Ivan Orkin ’93, Chef/Restaurateur
Ivan has always been obsessed with the language and culture of Japan. At the University of Boulder he majored in it. But his passion for food brought him to the CIA and, for a time, Japan faded into the background. He worked at Lutèce, Mesa Grill, and for Restaurant Associates, but there was always something missing. After he married a Japanese woman, the choice became clear. Tokyo became home to Ivan’s family and creating a ramen noodle shop his culinary calling.
But Tokyo is not an easy place to be successful—especially as a foreigner. The Japanese take their food so seriously that they become cultish about it, according to Ivan. And if there are 15 mainstream food publications in the U.S., there are at least 50 in Japan—some of them exclusively devoted to the preparation of ramen noodles. “The ramen shop came about because I needed to marry my love for Japan with my love for food and people. I wanted a business where I would interact with Japanese people in Japanese,” says Ivan.
He was determined to open a premier ramen shop devoted to the concept of ‘slow food served fast.’ Having worked at some of the best restaurants in the States, Ivan knew that attention to detail would mean the difference between success and failure. Ivan believes that each of the ingredients in the bowl must be given the time to reach its full potential. Unlike many ramen restaurants chefs, Ivan makes noodles by hand every day, sources fresh local ingredients, and takes the time to create classic clear broth out of seafood and chicken.
Ivan went into his enterprise knowing that the Japanese would show no mercy when critiquing a foreigner’s attempt at making an iconic dish. Well, he’s passed the test and won over Tokyo’s ramen aficionados. Opened in 2007, the long lines outside his shop, Ivan Ramen, mean patrons wait up to two hours for a single bowl of freshly made noodles topped with juicy braised pork, an egg, and nori in a soy-seasoned broth. And the cacophony of his customers’ slurps and sighs has become familiar music to his ears.
Ivan opened a second shop called Ivan Ramen Plus in 2010. The new restaurant is larger than his first 10-seat restaurant; this new one has 16 seats! Deeply affected by the 2011 earthquake and subsequent nuclear accident in the Tohoku region, Ivan joined forces with 40 other chefs to raise funds for the people of the region. “I was going to open a third ramen spot but then the earthquake hit and the economy was affected, and everything felt extremely strange,” says Ivan. ” At the same time, the ramen scene in New York and the rest of the country was percolating a little bit. It was a good time for me to come home.”
In the spring of 2012, Ivan released his first cookbook, Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo’s Most Unlikely Noodle Joint, co-written by Chris Ying, editor-in-chief of Lucky Peach, with a forward by David Chang. The book received nominations in the international and single subject categories from 2014 The International Academy of Culinary Professionals.
In the fall of 2013, Ivan opened Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop in the Gotham West Market in Hell’s Kitchen, and gave New Yorkers a sample of his culinary creations. Lines formed quickly and accolades followed, including being recognized as New York magazine’s 2014 Best of New York and GQ magazine’s 2014 Best Restaurants in America.
On May 9, 2014, he opened Ivan Ramen on Clinton Street in New York City. “I redid all of my recipes for the new shop. I checked out what ingredients were available, worked on all-new noodles, since they wouldn’t have translated well from Japan. The flour and water are different. I wanted to come up with a fresh product,” Ivan says. “I like sending people home with their whole mood uplifted because they had some great food.”
Ivan will be featured in season four of the Netflix program, Chef’s Table, created by filmmaker David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi.) The show reveals the chef’s motivations, challenges, success stories, and failures in what Gelb calls an entirely new kind of food television: “It’s really a show about people. We don’t give explanations on how to cook things. It’s psychological, character-driven film-making.”