Tokyo Ramen Shop Owner-Chef, Ivan: an American in the World of Japanese Ramen

Posted on Sep 23, 2009 in Hiroko's Blog

Ivan Orkin, a New Yorker and graduate of CIA, once worked at the legendary Quilted Giraffe and other popular New York restaurants such as Mesa Grill.  But he was never happy in those positions.  Shortly after his college graduation he went to Japan and fell in love with Japanese ramen and later a Japanese woman, Mariko, now his wife., and he did something no foreigner has ever done.

  Soon after marring Mariko, Ivan moved to Japan and opened his own unique ramen resturant in Tokyo.  Is he crazy?  This was the first reaction of the Japanese audience, including me, because there are already more than 8,000 ramen restaurants competing with each other across Japan with probably 1,000 of them in the Tokyo metropolitan area, and ramen is one of the most seriously, almost sacred topics debated by food obsessed Japanese.  You can recall how seriousness this concern is if you have seen the delightful serio-comedy shown movie, Tampopo, a funny movie;l but ramen is serious business for Japanese.  In a bar you could get into fight over the merits of one shop versus nother. 

Ivan’s ramen restaurant is located in Minami-Karasumaya, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo.  You take a Keio-Line suburban train from one of the busiest stations in the world, Shinjukiu Terminal.  It is about a 30 minutes ride – a bit out from the very center, far from the foreigners’ community that might have been a significant market for the restaurant.  The reason for this remote location is that real estate companies in the center of the city had no interest in selling or leasing a property to “gaijin” (outsider, means foreigner) for establishment and operation of a ramen restaurant.  Anyway, happily he could find a property – a former ramen restaurant whose owner retired – in a quiet, tiny shoppinhg street where traditional small businesses like a butcher, vegetable monger, tofu maker and tobacco shop are still surviving.  So, Ivan began purchasing necessary ingredients such as pork and vegetables for his ramen preparation from his neighbor’s shops.  He told me that he can support the dying shopping community, or maybe even can revive it in the long run.  Ivan’s kitchen is impressive.  He built a Western-style restaurant kitchen in a tiny Japanese structure.  On my visit he was roasting sliced tomato in the oven (a delicious non-traditional side dish that he serves).  The distinctive, delicious sweet and acid smell permeated the entire small community. 

Iwent to Ivan ramen restaurant to meet with Ivan (he has my books) and to taste his ramen.  Yes, I was very cusious to see what this Yankee can offer to “my people”.  I will continue this blog on my next post.l