There’s one thing Ivan Orkin would like you to know above all else about him.
“I’m a Japanophile first,” he says. “I’m a chef second.”
That’s not something you’d easily gather just by looking at him as he sits at a bench in front of Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop, his homage to Tokyo noodle bars in the indoor Gotham West Market. Self-proclaimed “ramenheads” line up early for the pilgrimages to his first permanent establishment in the U.S., and speak of his skills in reverent tones as his behind-the-counter staff pull out bundled strands of noodles from steaming vats, sprinkle a rainbow array of garnishes—scallions! salmon roe! cucumber slices! a soft egg!—onto a mosaic bowl of donburi, or offer a slightly intimidated newcomer a gentle nudge in the direction of a miso-butter mazemen that will appeal to his particular dietary preferences.
Orkin’s path from “Jewish kid from Long Island” to American expat in Japan to founder of a budding ramen empire is familiar to anyone who’s got strong opinions on shio versus shoyu. He moved to Japan right after college in 1985, taught English, and married a Japanese woman, Tami, and moved with her back to the U.S., where he went to the Culinary Institute of America and became an experienced chef. Tami died in 1998, a tragedy that Orkin’s credited with making him unafraid to fail. He remarried another Japanese woman, named Mari, whom he met at a Tokyo ramen shop, and moved back to Japan in 2003, where he settled into being a sort of house husband, caring for the kids. (He jokingly refers to himself those years as the period he served as “my wife’s chauffeur.”) It was while acting as the family driver that he had the bowl of ramen that helped change his life.
“I used to drive my kids to school, and there was this ramen shop near there that I tried,” he says. “It was a revelation—they did this blend of dashi and chicken stock, and it was the first time I began to think I could do it.”
Mari had been urging Orkin to start his own business, a ramen shop, but the thought of opening up his noodle shop in the already-crowded Tokyo market of already-established ramen businesses seemed ludicrous.
“Who was I, this white guy starting a ramen shop in Tokyo?”
But this was the new, more fearless Ivan Orkin, the guy who’d suffered an unimaginable tragedy and yet found happiness again, who’d become an experienced Western chef, and who’d moved countries no fewer than three times. He taught himself how to make the perfect bowl of ramen for his palate, starting from the basics, from broth to noodles, and developing an even greater appreciation for the seemingly simple comfort food he was aiming to reinvent.
“To me, noodle makers are the real artisans,” he says. “I mean, blending flour and water to make food? It’s the very point of being a chef and a craftsman.”
In 2007, he opened his first, ten-seat, noodle shop in Tokyo, and for the Japanese it was love at first sight, as the place proved an immediate hit. He followed with a second shop in 2010 and has done the impossible by conquering the Tokyo ramen world.
As the accolades poured in both in Japan and in the U.S., Gotham West approached him and asked if he’d open his first American noodle shop in the indoor market as its anchor property. He signed on, moved back to the U.S., and opened Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop in November 2013, meant to mimic his beloved noodle shops of Tokyo. (He opened his flagship restaurant, Ivan Ramen, on the Lower East Side, a few months later, but considers the 50-seat eatery an entirely different animal than the much more intimate, counter-based Slurp Shop.)
Orkin did, of course, have to account for the differences between running a restaurant in New York and Tokyo, like adding the vegetarian miso-butter mazemen for non-meat eaters, and making sure the spicy red chili ramen has the right level of heat for Americans who tend to have a less fiery palate.
“It’s red hot and flavorful but not to the point of being too much,” he says. “People who like spice will be satisfied.”
He even had to rejigger his noodle recipe.
“The flour is different here,” Orkin says “They grind the flour finer in Japan, so it doesn’t soak up as much of the soup. In Japan, you can let the noodle sit for four to five minutes and they’re fine. Here, people have to get their table, go to order a beer, and they come back and the noodles are soggy.”
Hector Gonzalez has no complaints. The Union City, N.J., entrepreneur and proud ramenhead is taking his college-junior daughter and her boyfriend to lunch at the far end of the counter. He takes his first bite of a shio ramen with the works (a minor mountain of egg, extra pork belly, roasted tomato on top) and nearly swoons.
“Oh my,” he says. “The broth is so, so … deep! And it’s definitely still al dente—it’s got that snap.”
Conversation among the trio dissolves into a slurp-punctuated litany of sensory descriptions (“I can taste the sea salt!” “The salmon eggs are popping in my mouth!”) as another wave of customers surges toward the counter. Ivan Orkin dedicated years to perfecting a bowl of ramen, and this is proof that it’s his patrons who are noisily sucking down the benefits.
“I’m a chef. I do my thing. I cook to my palate,” he says. “And I’ve got a really good palate.”