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Ivan Orkin: Reinventing ramen

The counter at Ivan Ramen
The counter at Ivan Ramen

TOKYO (TR) – Before opening his noodle shop in Minami Karasuyama in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, Ivan Orkin’s goal was simple: to create an eatery that anybody would feel comfortable entering. “There are so many smoky, dirty, musty places serving ramen,” says the 45-year-old American chef, sitting in his 10-seater restaurant.

Everything, from the dishware to the aluminum edging on the counter to the pumping background music (“Torture” by The Jackson’s is playing) to the yellow paint on the walls, is Orkin’s doing. “I wanted people to walk away saying, ‘That was a great ramen shop,’” he says.

Bespectacled and stocky, the animated Orkin opened Ivan Ramen in 2007 and has subsequently combined handcrafted dishes with a pleasing environment to garner popularity that exceeds his wildest dreams.

“I have had nights where I might have two 12-year-olds next to an 80-year-old couple,” says the native of Syosset, New York, of the broad clientele the place attracts. “Then next to them is another young couple in very expensive clothes. Then there are guys covered in paint from the nearby construction site.”

The restaurant’s popularity, the father of three believes, can be found in its fresh ingredients. Orkin knew that if he opened a run-of-the-mill ramen shop, he would be busy for the first month or two simply because the Japanese love a gaijin-does-Japanese-culture story. To succeed long-term, however, would require a quality product, and one that remained in the generally acceptable 1,000-yen price range.

Ivan Orkin
Ivan Orkin

With this in mind, he simmers his chickens (Orkin avoids the standard pork broth, opting instead for his own blend of chicken and seafood), sources his garlic and meat from nearby shops and his flour from Hokkaido and Australia, and makes his own noodles on the premises. All of the ingredients are natural and unprocessed. Customer favorites are the handmade shoyu (soy) and shio (salt) dishes, both of which are lighter than regular ramen.

A bit different, too, is the vibe. The restaurant’s interior is brightly lit and free of clutter, with music selections playing slightly louder than normal. “It gives the I-am-not-at-home feeling,” he says of the tunes. “I think it sets a nice pace.”

Orkin’s artisanal-like devotion to cooking is embodied in the first part of his motto, featured on his menu, which reads, “slow food…fast.” The latter is made possible partly through his use of noodles that aren’t too fat. “Thin noodles cook fast,” he says, adding that his average serving time is five minutes. “If you come in without anyone behind you or in front of you, I can feed you in two minutes.”

As a result, his four employees serve between 100 and 160 people on weekdays. That number jumps to about 200 on weekends. Two-hour waits, with lines extending 60 people deep, are not unusual.

While Orkin’s interest in Japanese culture was nurtured during his time teaching English in Japan in the late 1980s, his cooking pedigree is founded in his training at the Culinary Institute of America, New York. After graduating in 1993, he worked at the famed French restaurant Lutèce in Manhattan and then Mesa Grill, operated by celebrity chef Bobby Flay.

At the age of 40, Orkin returned to Tokyo with the idea that he wanted to do something different. “Ramen is people’s food,” he says. “Open a burger joint, open a taco stand, whatever, you have regular people with regular money. But if you eat French food, you have to have the cash; you have the clothes on, the whole thing. For ramen, tacos and burgers, you just go. That is what led me into ramen.”

Despite Orkin’s commitment to fresh ingredients, he has recently branched out into the instant ramen market. In January, the Circle K Sunkus convenience store chain began selling a 250-yen version of his shop’s shio bowl.

Ivan Ramen

Orkin, who had a Japanese-language book published about him last year, sees no contradiction. “The Ivan Ramen brand is important to me,” he says. “I have no aspirations of being a movie star and I don’t want to be on a variety show, but I do want people to enjoy my food. For any creative person with a product, you need people to use it or taste it in order to have a chance to have a repeat customer. You have to get them in the door.”

With one Japanese magazine placing Ivan Ramen in the top 10 best ramen joints in Tokyo, Orkin is satisfied with his success. “I think when you open a restaurant, you are making food that you think is great,” he says. “It is something you would like to offer people because you think it is so wonderful.”

Plenty of the city’s ramen lovers would likely agree with him.

Note: This article originally appeared in the May issue of iNTOUCH, the magazine of the Tokyo American Club.