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Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Japanese slurping up U.S. chef's ramen


Staff writer

Tucked away in a quiet shopping district in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, an American is fulfilling an unlikely ambition.

News photo
U.S.-born Ivan Orkin prepares dishes at his Tokyo ramen shop. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

"I wanted to make ramen," Ivan Orkin said. "Real ramen."

Orkin, a native of Syosset, N.Y., became interested in Japanese culture after working in a Japanese restaurant back home at the age of 16. He majored in Japanese in college and came to Tokyo in 1987 after graduation.

Here, he would make a discovery that would later set the course of his life: ramen — the tasty, noodle-and-broth dish that, although Chinese in origin, has been adopted by the Japanese as a favorite lunch or dinner meal.

Memories of ramen would stick with Orkin when he returned to the U.S., where he attended the Culinary Institute of America from 1991 to 1993, and afterward when he started his career as a chef.

During a 15-year career, he worked at places like New York's celebrated Mesa Grill, specializing in contemporary American cuisine and run by Iron Chef Bobby Flay, or at the now-defunct Lutece, once hailed by The New York Times as "a pillar of French dining in the United States."

With credentials like that under his belt, Orkin might have worked at any famous kitchen in London, Paris or Milan. But he had other plans.

"I've had a dream for many years now to do some type of job, some type of business in Japan with Japanese people, speaking Japanese," said the solidly built 44-year-old as he wrapped blocks of pork. Launching a ramen shop near Rokakoen Station in June 2006 — a few years after he returned with his Japanese wife — would provide the means he sought. "What a great way," he said.

Not that opening the Ivan Ramen restaurant was an easy option: Perfecting the flavor of ramen is considered hard enough for a native Japanese chef, let alone a foreigner, and Japan's food-crazy customers are an unforgiving lot.

"Japanese people have very very strong opinions about ramen," Orkin observed. He had to put his experience as a chef to work. "I know what kind of ramen I like personally. . . . I could taste it in my brain. I can see the image of what ramen I want."

So Orkin attended a six-day ramen course in Shikoku to learn the basics, and continued to study independently from books, ultimately settling on "shio" (salt) and "shoyu" (soy sauce) flavored ramen to serve at his store.

Orkin's ¥700 bowl of shio ramen combines thin, firmly textured noodles in a transparent soup containing a rich fish and chicken stock, topped with julienned bamboo shoots, sliced leek and a thick piece of succulent, marinated pork called "charshu."

Apparently, Orkin got it right. Japanese online ramen guides routinely spotlight Ivan Ramen. Gourmet Walker's much-watched Ramen Ranking Web site currently places it No. 7 among ramen shops in Tokyo. The site calls Orkin's ramen "high level."

No wonder: Whereas some ramen shops nowadays include unorthodox, and some would argue, gimmicky ingredients — cheese, for example — or artificial taste enhancers to lure customers, Orkin lets his noodles and broth speak for themselves.

"My ramen is really simple ramen, but made with really amazing ingredients," he said earnestly. "It has no junk in it. It has no chemicals in it."

Again, his ambition is to make real ramen.

"I don't want a 'gaijin' (foreigner) making something kind of like ramen," he said with the same serious expression. Also on offer are "maze men" (boiled noodles mixed with flavorings, without soup) and side dishes such as rice with roast garlic and leek or roast tomato. Unlike most ramen shops, there is a dessert on the menu as well — hand-made lemon ice cream.

It all began last March, when Orkin took over a ramen shop on a quiet side street 20 minutes by train from bustling Shinjuku Station — a spot he said he chose for its intimate neighborhood feel — and renovated it with his wife, his brother-in-law and Japanese staff.

On the one hand, Orkin didn't want his restaurant to be an intimidating place. A sign outside says, "ramen yatteru yo" (Hey, we've got ramen!) in charmingly idiosyncratic Japanese.

Yet, he also wanted to avoid the truck-stop ambience so typical of many ramen shops, in which well-dressed career women and families with small kids often feel uncomfortable. He painted the walls a cheerful yet cozy shade of yellow.

"I designed my restaurant to be an everyman restaurant, everywoman restaurant, everychild restaurant," said Orkin, himself a father of young children.

His strategy was a hit.

Nowadays, a cross section of Tokyo society can be seen slurping up noodles at the 10 stools surrounding Ivan Ramen's wraparound counter. There are families, boisterous high school kids, young couples, seniors. And the place is almost never empty.

"I really never, ever, ever thought I would be this successful, so quickly," he gushed. "A lot of people warned me, 'You might become popular, but you need to be ready once you are busy. If you have long lines and are making lots of mistakes, that will ruin you.' "

Experience has taught Orkin to manage high turnover.

"I've worked at a lot of restaurants," he said. "So I understand what it means to have to be ready for a lot of customers coming in the door."

So popular is Ivan Ramen, in fact, that word even spread back home in the United States.

Matt Cohen, who is in the hotel business in San Francisco, plans to open a ramen shop there. He read about Orkin in The Wall Street Journal and decided to visit him during a 12-day research trip to Japan.

"I would say it's excellent," Cohen, perched on a counter stool, said of Orkin's food. "There are some specific things that he's doing that are really good. I like the thick cuts of charshu."

Cohen chuckled as he remarked on the restaurant's blend of elements of American and Japanese, saying that while the ramen might taste Japanese, other aspects such as the interior and background music create something of an American eating experience.

Cohen, who's been in kitchens in the U.S., pointed for example to the magnets holding up Orkin's set of knives — a common feature in American restaurant kitchens but rare in Japanese ramen shops.

As Cohen spoke, business at Ivan Ramen was wrapping up for the day. Undaunted, several people still tried to file through the sliding door.

"I'm sorry, but we're closed," Orkin, with a bow of his head, told the would-be patrons in fluent Japanese.

That a guy from New York could attract such a big Japanese crowd seems to have taken Orkin himself by surprise. As he put it, in English this time, "It's very humbling and gratifying to have all these people . . . who eat great ramen all the time tell me my ramen is as good as any of the ramen they have been eating."



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