In the concluding portion of this interview with Ivan Orkin (see part one), the chef talks about how and why he decided to move back to New York and his plans for his forthcoming restaurant here, which will now open around January of 2013. Working out of a ramen shop in Teterboro, New Jersey, he's already devised an entirely new menu of eight noodle dishes and is going to great lengths to rethink things so that they work for New York City. Orkin is still working on finding a downtown Manhattan location than can accommodate 50 seats.
At what point did you decide to leave Japan?
I was going to open another ramen spot, a third one, but then the earthquake hit and the economy was affected and everything felt extremely strange. There were blackouts, and they'd shut down the power randomly in each ward in Tokyo every day. It made it very difficult to run a business. There were lots of aftershocks and warnings about not drinking water or going to certain places. It was a little uncomfortable.
At the same time, the ramen scene in New York and the rest of the country was percolating a little bit. Also, my family here was ready for me to come home, I think. It was good timing.
So you knew you'd be moving back to open a ramen spot? What do you have planned for the menu?
Yeah. It takes so much time, though. I finally sort of have everything together. The dishes I served at the Momofuku event are the dishes that I am going to serve at the new restaurant when I open. The pork dish — the triple garlic mazemen — I did for New York. I was very proud of myself, because I've been in this city all my life and seen people come in from out of town and misstep really badly.
Why do you think they've failed?
It's almost never been because they aren't good cooks. We are talking about some really good chefs here. I think it's that you need to respect New Yorkers.
What does that mean?
You can't rest on your laurels. Well, you never can really do that, but in New York it's a big mistake. You need to rethink what you want to do, rethink the market.
How did you rethink things?
I redid all of my recipes. I didn't just take my recipes from Tokyo, make them, and serve them. I did them with an eye for making sure that I wasn't sitting back and saying, "Hey, I'm Ivan Ramen, this flies in Tokyo, here it is for you." I redid everything, checked out what ingredients were available, worked on all-new noodles since they wouldn't have translated well from Japan. The flour and water are different. I wanted to come up with a fresh product. I haven't changed the flavor profiles and I'm obviously the same person, though.
The pork dish really came from thinking about what a New Yorker would love to eat. It's garlic, bacon, and pork [laughs].
But none of those flavors were particular overpowering. You could sit down and eat that entire bowl, really.
I told April Bloomfield that it's sort of my take on what a Spotted Pig ramen would taste like.
How many noodle dishes are on the menu?
It's six or eight types of ramen. I just finished a vegetarian one, which I like, and I'm working on a gluten-free noodle. I have a few different ideas for it and I've been working on it at the noodle shop.
Where do you work on all of this?
I go to Sun Noodle in Teterboro, New Jersey. They're friends of mine and let me play around there. I write all the recipes there and work with them to get it right. I came up with some noodles that are similar to what I serve in Tokyo. I put rye in the noodle here, which I don't in Tokyo. The one in Tokyo might have a slightly different texture, but not that much. We did a pretty good job of approximating.
Anything else besides noodles?
We're also going to serve bar bites. There will be a couple of fried things, like meatballs, chicken gizzards, and other offal.
What do you think the ramen scene here lacks?
In Tokyo, a lot of the places that do well are more similar to my concept than what you have in New York now. You have guys that are really passionate and working every day to knock out ramen that is off the charts, and I don't really see that here. I haven't had anything that has totally knocked me out. And we have to remember that nobody in Tokyo is really making the dishes I serve, because I played around and, like I said, I have no fucking idea what ramen is. I just make tasty food. I try not to copy anybody.
I also want it to be a pleasant place. You can't have a dirty bathroom, even if it's a ramen shop. You have to cover a lot of things other than food. I want to have a fun place. I don't think a lot of these ramen places in New York are noodle-centric, and I'd really like to find a way to have a conversation about the dish. One of the very gratifying things of doing that dinner at Momofuku was that people were really into the food. I don't buy the whole artist thing, but I would like people to give a bit of a shit.
Will it have servers or just be counter seating, like the ones in Tokyo?
I'm thinking servers. I'm thinking both, about 50 seats.
No reservations, right?
Reservations are stupid. Well, I love no reservations as an operator. And New Yorkers are used to it.
And you haven't really said anything about the space or location yet.
I really want to open downtown. I had a space in Nolita, but that deal fell apart. I have a lot of good people working on it for me right now. I'm ready to open as soon as I find the space. Hopefully it will be in January or February, unless something extraordinary happens.
I have another idea for a business percolating in my head right now, brewing, which I can talk about later. But New York will have my ramen soon. I'm confident but also nervous.
What are you most nervous about, besides the obvious fact that you are opening a business and don't want it to fail?
We're talking about savvy diners who eat at very good and very different restaurants. Any time you present something new like this, you want people to like it. You have restaurant reviewers coming to eat right after you open, which didn't used to happen, you have Yelp, you have all this stuff now. If you're selling someone food, that's fair. But restaurants do figure themselves out over time and get more polished. The only way to improve something or figure out what doesn't work is to try it out.
More than anything, I just want to bring great ramen to New York. And I want to share Japan in the best way that I can. I want to do it justice.
Are you here for good?
Well, I'm 49 and I've lived all over the place, so who knows? But it's nice to be home. The first month was weird, but now I have remembered anything and am back in the groove. I'm the kind of guy who is always looking for the next adventure, but I've noticed that New York is a much friendlier city, and I'm happy to participate in it.