Chef Ivan Orkin was the underdog of the ramen scene.
A self-described “Jewish guy from Long Island,” he set out to open a ramen restaurant in Japan, where the dish has a cult following. He soon earned the distinction of being the only American to run a noodle joint in Tokyo, and a hugely successful one at that.
In 2012, he left his two Ivan Ramen locations in Tokyo for the U.S., with a dream of exposing New Yorkers to a ramen unlike any Cup Noodles they’d ever had. Earlier this year, we toured the pop-up location, Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop in Gotham West Market, and were blown away. (And grateful to his team for teaching us the right way to eat ramen.)
We recently got to spend several hours in the kitchens, offices, and dining rooms of Chef Ivan’s brand new, flagship U.S. location on the Lower East Side, speaking with everyone from the waitstaff to the line cooks about their roles in the restaurant. It takes a lot to run the little-ramen-shop-that-could.
This is the entrance to Ivan Ramen, at 25 Clinton St. on the Lower East Side. It's Chef Ivan Orkin's flagship noodle joint in the U.S.
The restaurant is laid out railroad-style, with a long row of tables for two and larger tables toward the kitchen.
A couple diners nosh on ramen bowls at the counter. It's near the end of lunch hour, so theirs is the last table to clear out.
The restaurant closes between 3:30 and 5:30 to prep for dinner. I get a chance to meander around and check out the art, like this commissioned comic book cover that shows Batman with a bowl of ramen emblazoned on his suit.
Chef Ivan's 'inspiration wall' is made from thousands of images that, together, illustrate the American-Japanese cultural fusion happening here. Ivan worked closely with New York designer Claude Carril to curate images for the collage.
The outdoor patio space is enveloped in a mural by Philadelphia-based artist Bailey Cypress. The tiles illustrate all the animals listed on the menu -- pig, octopus, chicken, and fish -- spilling out of a bowl of ramen.
Around 4 o'clock, line cook James Neale prepares a family-style dish of pasta with eggplant and Parmesan cheese to feed the crew. It fills the entire restaurant with a mouthwatering Italian aroma.
After lunch, the manager wrangles the staff at the front of the restaurant to discuss things like vacation time. But something over by the bar captures their attention ...
The New York Times photographer has arrived. While the bar area is vacated, Chef Ivan poses for a portrait as the staff watches on, smiling.
Chef Ivan is a rock star in Japan, where he operates two very successful Ivan Ramen locations. He returned to his home state in 2012 to show New Yorkers how real ramen tastes.
Dinner hour quickly approaches and the staff resumes prep. Waiters fold napkins into little squares, which will be used to wipe down the rims of ramen bowls before they exit the kitchen.
Back in the kitchen, the line cooks are busy dicing scallions, slicing hard-boiled eggs, and readying their work stations.
The noodles -- in both rye and whole wheat varieties -- are stored in plastic sleeves in a drawer. They're pre-portioned into into tightly packed mounds and laid on a tray for easy access.
Noodles made with rye flour are a pretty uncommon sight in traditional ramen shops, but the result is a tastier and more aromatic bowl. The restaurant goes through 75 pounds of noodles a day.
Each order of ramen cooks in a little net, seated in 210-degree water. Two faucets at the back pour a steady stream of cold water in, to keep the water from evaporating.
A ginormous vat cooks up Chef Ivan's special broth, which is lighter than what American diners might be used to. The recipe calls for part-chicken broth and part-dashi, a Japanese fish stock.
Next to the vat, a combination steam convection oven slow-roasts halved tomatoes. Tomatoes are one of Chef Ivan's many twists on traditional ramen, and it's a very popular though unusual add-on.
The pork bellies are queued to cook in the oven next. They have been cured for 16 hours, will be slow-roasted today, and portioned into slabs for the ramen bowls tomorrow -- a three-day process.
On the opposite side of the kitchen, a line cook halves hard-boiled eggs -- another popular ramen topping -- with a piece of fishing line attached to the counter.
At 5:30, the manager instructs the hostess to 'open the floodgates.' There is already a line three-tables deep out the door.
Don't let the name fool you; Ivan Ramen serves more than just ramen. The 1000 Year Old Deviled Egg ($3.50) includes hen egg and preserved duck egg sprinkled with tomato and bonito powder.
The kewpie ebi ($14) consists of lightly battered prawns smothered in smoked chilli and served on a bed of watercress.
But of course, leave room for ramen. Tokyo Shio Ramen ($13) is one of the traditional dishes, and the dashi and chicken stock broth is lighter than most American ramen fare. It's made with rye noodles, pork chashu, and sea salts.
I ordered the Triple Pork, Triple Garlic Mazemen ($15) at the suggestion of the bartender. Whole wheat noodles draped in thick tonkotsu broth were served with slow-roasted pork chashu, bacon, and lots and lots of garlic. Nom.
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