Location: Anime NYC 2017
Interview Date: 11/19/2017
Before I begin this piece, let me recommend that you watch the Chef’s Table episode on Netflix featuring Ivan Orkin (S3E4), because I’m going to skip to the middle of the story. Orkin attended the Culinary Institute of America. He worked for Bobby Flay at Mesa Grill NYC (since closed). He later worked at Lutèce under legendary chef André Soltner. (Editor’s note: It kills me that most of you reading this will know who Flay is, but likely have no idea about Soltner).
After having his first child, Orkin took at job with restaurant associates. After working there for close to seven years, he and his wife Mari moved back to Japan. Once there, she convinced him to open up a ramen restaurant.
On day one, Hiroshi Osaki showed up.
This is the man who founded the Supleks Database of ramen. If your wine vineyards just produced their first bottle of wine and Robert Parker showed up to review it, the situation would be less stressful, as the work would already have been done. As it turned out, though, Osaki was both surprised and pleased by Ivan’s use of roast tomatoes in ramen. A positive review followed, and our Long Island protagonist was a hit in Japan. He continued to impress customers and reviewers and rose to the top of the Japanese ramen world.
Easier typed than done, though.
After succeeding in Japan, he decided to return home. Orkin opened up his Slurp Shop in the Midtown West Market, and then he opened up his flagship NYC restaurant downtown. Being profiled on Chef’s Table certainly can’t hurt, but Ivan’s true star turn finally came when Anime NYC came calling.
The line for the event was long and the summit was packed. Afterwards, I was given the opportunity to sit down with Orkin and Chef Nakamura for fifteen minutes. Some notes:
- No ramen ex nihilo
Ivan ate at countless ramen shops and tested a plethora of recipes before settling on his initial menu. Additionally, he insisted on making his own noodles, which is quite unusual. In short, Ivan did not take the easy path, even when he was already undertaking a huge challenge.
- He loved good food, even as a kid (despite never appreciating Stouffer’s).
- “Being a chef wasn’t cool at the time.” -Ivan Orkin
- “I didn’t know what I wanted to do.” -Ivan Orkin
- After opening up his own ramen shop in Japan, friends would tell him “I’m so sorry to hear about your failure.” However, Orkin noted “I’ve been to bad French restaurants.”
Ivan is quite right that good food is good food, regardless of its place on the hierarchy. You know what kind of restaurant he just opened up in the Midtown West Market? Corner Slice: a pizza joint that specializes in Grandma Pies. It’s not about ego. It’s about serving good food.
“A really good hot dog is just as good as white truffles over pasta. I love both, but it depends on what I’m in the mood for.” -Ivan Orkin
When he made the switch from Japan to New York:
“I used Japanese ingredients in Japan. I needed to make some changes in New York. I want to use local ingredients when I can.” -Ivan Orkin
The change in scenery was also an opportunity to rework the menu a bit. Having said that, though, Orkin noted that “I wanted the opportunity to serve the same ramen and menu.”
You can try the same roast tomato umami bomb that impressed Hiroshi Osaki at the Slurp Shop.
“My favorite food? Sushi is number one. Italian food is up there, as well. I’m not seasonal. It just depends on my mood.” -Ivan Orkin
“I like properly thought out meals. It can be something simple, like good hummus on a nice piece of bread.” -Ivan Orkin
“I’ve learned to let bad meals go. They’re unfortunate, but I’m not going to dwell on them or let them ruin my day.” -Ivan Orkin
- I asked Orkin if he’s had any great meals in New York since coming back.
“The Grill at the Four Seasons. It’s Mad-Men 1950’s fine dining. A lot of it is cooked a la carte next to you. The food was delicious. There were eight different kinds of martinis. I loved the theater and how well it was all coordinated. It was expensive, but it was worth it. Great service and ambiance.” -Ivan Orkin
- He followed up:
“Focus on things working. That doesn’t mean fancy. It has to be on point. You don’t want to serve surfboard goulash. You need to understand what you’re in for. Most diners don’t know why they don’t like a restaurant.” -Ivan Orkin
He elaborated that diners can feel the dissonance, but don’t necessarily have the vocabulary to express it. They’ll just know they had a bad experience. Alternatively, you can have a restaurant that’s cohesive. The ambiance sets the theme, and it’s coordinated with the menu. It all works together. Or it doesn’t. (Imagine Ivan shrugging).
“If you have surfboards, you want to go for the complete beach feeling, food and drinks included.” -Ivan Orkin
If you want to learn more about Chef Ivan Orkin, I highly recommend the Chef’s Table Episode. If you prefer good old fashioned print media, he has his book, Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo’s Most Unlikely Noodle Joint. Alternatively, perhaps you just want some background into how he prepares his ramen.
I was also able to ask chef Shigetoshi Nakamura a few questions. I learned that he got into the ramen business for love. Seriously. Check out these marching orders:
“I had to get serious and open a ramen shop to marry [my father-in-law’s] daughter.”
How romantic! If you’re in southern Manhattan, you can check out his eponymous restaurant Nakamura. You can also find Sun Noodle’s Ramen Lab downtown. Both come highly recommended. If you want a few more options, The Culture Trip has a very good list:
Thanks to chefs Ivan Orkin and Shigetoshi Nakamura for their time. Anime NYC was a blast, and I look forward to seeing who they bring in next year.