It's a steam bath by the kitchen at the Luckyrice SlurpFest, a multicourse dinner in New York City prepared by four ramen masters. Five burners boil water; servers scoot around one another, sweating as they stack fancy three-star-restaurant bowls with wide, flat rims, meant for exotic garnishes or creating dramatic white space. Ivan Orkin hates them.
There's an intense quiet, a tension. Orkin, one of the true pioneers of ramen, is serving his course. He stands awkwardly, forced to work at an ad hoc plating station, raising tongfuls of dangling noodles like a street fighter delivering a flying uppercut in a video game. He coils the glistening strands into the bowls, tops them with bean sprouts, scallions, slices of pork. His jaw is set firm, like a sergeant about to call drills.
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For noodleheads, Orkin's reputation precedes him. He is a brilliant anomaly—a guy from Long Island, New York, who in 2007 opened a shop in Tokyo called Ivan Ramen that was so admired, he became a star; an instant-ramen company even modeled a flavor after his soup. Last year, a guest appearance at Manhattan's Momofuku Noodle Bar drew a 100-person line and sold out in 90 minutes. Until he opens two Ivan Ramens in NYC this year, chances to eat his food are few and far between, so his SlurpFest noodles hit the bowls with a special gravity.
Orkin turns, handing dishes to servers. They file up the stairs, dutifully and respectfully. In the lull, he finishes a thought he started a few minutes ago. "This bacon boom. What the f--- is with this farm-fresh, leathery, overly smoky s---? Diner bacon is pretty good, you know?" he jokes, cracking up. Later, as the flying-saucer bowls return, Orkin says, "Ramen doesn't have to be a big deal."
But Orkin's ramen is kind of a big deal; you'd know with a bite of the triple-garlic mazemen he served at SlurpFest. Mazemen is a soupless, pasta-like style, not widely seen in Japan, for which the noodles are sauced, not submerged. Orkin packed his "triple" version with garlic in four forms—raw, roasted, pickled and infused in oil. ("Triple sounds better than quadruple," he explains.) It's 360 degrees of garlic flavor, from a snap that travels up your nose to a round, lasting sweetness. The noodles are almost creamy with their pork-fat dressing, slipping around each other lasciviously until you bite into the crisp, chaste freshness of bean sprouts. And underneath, you can taste the nuttiness of whole-wheat flour—one of Orkin's special moves is to make his own noodles, pairing their taste, texture, elasticity and shape to each broth or sauce. Even in the world of serious ramen, that level of craft—or geekiness—is rare.
"When I opened Ivan Ramen in Japan, I knew that, good or bad, I would get attention, because I'm white," Orkin says. "So I wanted to make sure that people would recognize my food as ramen, that it would show I understood where they were coming from." His signature style is a clear soup, made with chicken but getting a lot of its flavor from traditional dried fish, almost a throwback in a world where ramen stars now knock you over the head with thick, emulsified pork-fat broths. His soup is refined, elegant—and a gesture of welcome.
"His ramen is very pure and great," says Shigetoshi Nakamura, an acclaimed Japanese ramen chef who now works for a noodle manufacturer in New Jersey. "Not so fancy, but you feel a love for the ingredients, the dashi, the noodle."
Orkin puts it differently: "Ramen, really, is basically junk food. But I wanted something you could eat every day and not feel sick. And hopefully, you'll come back."
And customers did, eventually bringing with them microphones and TV cameras. With that notoriety and respect came the freedom to experiment more, to add more Western flavorings, like roasted tomatoes, or to make noodles with toasted rye flour.
But in a way, being known as an international ramen iconoclast is the opposite of what Orkin set out to do. His dream was smaller than that: He just wanted to be a regular guy in Japan.
In the late 1980s, while teaching English in Tokyo after college in Boulder, Colorado, Orkin married a Japanese woman. They moved to New York City and made a life for themselves: She worked in computers, he went to culinary school and got jobs cooking at Mesa Grill and then Lutèce, the legendary French restaurant. They had a son, watched Japanese TV together, spoke the language, ate the food.
But then, awfully, his wife suddenly passed away. Orkin was distraught. "Not only did I lose my wife, my partner, but I also lost my Japaneseness. When she died, it was like that whole world closed. That was really hard for me," he says, in the matter-of-fact way of people who've dealt with serious pain.
