The Exchange Student: Ramen Dinner With Ivan Orkin at Momofuku Noodle Bar
By the time the front-of-house manager misted the inside of Momofuku Noodle Bar’s front door with glass cleaner at quarter-past-five yesterday evening, more than 100 people were waiting outside the First Avenue restaurant in a disarranged line that spanned the block and ended somewhere under the shade along 10th Street. Inside Momofuku, staff huddled over the evening’s protocol and special menu. Chef de cuisine Sean Heller organized himself at the restaurant’s pass, while cooks calmly sliced scallions and set their stocks just under the simmer. Exactly six minutes after the doors opened, every seat in the house was filled and Ivan Orkin, the evening’s guest chef, was boiling ramen noodles and lining up bowls in the restaurant’s open kitchen. Within a couple of hours, the noodles were sold out.
Maybe you’ve heard this guy’s origin story: Orkin is from Long Island, land of four-lane highways and hardscrabble farms, everything bagels and Entenmann’s bakery outlets. He studied Japanese in college and taught English for a few years in the late ‘80s. During his travels, and after watching the gateway noodle movie Tampopo (check it), he became mesmerized by enormous bowls of fat- and salt-laced noodle soup. In New York, Orkin went to cooking school, then spent time in corporate kitchens and restaurants like Lutèce before moving to Japan and dedicating himself to ramen recipes. After much error and a few trials, in 2007, he opened a ten-seat shop in Tokyo called Ivan Ramen, a near-instant hit, followed in 2010 by a second ramenya with an entirely new menu. Also instant: the prepackaged noodles and soup base made by Sapporo Ichiban, which bear a picture of the chef’s face as a de facto seal of quality, sold in Japanese supermarkets.
Now Orkin is planning to open a 50-seat restaurant in New York City. The story of the Jewish native New Yorker returning home to set up shop after finding success in a restaurant world dominated by ultra-strict Japanese chefs with exact standards, now only to go up against perhaps the most fever-pitched and food-critical bunch of New Yorkers ever to go à la carte, is itself a new kind of noodle. It’s a weird cultural moment. The opening menu will be a mix of old and new recipes, bar snacks will be served, and Orkin hopes to pour cocktails, but the focus will really be on the noodles. The chef doesn’t have a lease signed yet, but, almost perversely, there’s already a line for his ramen.
Dashi is foundational to any ramen, but problematic in New York. “You make your own stock in Tokyo,” Orkin says, “But also, you visit a dashi company for different kinds of powdered fish. You take them home, mix and match, and build flavors. Some you might sprinkle on top of a bowl. There’s maybe 40 kinds of powdered fish to work with. Here, you don’t have any.”
Similarly, the abundance of Stateside Kikkoman doesn’t make the cut. “It just lacks any subtle flavor,” Orkin says. Instead, a 150-year-old company called Chiba Shoyu will supply the soy sauce for the chef. “I met them through a TV show I did, we have a nice relationship,” he says. “People talk so much about the farm-to-table, which is admirable, but sometimes it’s contrived. I’m really just interested in having relationships with the producers.” Orkin values robust working relationships with purveyors over most any other business principle, though Chiba Shoyu is not distributed in the United States. “I’m going to fly their stuff in from Tokyo,” he says. “It’s going to cost a lot of money, but, you know, fuck it. It makes really good ramen.”
Keeping custom, Orkin insists his noodle soup must be slurped quickly. “It’s not about turning tables,” he says, “Or rushing anyone.” The soup’s fat and salt content has an ideal time and temperature, he says, just like brick-oven pizza loses flavor when after (literally) losing steam. “Ramen just tastes so much better when it’s hot, and noodles just keep cooking when they’re put into the broth,” he says, “So I hope my new customers will learn to slurp more. My fantasy is to have some kind of hand in that.”
To wit: Orkin hasn’t found the chickens he’s looking for to make his broth, but he’s over the moon with the small, upstart New Jersey–based noodle company willing to accommodate his unusual manufacturing standards. They call for higher-than-average water content, and flours like stone-ground wheat and rye — a nod to the sliced Jewish rye bread of Orkin’s youth. The flours are sometimes toasted before they’re added to the dough. In Japan, Orkin makes seven kinds of noodles; for the Momofuku dinner and ramenya test-piloting, Orkin wrote three new recipes for some “really, really good noodles,” including a thick and kinky variety used in his triple-fat garlic mazemen. They are served folded at the bottom of a bowl with reduced broth and fat, decked with chunky pork, pickled garlic that has been sliced into loose change, and topped with a plank of crisp bacon and dashi powder. Because it was devised for the dinner using only ingredients at hand, Orkin calls this new mazemen “a total New York invention.” It’ll be on the menu.
The arrival of a new wave of fast-service ramen shops is telling for New York. In the case of Ivan Orkin’s one-night engagement at Momofuku, the tables turned quickly. The kitchen served a few hundred customers in the first two hours and three times more ramen than planned. Maybe the city has already adjusted to Orkin’s fantasy, and we’re watching now, waiting for his next big bowl.