The Keio Line originates in the skyscraper garden of Shinjuku and runs several hours west, through the suburbs and into the countryside. Rokakoen is a nondescript local stop midway out, a town where, except for the chain stores, most little shops are run by people over sixty. In fact, the shops themselves look very much like their owners—a little worn at the edges, a little run down, but very friendly nevertheless.
My shop, Ivan Ramen, is in Rokakoen. The roof that covers the restaurant stretches thirty feet across the street to form a covered arcade, joining all the businesses on the block. Running down from my corner, there’s a tobacconist, a butcher, three other restaurants, a tofu shop, and a barber. At one time, the arcade also housed a vegetable shop and a large public bath. It was the bustling center of the community. Giant supermarkets and one-stop shopping have since drained shoppers from these local arcades, leaving only the diehards to support their hardworking owners.
The signs are all in the style of the Showa period (1926 to 1989), which adds a nostalgic aura to the corner, at least until shoppers’ eyes drift up to the ten-foot-high Chinese characters splashed in bright crimson across the side of my building. They spell out 自家製麺, ji-ka-sei-men, or “house-made noodles,” and they stick out like a lighthouse on a foggy coast. (Some people might use another simile, like “sore thumb,” but I figure if I’m going to go to all the effort of making my own noodles, I want to make sure people know about it.)
As with most forty-year-old buildings in Tokyo, Ivan Ramen’s is poorly built—you would be forgiven for thinking it could come tumbling down at the slightest provocation. Inside, with ten seats in the dining area, there’s very little room behind each stool, and customers have to squeeze by to get to the bathroom.
“Ramen kudesai!” Those two words mean a customer has put in an order. I grab a bowl and a plate from the shelf to my right and place it on the counter in front of me—my station, where every bowl of ramen is made.
Next to my station is a three-burner range, fully occupied: on burner one, a rectangular All-Clad roasting pan schlepped from New York, holding a thin soup to warm the pork slices that will garnish the ramen; on burner two, a large stainless-steel pot with simmering soup for the ramen; and in the rear, an extra gallon of soup waiting to replenish the pot. Next to the range is the yudemenki, or noodle cooker, tooling along at a cool boil, its wooden-handled baskets barely visible through huge wisps of rising steam. Next to the cooker, on a wire rack, are lidded aluminum containers full of coils of recently made noodles sprinkled with uchiko, a cornstarch-like powder used to fend off moisture.
At my station, just behind where I’ve set down the bowl, there are square stainless-steel containers filled with moto dare (the ramen broth’s flavor-base sauce), chicken and pork fat, katsuo (bonito) fish powder, menma (simmered bamboo shoots), shredded leeks, pork char siu, and soft-boiled eggs. Ladles jut out from each container, each one sized to deliver an exact dose.
All those building blocks go into the bowl on the counter, each portion carefully calculated. The moto-dare ladle delivers thirty grams’ worth of base. I follow it with smaller, ten-gram ladles of freshly rendered chicken and pork fat. I sprinkle in a spoonful of smoky fish powder over the fat and soy. Now I’ve got to cook the noodles.
Once a batch goes into the cooker, I have just forty seconds before they need to be removed, and there is much work still to do. I add slices of char siu to the pan of thinned soup, to warm them. I plunge a large ladle into the soup pot and add its contents to the ramen bowl. Fat melts and glistens; fish powder dots the top of the liquid. I can prepare up to six bowls in this forty-second time span; the moment the timer goes off, I lift the basket of noodles from the machine and vigorously shake it, sending drops of boiling water flying. Some ramen chefs become famous just for the way they shake the water from the strainers.
Now time’s getting short: the noodles continue to cook once they’re in the hot soup, and the toppings still need to be arranged. I use a piece of fishing line nailed to the counter to quickly slice a not-quite-boiled egg and gingerly place the two halves on top of the waiting soup, then arrange a few bamboo shoots to decorate the center of the bowl. I grab the slices of char siu with chopsticks and fan them out. Finally, I scoop up a handful of Japanese leek that’s been sliced into fine threads and delicately mound it on top of the menma. I think their pure white color adds a contrast that helps to define the other ingredients.
I wipe errant splashes of soup from the bowl with a rolled cloth taken from a small plastic box behind the counter. A renge spoon is placed on the plate below, and the dish is swiveled so that the egg is facing the customer. I wait for eye contact, then stretch out my arms, bowl held aloft, as the customer’s hands extend to meet mine.
There goes another bowl of Ivan ramen.
I had an enviable crew to help me put the shop together. My wife, Mari, is a nationally known interior stylist; my brother-in-law Shinichiro is a set designer and carpenter; and my newly hired helper, Taro, had just graduated from one of the best Tokyo art schools. We jazzed up the counter with a dark wood-grain laminate, squared off the corners, and added steel trim. We added lighting above and below the bar. When it was time to choose the stools, the advice was to get something uncomfortable—because customers, I was told, shouldn’t feel they can hang around at a ramen shop. Instead I found the most handsome, comfortable stools I could. I decided to worry about getting rid of my customers later.
In New York, my former home, dealing with construction permits, community-board approvals, and borderline-criminal contractors is the most murderous part of opening a restaurant. In Tokyo? The contractor did everything on a handshake and insisted on not being paid until a month after the shop opened. If there were any problems, he said, he’d fix them without a word. He still comes around regularly to check the kitchen to make sure everything’s okay. And for my inspection, the guy from the city came in with a clipboard and asked if there was a bathroom. There was. He asked if there was a hand sink. There was. That was it.
For most of that first summer, the shop was fairly quiet—maybe thirty or forty customers a day. But Ivan Ramen had started appearing on various ramen blogs, and word on the street that a gaijin was making good ramen was starting to filter out.
