If you’re an expat living in Tokyo like me, one of the first things you will probably fall in love with is ramen. It’s the fast-food of Japan. There are over 5000 ramen shops to choose from in Tokyo alone. But Ivan Ramen has something that no other ramen shop has in Tokyo, or perhaps even in Japan. Ivan Ramen is the only ramen shop in Tokyo that’s own and run by an American – Ivan Orkin. What makes this story so amazing is that Ivan did not even know how to make ramen before he started his restaurant.
This is his story of how he followed his dream. Ivan takes us back to his roots in New York City where he was born in a small Jewish neighborhood. His father was a lawyer, while his mother enjoyed hobbies such as painting and photography. They had a house-maid who did all the domestic chores and left his mother with free time to pursue her favorite activities. As the family was pretty well off, one of Ivan’s earliest memories was of his parents taking him to different restaurants. Even at a young age, it was these trips to various restaurants that would mold Ivan into what he is today.
Ivan’s first introduction to Japanese cuisine is at 15 when he works part-time as a dishwasher at a Japanese restaurant called “Tsubo”. It’s here where he gets his first taste of Japanese cuisine starting with tamagokake gohan. This is plain white rice that’s topped with a raw egg and perhaps a dash of soy sauce, and is not on a regular menu. Ivan has such fond memories of working here and with the Japanese staff that he decides to study Japanese in college.
In college, he becomes fascinated with ramen after going to the movies and watching Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo”, and if you get a chance to watch the movie, you may become a ramen convert yourself. After graduating, Ivan makes his first trip to Japan as a teacher of English, a job where he found no satisfaction. Realizing that he enjoys cooking, he returns to the States and enrolls in the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. Back in the States, Ivan longs to eat the ramen he tasted while in Japan but the only place to get good noodles in New York at this time is in Chinatown. Eating the noodles there, he has an epiphany--to move back to Japan and start his own ramen shop.
With the help and support of his Japanese wife, he heads back with her to the Land of the Rising Sun. But Ivan as yet does not know the first thing about making ramen. Fortune shineds upon him as he finds someone to teach him the skill he needs. Soon, Ivan decides to open his own ramen shop. This is much easier said than done. First off, a lot of people say he is crazy to even attempt such an adventure. Others say there was no way that an American could run a successful ramen shop. Even with all the pressure and negative responses, Ivan follows his dream with determination. With his wife and two friends, Ivan finally opens his shop in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward near Rokka Koen Station. News of an American owning and running his own ramen shop in Tokyo brings in curious customers. His shop gains popularity from word of mouth and becomes a big hit in the ramen community.
Being a ramen fan myself, I most definitely had to go to Ivan Ramen. I can assure you that the pictures in the book are as eye-pleasing and appetizing as the real thing. This is probably the only ramen shop in Tokyo where you can also order hand-made ice cream from their menu. Ivan’s concept is to have a family-friendly atmosphere where you can dine on delicious ramen, using only uses fresh ingredients which he buys locally. He also makes his own noodles at the shop. In fact, his kitchen space is twice as large as the dining space where he continues to experiment with new menu ideas. If you get a chance to visit Tokyo and crave ramen for lunch, Ivan Ramen is a must-stop on your itinerary.