Years later, he married another Japanese woman, Mari. And together, they decided they would live in Tokyo. "I had this fantasy of settling into a community and just living a normal life in Japan," Orkin says.
The ramen thing was practically a whim. He and Mari would drop off their boys at school, buy props for her TV styling job and hit noodle bars for lunch. "I fell in love with ramen," Orkin says. "It gives you permission to be a slob. You're a cute girl, but you've got fat on your blouse, you're holding your hair back, and you're like, 'F--- it, it's delicious.' And working in a ramen shop is so cool. You're three feet away from every diner. You hear conversations. You see exactly how they feel. Talk about instant gratification as a cook."
But at home, unemployed, Orkin was bored. So one day, after he watched a possible-world-record 17 episodes of Grey's Anatomy, Mari talked him into being the guy behind the counter. He took a ramen-making crash course and taught himself the rest, throwing himself into the drudgery of opening a restaurant and realizing that, as he negotiated contracts in Japanese, found suppliers and met his neighbors in a new way, this was actually what he wanted in life. "I was learning to live in my adopted culture. That was perfect for me," he says.
"There was this butcher across the street. He was such a huge support. He was an old guy in his seventies, so he gave me a lot of advice I didn't want," Orkin chuckles.
The Japanese word for foreigner is gaijin. But there's a new word, flyjin—people who fly in to make their money, or get the girl, or whatever. "Ivan's the opposite of that," says C.B. Cebulski, an executive at Marvel Comics who's been working and living on and off in Japan for 20 years. "There are foreign celebrities here, and sometimes people look at them like they're animals at the zoo. But when you go to Ivan's shop, you go to really interact with him."
"I would get in there, crank up the Grateful Dead, drink coffee and make noodles and soup all day," Orkin says. He relished making himself a fixture, a neighbor.
Now Orkin's back in the States, brought home by a desire to be closer to his extended family and by a sense that he is up for another challenge. But how does this chef, whose main goal in opening a noodle shop in Japan was to be a guy you'd chat with on the way home from work, cope with the expectations that come with fame?
"I'm nervous, man," he admits. But he seems to be going about it the only way he knows how: by first settling into a community. His first new shop, scheduled to open by the end of the summer, is on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His next-door neighbor isn't a 70-year-old butcher who'll walk in to gossip, but a mile away is the home base of the Momofuku empire, led by his friend David Chang. He's become close with Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo of the beloved Frankies restaurants. And down the street is another new friend, Danny Bowien, wunderkind chef of Mission Chinese Food.
One night this spring, Orkin was at Bowien's surprise birthday party in the Franks' gravel-filled backyard. He brought pots, sauces and piles of noodles and quietly set up a prep station in a corner. People were getting a little tipsy; there was a boat on blocks that served as the bar, and there was serious talk of trying to start the motor.
The guest of honor was about to arrive, and everyone stood around, grinding the gravel beneath their feet. One person joked about bum-rushing the door. People's phones kept dinging. But during moments of stillness, you could hear the Grateful Dead, softly, through the speakers. And there was Orkin, swaying, listening to the Dead, getting ready to cook for his friends and neighbors.
Francis Lam is an editor at Clarkson Potter and a judge on Top Chef Masters.
Find him on Twitter: @Francis_Lam.
Ivan's Ramen Empire
Ivan Ramen Tokyo
At Orkin's original ramen shop, opened in 2007, customers sit at a 10-seat counter. 3-24-7, Minamikarasuyama, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo, 157-0062; ivanramen.com.
Ivan Ramen Plus
The menu at Orkin's second Tokyo location takes a more experimental approach. Tanbaya Building 1F, 2-3-8, Kyodo, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo, 156-0052.
Not open at press time, Orkin's Lower East Side spot will seat 40 and feature his classic ramen. 25 Clinton St., New York City.
Ivan Ramen's Slurp Shop
A stand slated to open this fall at Gotham West Market, a new food market. 600 11th Ave., New York City.
How to Make Ramen Noodles
A step-by-step guide to preparing Orkin's sensational ramen noodles at home.
How to Make Shoyu Ramen
F&W shares how to prepare this classic Japanese dish at home.