"I'm a Jewish guy from New York with a Woody Allen complex" was one of the first things Ivan Orkin muttered as he sat down for an interview in the dining concourse beneath Grand Central Station. The chef has reacquainted himself with that subterranean food hall in recent months, having to commute into the city every day as he works on opening a ramen shop downtown. As some people may know (certainly all those who lined up for blocks to try his food at Momofuku Noodle Bar), the chef made a name for himself with two ramen shops in the outskirts of Tokyo, Japan. In the years he spent developing those businesses — Ivan Ramen and Ivan Ramen Plus — he was able to live out his Japanophile dreams and build a family. But he's back in his home city and ready to bring his brand of noodles to a new audience.
In part one of this interview with the chef, Orkin talks about how he fell in love with Japan, his experiences training in various New York City kitchens in the 1990s, and how he ended up hitting it out of the park in Tokyo.
You were born in New York, ended up living and working in Japan, and now you're back in New York...
I'm a Japanophile who became a chef. I mean, I've always loved food. I've always been almost weirdly into food since I was a kid. I think every important memory of mine might actually be wrapped up into food. When I was a kid, though, being a chef wasn't cool. It wasn't a great source of income, and there weren't very many TV shows except for Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet. In 1981, when I graduated high school, I was a little nervous about it. I didn't have any role models, but my parents were supportive.
So I went to college instead. My other passion was Japan, so I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder and studied Japanese. I graduated, moved to Japan, lived there for a while, taught English, and realized that teaching English was not for me. So I came back to America with my tail between my legs, kind of.
How old were you at the time?
I was like 25 or 26. I didn't really achieve anything in Japan, which bummed me out. I'm a hardcore Japan fan. I love it so much that sometimes I'll laugh at the white guys in Tokyo, and then my wife will remind me that I myself am white. When I left my first time there, I was disappointed and didn't know what to do with myself. But I ended up rediscovering my other passion, which was food, and I went to the Culinary Institute of America.
How did you rediscover that passion?
I was selling computer components, a job that was dumb and not for me. My dad, when I called him, basically yelled at me and told me to stop whining and figure out what to do with my life. I told them I thought I should be a cook, and they agreed. Some people get into the food world and after a certain amount of time, they start thinking about something else. But as soon as I became a chef — or cook, rather, because I hate the word "chef" — I knew that I was meant to be around food. I've never changed.
What happened after CIA?
I did my externship at Mesa Grill early on in the restaurant's history, in 1991 or 1992, when it was really, really hot. It was a great experience. Bobby [Flay] was in the kitchen everyday, and the guys that cooked there were all my age and really great people. I learned to cook there. Bobby is a very different kind of thing now, but he is an extremely important chef. It was a really interesting place to be.
Now all of these young cooks are looking at Zak Pelaccio and David Chang as the rock star chefs who have American-inflected cuisine. It's kind of a foregone conclusion now. But when I was coming up, Western Europe was leading the charge. Now, you say Larry Forgione, and nobody blinks. Those were the guys that opened the door. One of the reasons I opened a ramen shop is because I couldn't possibly have done American food. If I were to tell a Japanese person, even now, that I'm doing American food, they'd think I was going to make hot dogs. The concept of regional American cuisine is still not totally there yet. I wasn't there for a long time — like six or seven months.
That's still pretty long considering today's standards.
When I was growing up, you didn't work in a kitchen for less than a year, unless you had a problem or were a loser [laughs]. You sucked it up. The young chefs now, I don't think they suck it up as much anymore. I don't mean you should be sexually harassed or hurt, but being a young cook is not and should not be a pleasant thing. It's an extremely rough craft, and the pressure, in a city like this, is really high. Being a good cook is about how much mettle you have, not just your chops. All those great cooks you see now worked their balls off, burned all their fingers, and got yelled at and cried in the bathroom. That's just the deal. It's an important right of passage. There's of course nothing wrong with working at Sodexho or an R & D kitchen — this is a wonderful, vast industry — but if you want to be a craftsperson, you really need to just suck it up.
What happened after Mesa?
