan to intercept a bathroom-bound customer and order her back to her seat.

“She got up right after the ramen hit the table!” he said in self-defense, citing the first commandment of ramen: It must be eaten while still volcanically hot.

With the opening of Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop in Hell’s Kitchen last month, Orkin became a New York restaurateur, a title 20 years in the making. A long stainless-steel counter in his restaurant is lined on one side with customers, and on the other with ramen ingredients: slow-cooked pork belly, scallions, soft-cooked eggs, chicken broth, dashi or seaweed broth, chicken fat, pork fat and his signature rye noodles.

He is having a hard time making peace with those noodles. “I can’t believe I’m not making my own,” he said ruefully. “That was the first thing I got right in Tokyo.” Instead, they are made for him at Sun Noodle in Teterboro, N.J., a supplier to preferred ramen destinations like Momofuku Noodle Bar, Ramen Yebisu and Ganso.

Ramen of his dreams

It is not hands-on enough for Orkin, but for now, he doesn’t have the time. His chaotic life as a chef has ordered itself around one dish, ramen, and he is racing to build the restaurants that will house his vision. That is not necessarily the most “authentic” ramen, but the ramen of his own Japanese-American-Jewish-chef dreams: a soup with the right balance of pork, chicken, smoked fish, soy and salt; noodles with the ideal combination of chew and give; toppings that set it off instead of overwhelming it. The recipe, as published in “Ivan Ramen,” is 36 pages long.

“I have officially become one of the ramen geeks,” he said.

How does a self-proclaimed slacker from Long Island go from mediocre high school student to stay-at-home dad in Tokyo to international ramen impresario?

Orkin describes his family’s attitude toward food as “culinary apathy.” But one seed of his future was planted in Syosset, his hometown: At 15, he got a job washing dishes at a Japanese restaurant and was introduced to real Japanese food by the line cooks.

A nagging curiosity about Japan eventually led him to the University of Colorado as a Japanese major. (He also saw the film “Tampopo,” which introduced many Americans to the idea that ramen could be more than noodles and MSG in a plastic foam cup.)

At home in Japan

After graduation in 1985, he moved to Tokyo without a job or a place to live. Since then, he has never been away from Japan for long. He married a Japanese woman, Tami, whose job took them to California; next they moved to New York so he could attend the Culinary Institute of America. He spent two years working in some of New York’s top kitchens in the 1990s like Lutèce and Mesa Grill.

“For some reason, those crazy jobs settled me,” he said. “I was always an argumentative know-it-all, but the kitchen taught me to suck it up and shut my mouth.”

His son, Isaac, was born in 1996. Orkin took a steady corporate-chef job, and the couple bought a house in Mamaroneck, N.Y., in Westchester County. Then lightning struck: Five months pregnant with their second child, his wife spiked a fever. Three days later, she and the baby she was carrying died.

“In the end, my wife’s death made me more forceful, less afraid to fail,” he said. “The worst had already happened.”

Over the next few years, Orkin traveled often between New York and Tokyo, where Isaac’s grandparents live. A few years later, on a blind date at a ramen shop (tonkotsu style, with lots of pork bone marrow and fat), he met the woman he would marry, Mari, who was also raising a son, Alex, as a single parent.

Stay-at-home dad

They settled in Tokyo, and for three years, he picked up the kids at school, packed their bento boxes and learned Japanese home cooking (chicken teriyaki and the popular omu raisu, fried rice topped with a sheet of cooked egg, both accompanied by plenty of ketchup). When he got restless and started thinking about opening his own restaurant, doing it in Tokyo seemed impossible. Although he had become tremendously opinionated about ramen, he doubted there would be an audience for Japanese food cooked by a foreigner.

He relearned and rethought, and the first Ivan Ramen opened in 2007, to excellent reviews and overnight success. “I did everything to make sure my restaurant wouldn’t be a freak show,” he said. “People had to come because they liked the food, not just to see an American making ramen.”

He has moved his family, which now includes a third son, Ren, 4, back to New York. He has a fourth restaurant on the way on the Lower East Side, which will be “more than ramen,” he promises. There are countless noodle frontiers still to explore: hiyashi (cold) ramen, tsukemen, mazemen, udon, somen.

In all his food, he drops hints of American comfort food and Jewish tradition: a rice bowl topped with smoked whitefish; four-cheese mazemen, a hot noodle bowl with sauce; chicken tonkotsu, cutlets fried in chicken fat.

It is an odd signature cuisine, but it reflects his odyssey.

“As a chef, you owe it to yourself to cook from the heart,” he said. “Part of mine is in New York, and the other part will always be in Japan.”

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