The Jew And The Carrot

Ivan Orkin: How a Nice Jewish Guy Became a Ramen Master

By Molly Yeh

  • Print
  • Share Share

Long Island-native Ivan Orkin doesn’t see himself as an American — though he speaks with a New York accent and went to culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America. His life-long love affair with Japan helped him become a ramen star in Tokyo. He’s fluent in Japanese, and since college, he has lived mainly in Japan, with the exception of his years at the CIA and for a few kitchen stints around New York.

In 2007, he channeled his love of ramen into his first restaurant, Ivan Ramen, in Tokyo. Faced with the challenge of being a foreigner opening up a ramen shop in Japan, but armed with a true passion for Japanese culture, his comfort ingredients like rye flour and schmaltz, and years of hard work on his recipes, his shop was an instant success that led to a second Tokyo shop, in 2010.

In 2012, he moved his home base back to New York with the dream of opening up a business back home, while continuing on with his Japan shops. Last year, he opened the Slurp Shop in New York’s Gotham West Market, which features five types of ramen, including a classic shio ramen and a roasted garlic mazemen (a style with less broth), as well as a smoked whitefish rice bowl on the menu. This weekend, his 50-seat flagship shop opens on the Lower East Side with a different menu from his other shops. The space is decked out with a beautiful mosaic mural and it will be serving five types of ramen, including a four-cheese variety and a pork-free variety with his schmaltzy chicken broth base. Small plates and appetizers, such as fried chicken livers and preserved hen and duck eggs will also be available.

We chatted with the ramen master to see what it’s like to return to New York so many years later and why sushi seems to show up at every fancy Jewish function.

How did a foreigner become so successful at owning a ramen restaurant in Japan?

First of all, ramen is very much a maverick cuisine. It doesn’t have any rules and everybody does it differently, so I think that gave me some latitude in having a shop without people judging me too strongly. A lot of times [with ramen] you’re judged on flavor whereas at a sushi bar you watch the guy slice the fish and there are only a few ways to do it, so if you don’t do it that way you’re not taken seriously.

I really love Japan and I don’t really see myself as an American. I speak the language I’ve lived there for a long time, I follow their customs and understand them well. I really love it there and I get a lot of credit for the fact that it’s clear that I love Japan.

Why Japanese food?

I worked in a sushi bar in high school and so when I went to college I majored in Japanese and moved to Japan after graduation. It’s been a life long love affair really.

What’s it been like to open up shop in New York?

New York is a very complex place to open a small business. There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of regulations, and the buildings are really old and with lots of surprises. On the flip side, there are a lot of smart and exciting people that are here and I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of them. I’m working with a lot of really cool artists [for the shop’s interior] and most of the process has been quite rewarding.

It seems like whenever I go to a fancy kosher event, there’s sushi. Why do you think sushi has become so popular in Jewish American culture, but not ramen or other Japanese foods?

In some ways sushi is the only thing from Japan that’s truly made its way into our culinary culture, and it took 45 years. I think ramen might be the next Japanese thing that truly makes its way deep into the heart of our culture, and Jewish people might really eat it, but right now also the majority of ramen in America is pork based. My ramen shop is not pork based. We do use some pork fat and we serve it with pork but as of next week we’ll be offering a 100% pork-free ramen.

How do your Jewish roots show through in your cooking now?

I use rye flour and schmaltz…these are flavors and things I know and like and that I’m very comfortable with. But people ask, “How does Jewish food come through in your cooking?” and I don’t see cooking that way. I think good chefs tend to have food experiences and every time they eat something or see a new technique, it goes into their experience the same way a painter or carpenter might learn a new technique for building something or painting something in a certain way. Cooking is all about a combination of technique and understanding ingredients and how to use them so that they work well. There’s lots of things about my Jewishness that are in my food but it’s more just the fact that it is who I am. When you’re Jewish it’s part of who you are, and it’s impossible to take it out of yourself.

Photos courtesy of Ivan Ramen.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: jewish ramen, jewish japanese, ivan ramen, ramen

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.