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.”
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”.