Then I worked at Lutèce, which was great. It was a real old world kitchen. It was basically the chef and nobody else. In most kitchen, there's the hierarchy, but at Lutèce, it was the chef and then the rest of us. Of course, being the guy at the bottom, I knew, but there was no real bullying or bullshit. The place would close for July and August, and after Memorial Day it would only open from Monday to Friday. We'd all work full shifts — lunch and dinner — and you never took a sick day. There was no one to cover for you, so you just didn't.
After that, my wife got pregnant and I was making no money, so I worked as a corporate chef. I made good money, worked nine to five, and had an expense account and insurance. I got to make a family for seven years. Creatively, it wasn't so great, but for life, it was good. But I realized that I needed to go back to Japan. When I left the first time, I promised myself that I would come back. I was actually there on vacation when the cherry blossoms were out and that's when I decided to do it. It was awesome.
Did you go and open a restaurant straightaway?
I started out as a house husband, while my wife, who is Japanese, worked as an interior stylist. After a couple of years I didn't want to be sitting at home and I thought about opening up a restaurant. There were a bunch of French guys doing great French cuisine, and there were Japanese guys who learned all the techniques and came back and did French food. The competition was weird. I wanted to do sandwiches, but the cost performance isn't great. I've always been a ramen nut, but I never dreamed of opening a ramen shop. The ramen shop came about because I needed to marry my love for Japan with my love for food and people. Ramen does that really well.
How does ramen bring all of that together, the way you see it?
The interesting thing was that I decided that I wanted a business where I would need to interact with Japanese people in Japanese. That's what I like. I like the culture, it's interesting to me, and I'm a student of all of that. When people heard I was opening a place, they'd ask if it was going to be in a foreign district. No. I love foreign customers, but I wanted it to be part of the culture. I wanted my main customer base to be Japanese, as big of a challenge as that is. The counter at the Tokyo spots, at least — you're three feet from the customers. I like people and I like making them happy. There are some chefs that don't get the customer thing or just prefer to be in the kitchen, but I really, really love being out in the dining room and interacting with people. It's absolutely wonderful to be recognized as having great food, but the beautiful thing about those shops is that they made me a regular guy in Japan. That was very cool for me — it was my dream.
Was it tough to get accepted at the beginning?
Sometimes I see myself as Japanese, but I knew when I opened this business that my hook was that I was a Jewish guy from New York.
Did you think it was a good or bad hook?
It was either going to be good or absolutely horrible. I just put in all my energy into being a cook and making the food great. I could tell you stories of people that walked into the restaurant and walked right out when they heard I was a white guy. Happened many times. Another guy once walked in and told his wife, "Fuck, we're stuck." He ate the ramen and apologized. They became regulars of mine. I realized as a cook — and this applies to anyone anywhere — that it's just about putting your money where your mouth is. If it's good, people will come around. I pulled it off and for the most part, people who had a problem with it got over the white guy thing. But still, I never totally saw myself as an American opening in Japan. I spoke the language, my wife helped me with contracts, and I felt comfortable. But because I'm a New Yorker, whenever I needed to tell someone to go fuck themselves, I did.
Talking about hooks, what makes your ramen special or different?
I make a very refined ramen. A lot of people probably don't realize that ramen is a pretty hardcore junk food. It's murky, it's fatty, it's really, really salty, and there are huge portions that you can rarely finish. The noodles tend to be cheap-tasting. Lots of places like that are very popular. But I don't like junk food, I don't like McDonald's, and I don't like things that are too salty. I'm a fine dining guy and like well-crafted food, even when it comes to pretzels and hot dogs. I've never worked in a ramen shop in my life, so I kind of don't know what the fuck ramen is. I just made it up. I ate a lot of ramen, thought about it all the time, and figured out what I liked the most. Then I decided to do what I figured would be my favorite ramen. I came up with flavors that I like. I also make my own noodles, which wasn't so popular when I started. Most ramen shops order them for a noodle factory, which is totally okay, but I really didn't love the noodles I had been eating — the flavor, the texture. I'm not judging here, because it's totally normal, but I didn't quite get that a place with delicious soup would have subpar noodles. I wasn't comfortable with that. So I bought a noodle machine, which got me a lot of attention, and I was also doing a lot of whole grain noodles. I was able to achieve balance, because I was controlling everything.
But in Tokyo, there are 10,000 shops or something like that, so you can't really say who is best or better or whatever. I'm in a really small niche, which is the artisanal ramen movement.