Welcome back to my guide to Chef’s Table. You can find all installments in this guide on my Netflix series page. This episode features American chef — but lover of Japan — Ivan Orkin. Yesterday’s episode featured another American chef and restauranteur Nancy Silverton, founder of La Brea Bakery and current proprietor of Osteria Mozza in LA.
When I saw the name “Ivan Orkin” at the bottom of my screen when booting up the episode for today, I figured we were in for some more American food. But, lo and behold, Ivan’s restaurant, Ivan Ramen, appeared on the screen. Then I was kind of skeptical. Here was a white guy making ramen.
Born on Long Island, Ivan Orkin had a troublesome childhood. He had difficulty in school and difficulty making friends. His mother remembers him as a difficult person to live with. But he did have a single passion — cooking. In high school, he got his first restaurant job, at a new Japanese restaurant. That job sparked his passion for Japanese food. After college, when he didn’t know what he wanted to do, he decided to move to Japan.
During this period, his first stint in Japan, Ivan fell in love with a Japanese woman, Tamie, and followed her home when she got a job in the United States. They married shortly after and had a child, Isaac. But during her second pregnancy, tragedy struck and Tamie died.
Her death left Ivan with a great emptiness. He kept on for his child’s sake, but felt that he had lost both the love of his life and his connection to Japan. Wanting to maintain a relationship with Tamie’s family, he traveled to Japan with Isaac at least once a year. On one of these trips, four years after Tamie’s death, he met Mari, another Japanese woman. Mari already had one child. With her and her son, Ivan felt that he had a family again. He convinced her to come with him to the United States, and they married.
Back to Japan
Mari had a lucrative career in Japan, so the family returned to Tokyo. Ivan settled down as a “house husband.” But he still felt aimless, without a sense of what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Mari noticed the passion he had for food and especially for ramen and urged him to perfect recipes and open a ramen shop. Eventually, Ivan took her advice and opened a small shop in Tokyo. With a year of its opening, he received reviews from well-known critics, and people were sold on his concept — traditional ramen, but his own.
I learned something new about ramen in this episode, and that is that ramen as we know it was only invented about a hundred years ago. It was a transplant from China, using Chinese lo mein noodles — the words “ramen” and “lo mein” are directly related. In comparison to other traditional Japanese foods, then, ramen is very new. It’s also unique in that there’s a greater degree of freedom on the part of the chef. This was what attracted Ivan to cooking ramen.
Back to the States
When Ivan’s son Isaac decided to attend college in America, Ivan returned to New York and opened two Ivan Ramen locations there. With the clout he had picked up in Tokyo, he was able to achieve rapid success — and, with the greater culinary freedom afforded to him by the New York cooking scene, he began to innovate. Despite all his success in the culinary world, he sees living and surviving in Japan as his greatest accomplishment.
And now I’m craving a bowl of ramen! Perhaps I’ll make one in the coming week… and share it with you on Good Eats. In other news, I’ve decided that the next Netflix series on my list is The Staircase, which I’ve watched twice already. So you can start forward to enjoying some true crime with me!