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American Restaurateur Ivan Akin Ca-Noodles with Japanese at Tokyo Noodle Restaurant
Ivan Akin, an American chef who owns and operates Ivan Ramon, a noodle restaurant in Tokyo. In addition to making great Ramona, Ivan takes time every day to travel around his neighborhood greeting local shopkeepers - a polite gesture that makes him “more Japanese” than the average young person in Japan these days. For more info on Ivan, check out this Wall Street Journal article.
Until four years ago, Ivan Orkin led a comfortable life as a chef in New York. He worked at well-known restaurants such as Mesa Grill and Lutèce, and later ran a corporate dining room at an investment firm.
Now, Mr. Orkin cooks in a very different place. The 44-year-old American recently opened a 10-seat restaurant in suburban Tokyo that specializes in ramen -- a hot noodle soup that is Japan's ultimate comfort food. The restaurant, Ivan Ramen, is in an old-fashioned shopping arcade near a cigarette shop and a tofu maker.
The main items on its simple menu are homemade egg-and-wheat noodles served in salt- or soy-sauce-flavored soup beneath beautifully arranged toppings -- a mound of sliced leek, slender strips of pickled bamboo shoots, and slabs of succulent braised pork. The piping-hot soup -- hot enough to fog up eyeglasses -- combines long-simmered chicken broth with seafood broth for an added layer of complexity.
In opening Ivan Ramen, Mr. Orkin has thrust himself into one of the most competitive corners of Japanese cuisine. There are an estimated 80,000 ramen restaurants across the country. Ramen is a national obsession in Japan -- akin to burgers or barbecue in the U.S. Almost all Japanese have strong feelings about every detail, like whether the broth should be made of bonito, sardine or pork bones, and how many slices of pork should be in the soup. Television quiz shows dare self-professed experts to "name that ramen" just by looking at a fraction of a picture of a bowl of noodles. There are guidebooks focused entirely on the best ramen restaurants and bloggers who hunt down and critique new ramen joints the minute they open.
The biggest challenge facing Mr. Orkin is that unlike most of his competitors, he's not Japanese. "I know that I am a big attraction. I'm a gaijin [foreigner], and I'm from New York," Mr. Orkin says. "But what I really want is for people to sit down and taste my ramen and say, 'Man, this is some of the best ramen I've ever tasted.' "
Early press reviews are encouraging. Hiroshi Osaki claims to have eaten more bowls of ramen than anyone else in Japan -- an average of 800 bowls a year. He says Mr. Orkin's ramen is tasty, if a bit ordinary. But he credits Mr. Orkin for paying attention to details, such as warming each slice of pork before gently placing it on top of the noodles.
Better Instant NoodlesMaking ramen noodles and soup from scratch is so time-consuming that even in Japan, only fanatics try it. Most people use packaged instant noodles at home. Mr. Orkin has some suggestions on how to better enjoy packaged noodles from your neighborhood store. This recipe is for a single serving.
1 bag of instant dried ramen noodles
Chicken stock (substitute for water and use the same amount as suggested in the package directions)
Cooked meat or seafood (roasted chicken or pork, or cooked shrimp)
A handful of fresh bean sprouts
2 tablespoons or more soy milk
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon chili oil (optional)
A sprinkle of roasted sesame seeds (optional)
Pickled bamboo shoots (optional)
- Boil the egg for 6 minutes and 10 seconds. Cool and peel. Split it in half with a piece of string. It will be runny in the center.
- Cook bean sprouts in boiling water for 30 seconds.
- Heat chicken stock until it's very hot. Mix in soy milk, sesame oil, chili oil and the content of the flavor packet that comes with the noodles. Pour into a warmed bowl.
- Cook noodles according to the package instructions and add to the soup.
- Arrange the egg, bean sprouts, meat or seafood and bamboo shoots on top. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.
- Be creative with toppings. Use a combination of any of the items mentioned above, or others such as scallions and watercress. If you live near a Chinese or Japanese grocery, get fresh egg noodles and substitute for dry noodles.Mr. Orkin's decision to take on Japan's iconic dish in Tokyo can be traced back to his first wife, and to a series of personal changes triggered by her death in 1998. He met Tamie Nagano while teaching English in Japan in the late 1980s. They lived in New York and had a son together. After she died, Mr. Orkin returned to Japan yearly with their son to teach him about the culture -- and to eat plenty of ramen.
His second marriage, to another Japanese woman, Mari Sawamura, brought him back to live in Japan permanently in 2003. And that's when Mr. Orkin's real ramen obsession began.
