American Noodleman Big in Japan

Ramen is considered by many Japanese to be the country's national dish. Japan has about one noodle shop for every 600 people. So, when an American chef from New York decided to open his own ramen shop in a Tokyo suburb, it attracted a lot of attention.

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Americans have embraced big-time sushi, one of Japan's flashiest dishes. But the humble ramen could be called Japan's national dish. Ramen are noodles, of course, served in a soup. It's available on virtually every Japanese street corner.

Despite the ordinary demeanor, the noodle has an elevated status in the country's culinary landscape. Japanese are in love with the noodle. They are picky, fussy and demanding. And one American had the nerve to move to Tokyo and set up his own ramen shop.

Lucy Craft has the story.

LUCY CRAFT: The sleepy streets of this Tokyo suburb haven't been the same since Ivan Orkin hung out a shingle. It's a few hours before the dinner rush and Orkin is checking his vats of soup and supervising his two assistants. The aromas of garlic and chicken suffuse the tiny kitchen.

Mr. IVAN ORKIN (Restaurant Owner): I use whole chickens. It's really just mom's Jewish penicillin, although I don't put any vegetables in it.

CRAFT: It's been a dramatic odyssey for a trained chef who used to spend his days preparing haute cuisine at the famed Lutece restaurant in New York City.

He's traded in his starched uniform for a T-shirt and apron. And instead of white linen and sumptuous banquettes, he now serves up $10 bowls of noodles at a narrow 10-seat counter.

Orkin set up shop last June, and he chose this ordinary suburb so he could cater to ordinary Japanese.

Mr. ORKIN: You can have a woman come in a beautiful Channel outfit and she will just take off her glasses and slurp like you've never seen anything before. And she's covered in fat, her dress is stained, and she doesn't think a thing of it. She daintily wipes her mouth and she thanks me and she walks out the door.

CRAFT: It would seem the odds are against him succeeding. Orkin is an irreverent, fast-talking New Yorker in a country where people are known for their reserve and for keeping foreigners at arm's length.

Japanese diners are also as discriminating as they come and there's no end to the competition. Japan has about 200,000 noodle shops, or one for every 600 people. There are ramen critics, TV shows dedicated to the noodle, and even a ramen museum.

But Orkin is on a mission, to make the perfect bowl of ramen. His hunger for all things Japanese started when he was a 16-year-old dishwasher at a sushi restaurant. He moved to Japan to teach English, and that's when he discovered ramen. His love for the noodle evokes soliloquies others might reserve for foie gras.

Mr. ORKIN: You need the right flavor of egg or pork topping to match with the soup and the noodle. And you need all those things to sort of marry together. And when they marry together, it's a very magical experience. And the noodle is just supposed to be quite al dente. And you make a terrible amount of noise eating it because you have to eat the noodles while the soup is still hot; otherwise the noodles get soft, and that's a fate worse than death.

CRAFT: To Orkin's astonishment, the reception from locals has been as warm as the pork slices he lovingly places on his mounds of noodles.

Mr. ORKIN: I had one guy come in with his girlfriend. And they walked in and they reluctantly sat because they were already sort of in the restaurant. But the funny part of the story is they ate the ramen and they both apologized, and then said how wonderful it was. And I haven't seen them recently, but they came in like every week for a month or two. And they just said, oh, you're the best and we love your food, and they just raved about it. And you know, they said we came here, we were shocked, but this is wonderful.

CRAFT: The shop's been so popular people now wait up to two hours for a five-minute meal of Orkin's ramen. This senior citizen traveled from across town to taste the American's Japanese noodles.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking Japanese)

CRAFT: He compliments the texture of the noodles, saying they're nice and firm. Orkin schmoozes with his customers, and he's learned to wisecrack in Japanese as well as he does in English. He's even become the subject of online conspiracy theories. Some Japanese bloggers rant that Orkin's shop is really a front for a Japanese cook. Others suspect Ivan is not really from Syosset, Long Island, but is actually a Japanese in disguise. To Orkin, this is the highest honor anyone can give him.

Mr. ORKIN: I have managed to live a dream. I never thought I would come this far.

CRAFT: For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.

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