The first big break came at the end of August, when I was asked to make an appearance on one of the big prime-time talk shows. The episode aired on a Sunday night; on Monday, there was a line of thirty people outside a half hour before we opened. After that, the crowds kept up every day without fail. At least ten people waiting to get in every weekday, and at least thirty every weekend. Lines even in the midst of a typhoon, which happened more than once.
Following the fans came the second wave of blog entries, good and bad. My favorites were from the infamous Channel 2 website, where anonymous writers go after everything and everyone, and where being criticized means you’ve really arrived. Many of the threads were conspiracy theories: some people believed I was a front for a large Korean corporation, others that I was a front for a Japanese chef. The best theory was that I was actually Japanese, and only pretending to be a foreigner. It was an idea so good I wished I’d made it up myself.
It’s now been four years, and that thread is still alive. And the wave kept rolling. A few months after that talk-show appearance I was contacted by Sapporo Ichiban, Japan’s third-largest instant-ramen maker; they wanted to manufacture Ivan Ramen-brand shio ramen and sell it via a convenience-store chain. When they came in to meet me, shortly after we first talked, they already had a sample for me to try. They’d surreptitiously eaten my shio ramen over the previous month and had come up with what they thought was a winner.
It wasn’t. It tasted nothing like my ramen. The noodles tasted like plastic; the soup had a strong chemical aftertaste. I couldn’t resist the idea, though—I’d fantasized about having my own brand of instant ramen—and despite the sorrowful start I decided I’d see it through.
By the end, we’d gone through seven more versions. They would bring their samples, I would supply the thermos of boiling water, and we would have all these little packets of fat, moto dare, weird-looking dried char siu, and timers scattered all over the counter. I would make them a bowl of the real shio ramen so they could get a clear idea of what we were aiming for. After a couple of attempts, the aftertaste disappeared. They agreed to put whole wheat in the noodles and change the color, something that no instant-ramen company had ever done before. By the time I gave my final okay, the stuff actually tasted good—not as good as the real thing, of course, but not bad at all.
When it hit store shelves, it was the fastest-selling instant ramen the company had ever produced. 300,000 units sold in less than a month.
When we reopened in 2008, after a year-end break, we had lines from the minute we opened until the minute we closed. Customers would try to get in even after we turned out the lights. I began taking one of my business cards and scribbling I’m Last on it, to present to the last person we could serve. I’d solemnly ask them to take on the responsibility of breaking the bad news to any latecomers. It worked like a charm.
By the end of our second year, I’d appeared on dozens of TV shows—most appearances being simple introductory features on my shop, and on ramen in general. There was one, however, that went differently: Sano Minoru was going to come and eat my ramen. Sano Minoru being, as you might not know, the star of a late-nineties TV show called Ramen Oni—“Ramen Devil.”
The idea of Ramen Oni was that aspiring ramen cooks would come to be trained by Sano, one of Japan’s most respected ramen chefs. It was a combination of Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen, except that Sano made Gordon Ramsay look like a teddy bear. He’d reduce his aspirants to tears in every episode, and at the end of the season the one who sucked it up the most and turned it into a learning experience was honored with Sano’s blessing and help in opening his or her own shop. It was wildly popular, and Sano became a huge star.
I’d visited his shop on a trip to Tokyo in 2000, after a friend had pronounced it Tokyo’s best. He had very strict rules: no talking, no cell phones, no babies, no perfume. The customers would literally be cowering when their turn to sit down came. Sano and his crew wore crisp starched white chef jackets (extremely uncommon for ramen shops in those days) and moved with great precision in the kitchen, not wasting a step. He never smiled, never broke his concentration. We ate silently, my friend and I, occasionally looking up and nodding to each other. It was the best bowl of ramen I had ever had.
I didn’t know anything about him at the time, but I later discovered that Sano was deeply involved in the kodawari ramen movement; some even called him the father of it. Kodawari usually means to be fixated or obsessed with something, but I like to translate it as “artisanal.” In the kodawari ramen world, of which I like to think I am a part, shop owners differentiate themselves by seeking out unique and high-quality ingredients—specially sourced chickens and pork, salt produced on a tiny island off Okinawa, small-producer soy sauce, water filtered through complex charcoal systems. For years (and even now, in many places), ramen was an extension of the fast-food business—huge corporate chains, product made in factories and shipped in plastic to retail outlets. Sano and a few other pioneers were the ones who allowed ramen to earn its stripes as a cuisine.
He came into my shop with a lot of cameras and two members of a popular boy band. Like every other TV show I’d appeared on, the bit began with the visitors reacting in shock to the sight of a white, Western face behind the counter. I waved my hand, said “Hi,” and tried to keep up while they peppered me with questions about the whys and hows of opening my shop. Then it was put up or shut up. I made three bowls of shio ramen and handed them over the counter.
Did he like it? Did he love it? I’ll never really know—you’ll never see food criticism on Japanese television. But sitting there in his standard all-white cooking uniform, hair slicked back, cameras all around him, Sano Minoru seemed to appreciate what I’d put in front of him. He didn’t smash the bowl or scream that I was a fake, and I, for my part, managed not to cry. The show constituted his nod of approval, and it more or less elevated Ivan Ramen to the top tier of Tokyo shops. If I’d worried before that my success would be temporary, that it was a fluke, and that was the moment I convinced myself that I’d done something real. A wannabe ramen chef from New York had made good in Tokyo. The crowds continued to flow.
Sano Minoru did make one suggestion during his visit. Leaning over the counter, his cameras off, he told me I should consider increasing the water content of my noodles by 1 percent. Then he congratulated me on my success, rounded up his crew, and left. The next day, I tried it. He was right. The ramen tasted better than ever.