Mr. Orkin says he could have opened a Western-style restaurant in Tokyo with a much bigger splash, but that it wouldn't have been challenging enough. "In the States, it's popular among French and Italian chefs to start hamburger joints," he says. "It's sort of like that. I've been eating ramen for over 20 years, and I've always wanted to make a perfect bowl of noodles."
Ramen was first introduced to Japan in the late 19th century by Chinese merchants who served Chinese-style noodles at restaurants in the port city of Yokohama. Over the years, the dish was adapted to meet Japanese taste buds, and spread to every corner of the nation with regional variations.
In recent years, a new generation of chefs have put their own unique twists on the dish, like a version called tsuke-men, where noodles and soup for dipping are served separately. Some chefs combine ramen and Italian food, serving noodles in tomato-based soup or in cream sauce. Mr. Orkin is testing out a summer tsuke-men with spicy cold soup inspired by gazpacho.
Famous chefs and critics appear often on television shows and magazines. One chef, Minoru Sano, is known as the Ramen Fiend because of a permanent frown and signs in his restaurants that declare an absolute ban on smoking, cellphones and talking. Hideyuki Ishigami, a popular critic, is said to have a "god's palate" for his unrivaled ability to discover great ramen shops.
Mr. Orkin, who grew up in Syosset on New York's Long Island as a son of a copyright lawyer, studied Japanese in college. After graduating, he taught English in Japan for a few years. Inspired in part by the movie "Tampopo," a story of a man's effort to make a perfect bowl of ramen, and in part by the dish's affordability, he ate a lot of ramen.
In 1990, he and Tamie moved to the U.S., where he enrolled at the Culinary Institute. He apprenticed at Mesa Grill, and was hired as a junior chef at Lutèce, the famed Manhattan French eatery that closed in 2004. In 1996, Mr. Orkin took a job running the dining room of Furman Selz, an investment firm later bought by ING Groep. A year later, Tamie died suddenly from toxic shock while pregnant with their second child, who died with her.
"For the next several years, the idea of taking on more responsibility was out of the question," Mr. Orkin says. "I had to raise my son, and that's all I could think of."
During a trip to Japan with his son, Isaac, Mr. Orkin met Ms. Sawamura, an interior decorator. They were married in three months. She and her son joined Mr. Orkin in New York, but she didn't like the cold weather and couldn't find enough work.
When Ms. Orkin contemplated returning to Tokyo, Mr. Orkin decided to follow her. But the first three years were tough. He tried out different jobs, including giving cooking lessons to housewives, but nothing felt right. On a visit to New York in June of last year, Mr. Orkin checked out Momofuku Noodle Bar, a popular East Village restaurant where chef David Chang serves ramen-inspired noodles. The restaurant's success inspired him.
Returning to Tokyo later that summer, Mr. Orkin plunged into the world of ramen. He attended the Ramen Expo, where tens of thousands of ramen shop owners and vendors discuss the latest trends in ramen. He signed up for a weeklong course at the Ramen School in a remote town on the island of Shikoku in western Japan. Then he found an elderly woman who wanted to pass on the lease of her ramen shop so she could retire. Mr. Orkin spent months fixing up the shop, painting the walls yellow and hanging lamps bought at Ikea above the L-shaped counter.
He locked himself up in his study with cookbooks, conceptualizing the perfect ramen -- noodles that remained firm until the last drop, and a soup that's rich but clean-tasting and "won't make you want to go home and curl up for a nap afterwards."
Ivan Ramen opened in early June. On a recent morning, he stirred two 10-gallon pots filled with water and whole chickens, listening to a podcast of WFUV, a New York public radio station. "I get to keep track of Yankees scores," he said.
At 6 p.m., when Mr. Orkin opened the restaurant, two young men were already waiting outside. An hour later, the place was packed, mostly with men eating alone. Hiroyuki Boda, a 34-year-old commercial film director who lives nearby, said he decided to come in after reading a sign outside saying the chef is from New York.
"I came in expecting to eat Americanized ramen," Mr. Boda said, slurping noodles in a soy-sauce soup. "What a nice surprise this tastes so authentically Japanese."
Write to Yuka Hayashi at email@example.com
Corrections & Amplifications:
Tamie Nagano, the first wife of Tokyo noodle restaurant owner Ivan Orkin, died in 1998. This article incorrectly gave the year of her death as 1997. The photograph accompanying a recipe for ramen in this article incorrectly showed stir-fried Asian noodles rather than ramen.