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Who is Ivan Ramen, the (American) Magician of Noodles

Who is Ivan Ramen, the (American) Magician of Noodles 01

Ivan’s surname is Orkin, but everyone knows him as Ivan Ramen. 
It’s a sign of the respect the American has earned since he dared to open a ramen shop in the centre of Tokyo in 2006 – ramen being one of the most popular fast foods in Japan, served up from myriad small shops on almost every street.
Orkin took on the challenge of Japanese traditions and taste, gambled all he had on the flavour of his noodle soup and his unusual combination of ingredients, and has emerged a winner. Having moved on from his first 10-seat restaurant in Setagaya, a mainly residential district of western Tokyo, he now manages a small empire of ramen shops split between Japan and the United States. 
Orkin fell in love with Japanese culture and cuisine as a teenager in New York City and eventually moved to Japan in 1987, when it was still a relatively inhospitable place for outsiders. After the death of his first wife he married again to Mari and says it is her belief in him that has led him to be successful beyond all his expectations. 
If anybody asks him if he is a ramen chef, he answers, “I’m not a ramen chef, whatever that is. I’m a cook.”

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I asked Orkin to tell us a bit more about his story:

You’ve been through some hard times – in particular the death of your first wife. What kept you going?
I think everything changed when I decided to open my first ramen shop. The idea seemed incredibly foolish, but that was the very reason I found it so appealing. My expectations were not high – and neither were anyone else’s. If I failed, I could just shrug my shoulders and say, “I knew it might happen”. But the idea really appealed to me because I loved ramen, I ate it every day, and I thought it would be great to learn its secrets. 

You were featured in an episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table. Watching that it was clear how important you found it to have someone who believed in you…
The people who knew me before I met my second wife never saw me as a leader, as someone capable of completing what I had started and achieving my objectives. 
I grew up in a family where everyone was a winner, with brilliant results at school – people who were successful in a “conventional” way. They, too, struggled to see me as a winner. 
But after I met Mari, I realised that having someone at my side who supported me changed everything. I started believing in myself and that was the real change.

When did you realise you had fallen in love with Japan?
I realised very early on, when I was still in high school and worked in a sushi bar in New York. There I met lovely people, the food was great and this combination won me over immediately. So, when I had to decide what to do at college, I chose to study Japanese and learn as much as possible about this country and its traditions and habits. I moved to Japan almost at once, to fulfil what had become a real passion.

In Japan, the connection between spirituality and daily life is very strong. Do you feel part of something greater?
My wife is Japanese, and at home we speak two languages; we eat and dress, mixing two cultures. When I am in America I feel at home, but I have now lived almost a third of my life here in Japan, so I feel a part of this culture in every way. Now I’m a “Tokyo guy”, and as soon as I land in Japan, I feel I am a part of that typically Japanese “something greater”.

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How has it felt being an American in Tokyo? 
It is a process that has been taking place over 30 years. Present-day Japan is a very different country from when I arrived; it is very rapidly becoming an international country. I think that in 1987, the year I visited for the first time, there were many people who had never met someone who was not Japanese. There still are many people like that, but in some parts of the US there are Americans who have never met a Chinese or a Japanese person. At that time, it was difficult to relate to people, nobody spoke English; but it was also exciting, because people were interested in my story.

You speak of ramen as a dish with no rules, which is curious, because Japan is known to be full of rules. How do you see this contrast?
I am not necessarily attracted to something without rules. I am now a true Japanese citizen and Japan is a horrible country if you don’t like rules. I knew that, as a foreigner, ramen would be an ideal option because, until not so very long ago, it was not respected the way it is now. Until not so very long ago, if you spoke of ramen as a true cuisine, the Japanese would laugh – just as people in America laugh about hamburgers or street food. Ramen lovers paid far more attention to flavour than to its style or the rules to prepare it. There is no flexibility in a sushi bar, and that I fully agree with. In the case of ramen, difference is an added value.

You have taken on one of the world’s most iconic foods. What do you think of the term “cultural appropriation”?
Japan is the country of appropriation. Over the centuries, the Japanese have been inspired by hundreds of different cultures. What people love most about Japan is its ability to take something from elsewhere and garnish it with a style of its own, transforming it into something that seems to have oriental origins. Take tonkatsu; this dish that everybody believes to be Japanese is actually Portuguese in origin. I don’t think cultural appropriation is a problem. I think that creation is the consequence of life’s many experiences and teachings, which everyone then processes to the best of their abilities.

Your Instagram account has lots of pictures of Italian food and you are a partner in a pizzeria in New York called Corner Slice. Is Italy your next challenge?
[Laughs] No! But I was born and raised in New York and I believe we New Yorkers have a special bond with Italy. The numerous Italians who came to New York made the city great. I grew up eating pizza and Italian food. I decided to open a pizzeria there because I believe that in recent years the concept of pizza has radically changed. I wanted to offer something good made with excellent products. 

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