In Japan, ramen was always a fringe pursuit. As with music or literature, the “cool” food was made by outsiders fighting against the mainstream, because they didn’t feel like the mainstream was good enough.
And so ramen developed over time, evolving quietly throughout the different regions of Japan. Apprentices would learn from a chef, then work their way from taking orders to washing dishes and finally to working in the kitchen. Once they were good enough, the master would tell them to move on to another shop somewhere else.
No such system existed in the States. When I was opening Noodle Bar in 2004, I enlisted Japanese people on Craigslist to help translate ramen recipes and information for me, so I could know what the fuck was happening. It wasn’t cool to eat ramen back then; nobody gave a shit about it. In New York City, in 1999, there were maybe two or three ramen shops that I knew of. Rai Rai Ken opened in 2000 and was the first real ramen shop below 42nd street. Minca opened up a couple years after that. There were one or two shops in LA, maybe a shop in Boston, but they weren’t really dedicated to ramen; they were more like general-purpose Japanese restaurants that happened to serve noodles.
What’s happened to ramen in the past decade is a microcosm of the larger food world. In 2003, when I was working at Café Boulud, the other cooks and I used to go down to wd~50 after service just to look at the menu and try to envision what the food might look like. That’s how it used to be before the Internet; you would still go to restaurants, look at their menu, and just imagine. You’d order ramen books from Japan and wait weeks for them to arrive, so you could pore over the photos from across the planet.
Now the Internet’s changed everything. People can get all the information they want instantaneously, and that has killed innovation in ramen.
The Internet exploded in the 2000s, and with it came the ramen boom in Japan. Suddenly, ramen became the very establishment it once stood against. A variety of magazines and websites arose, solely dedicated to ramen. Everyone could learn everything about it. Anyone can read the Lucky Peach ramen issue and possess information that’s taken decades to develop and accumulate.
There’s no more dreaming about food in the same way, no peering into the windows of restaurants and imagining what the dishes might look like. People complain about food and restaurants becoming more and more uniform. It’s because there’s no more thirst for knowledge, no catalyst for imagination or reason to try to create new and different things anymore. People still want to know things, but now they can find the answers with barely any effort.
When we first opened Momofuku, I feel like our ramen made sense at the time; we were figuring out what it was like to make ramen in America. But now ramen is everywhere, and a lot of it is the same. I don’t want to go to every city and taste the same fucking thing. Everyone’s serving tonkotsu ramen, everyone’s serving pork. You could do a blind taste test and not have any idea where the fuck you’re eating. Everyone is sharing the same experiences, but ramen is not supposed to be about that; it’s food for people that don’t want the same experience, that don’t want to be part of the mainstream. Even in Japan, cooks are returning to pure, clean, simple chicken ramen, because everything else has been done. That’s it—you’ve taken noodle soup as far as you can fucking go, and now it’s gotta go back to the beginning.
That’s not to say there’s no way forward or people trying to do so. You can make a smoked brisket ramen in Texas and both pay homage to the region and stay true to the spirit of ramen. One of the most original ramen I’ve seen in years is Ivan Orkin’s ramen—it’s an ideal blend of his Jewish upbringing in New York City and his time spent living in Tokyo. But that’s an exception. There’s lots of shitty ramen out there. And I realize many people probably think ours is shitty too! It’s way overrated. Regardless of how people feel about it, I stand behind what we do; Momofuku ramen is our own story and no one else’s. We borrowed but made it our own narrative. I can sleep peacefully knowing that. In general, the balance between innovation and quality is totally out of whack. Progress is good if you know what you’re doing and pay appropriate respect to what came before it. The ramen burger is not an invention—it’s the lowest hanging fruit. I’ve heard tell of a ramen burrito—that’s the fucking end of everything.