Tales from a Tokyo ramen chef: Ivan Orkin

Tales from a Tokyo ramen chef: Ivan Orkin

With pork, stock and a barrel of noodles, New York chef Ivan Orkin has been lauded as a "ramen reviver" in Tokyo
ramen ivan orkin making it in japan
Ivan Orkin, the ramen man.
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Meet: Ivan Orkin, 47, American

Aspiration: To bring flavor back to Japanese ramen

ramen ivan orkin making it in japanFish-based soup stock yet brimming with savoriness.

Turning ramen into a culinary specialty 

With the recent opening of a second eponymous ramen shop in the Setagaya ward, Ivan Ramen Plus, New Yorker Ivan Orkin has proven that he is not just a novelty gaijin dishing up steaming hot ramen in Japan. In his own words, he is “a chef, not a fast food maker.”

In fact, come early November, Ivan will have to leave the running of his two ramen establishments -- Ivan’s Ramen and Ivan Ramen Plus -- for a few days to present at an international food forum in California called World of Flavor held annually to showcase the gold standards of world cuisine. 

Ivan, a 1993 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, will be the only American in an otherwise all-Japanese delegation of leading chefs and experts in the food and culinary traditions of Japan, from soba, udon and ramen to sushi, tempura and kaiseki. 

“It’s a great honor. I see myself as a chef who happens to be creating food, real food, in the form of ramen. It’s what I think ramen should be,” says Ivan, who trained in the kitchens of Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill and Andre Soltner’s Restaurant Lutece before coming to Japan in 2003 to pursue his love of ramen and Japan. 

New York inspiration

“The good thing about choosing to be in the ramen world is that it’s the most equal platform within Japanese cuisine. For soba, udon, sushi … there’s only one accepted way to do it right. But with ramen it’s different,” says Ivan, who had his first encounter of Japanese food at the age of 10 in New York from working part-time at a sushi bar. 

ramen ivan orkin making it in japanIvan Ramen Plus seats 16 ramen lovers.

Indeed, ramen shops in Japan -- of which there are over 9,000 in Tokyo alone -- take pride in serving up new flavors such as tomato sauce ramen, cream soup ramen, green curry ramen, available hot or cold, immersed in soup or in tsukemen (dunk-and-slurp version of ramen where the noodle is kept separate from the soup stock) and even the occasional ramen burger which blurs caterogization.

In his opinion, too many ramen shops in Japan rely on filling up their soup stock with fat and salt in place of real flavor and umami.

So Ivan opened Ivan’s Ramen in mid-2007, where diners can enjoy a slow-cooked chicken soup stock to go with noodles made freshly on premises. Different shapes of noodles are paired with different flavors of ramen -- shoyu, shio (salt), miso, tsukemen or mazemen. 

“The soup should be able to stick to the noodle,” says Ivan. At Ivan Ramen Plus, Ivan offers a totally new menu that basically minuses the meat from the stock -- and is yet full of umami. This is done using dashi, which extracts flavor from fish and kelp, that he sources from Hokkaido. 

ramen ivan orkin making it in japanIvan Ramen Plus opened late September.

A world of flavor

Unlike other ramen shops that pride themselves on their line-up of eat-all-you-like condiments on their table such as pickled vegetables, garlic or shallots, Ivan just stocks white pepper that customers can grind freshly into their ramen. And the ramen here is anything but plain. 

The "Special Ramen" features a special shoyu that is heavy on taste and lower on salt, accented with lemon garlic oil, and topped with a perfectly done onsen egg and melt-in-your-mouth pork slices, made possible by a special oven that seals the juices in the meat. 

The noodle is made of wholewheat flour, flat and smooth with just the right bite, and slides down your throat. 

Ivan will be presenting this dish at the World of Flavor convention, together with a refreshing cold ramen dish flavored with plum vinegar. 

There’s also a four cheese mazemen that is cheese-heaven in a bowl, or a soy milk-based soup with lots of vegetables.  

ramen ivan orkin making it in japanTicket to "slow food served fast."

Ramen for women

“I don’t serve food that I wouldn’t eat myself,” says Ivan, who has been touted by Japanese ramen critiques as the reviver of asali-kei ramen, or clear, light tasting broth ramen. 

For the betsubara (separate stomach) that craves rice/dessert, Ivan caters to them both with the meatball tomato meshi (rice) and ice cream offerings. 

Also unlike your typical ramen shop, Ivan’s ramen restaurants are family friendly, and a place where ladies young and old feel comfortable walking into by themselves for a bowl of slow food, served fast.