Meet noodle impressario Ivan Ramen, born Orkin in Syosset.
Ivan Orkin’s ramen is acclaimed by even the biggest noodle nerds, but what we’re more interested in his backstory. How did a Jewish kid from Syosset become Ivan Ramen, as he’s known?
He started out as a devotee of all things Japanese culture with an interest in food and is now an acknowledged master of this beloved, distinctively Japanese noddle dish, which in its country of origin even has a museum devoted to it. Orkin, 50, says emphatically that the Ashkenazi dishes he grew up with didn’t shape his palette, but he also can’t resist adding some Jewish twists to his Japanese specialties, like a whitefish riceball.
“I’m a New York Jewish guy, and I grew up in Long Island, and I ate rye bread for Shabbos and I ate deli all the time,” he said. “I ate whitefish and bagels and I find those flavors do naturally show up in my food. It makes sense and now that I’m back in New York those ingredients are available.”
Orkin just opened his first restaurant stateside – he already has two in Tokyo – the Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop, and he also recently published a memoir, Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo's Most Unlikely Noodle Joint. We spoke with Orkin/Ramen over the phone and asked him the questions we like to ask all fascinating foodies. This is an edited transcript.
Food writer and novelist Laurie Colwin wrote, “Certainly, cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest.” What do you eat when you’re alone?
I grew up a Jewish kid with a Jewish mother who didn’t particularly like to cook so I have no comfort food memory bank. The comfort food I embrace is Japanese, and I lived there for many years. There’s ochazuke, a bowl of seasoned rice with green tea poured over the top, or natto gohan, with is fermented soy beans mixed up with a raw egg and poured over rice. These are the things where if I have a cold or I’m by myself and I want to eat something warm. These are my comfort foods.
JW: How do you eat or cook differently now than you did when you were younger?
IR: I didn’t grow up in a cook’s family. I made sandwiches and egg dishes and I baked bread and desserts. My mom was a good mom; she cooked dinner every night; she was a fine cook but she just wasn’t interested. I didn’t learn to cook at my mother’s apron or anything. I’ve always been excited about food … but my other passion was Japan. My interest in Japan was never really just food, the culture and the language fascinated me and stayed with me in a very strong way.
JW: What principles guide your eating or cooking?
IR: I’m a very hospitality-driven person. My guiding principle is I like my customers to go home happier than when they arrive and it’s really important to make sure that people have the right service and feel special. It’s important to me that people feel special when they dine … people ask me why do you want to make commoner’s food? I said there’s a lot of really fancy restaurants around the world where you don’t feel really good and you’d be just as happy eating a falafel on the corner where they guy treats you as an honored guest.
HC: Which food writer most speaks to you?
IR: I don’t really read food writers. I read cookbooks. I’m a novel guy and a news freak. I just finished a new Steven King book, which was a lot of fun, and I finished a Neil Gaiman book. This morning I was up at 6:30, out the door at 7:15, at one restaurant at 8:30, then had to go buy restaurant supplies at 10:30 and then had another meeting and then I was back at the restaurant at 2 for this interview; then I have another one. I get to bed at 11, 11:30. I just bought at iPad which is helping me to read a little bit more.
HC: Share with us a simple tip for cooking or eating that never fails you.
IR: Cook your turkey at 550 degrees with your turkey unbound and you can cook 27-pound turkey in an hour and 30 minutes. I do it every year. I learned it on the Safeway website. Just put a little water in the pan.
HC: What’s a food trend that totally mystifies you?
IR: Oh God, there’s so many of them, aren’t there? There’s this whole obsession getting too much information in restaurants. There’s menu copy that’s too long, with way too much information about ingredients that don’t have anything to do with how the final dish tastes.
HC: What’s a mistake you consistently make in the kitchen or at a restaurant?
IR: I put my hands in the dough machine when I'm pushing stuff off the sides and get it stuck in the machine hook. Don’t put your hands in the machine. I always think I know better. I never do.
HC: What’s your favorite Jewish food, and why?
IR: I definitely love all deli of course. I’m still a pastrami and corned beef on rye with slaw and Russian dressing kind of guy. I love gefilte fish and stuffed cabbage, a sweet and sour brisket and matzo brei. It’s kind of weird because I’m a real food guy and you meet some chefs and they can talk about their development as a chef based on what they grew up eating but obviously that didn’t happen with me.