Ivan Orkin knows ramen — so well, in fact, that his fan base is in New York and Tokyo. The American chef meshed seamlessly into the Japanese dining scene when he became the first American to open a ramen shop in Tokyo (and to wide acclaim, we might add). When he returned to the States, he opened Slurp Shop at Gotham West Market and now, his eponymous Ivan Ramen, on the Lower East Side. We spoke to Orkin a couple of days before his brick-and-mortar Stateside debut.
Why did you want to open up downtown?
Quite honestly, I like the neighborhood. … If you insist on being in a specific neighborhood, you can sometimes wait a couple of years. I heard about the space on Clinton Street and I really liked it. It had a great backyard, and I thought I could do a cool thing with a counter for people to sit at and that’s what started it all. Danny from Mission Chinese [has] a spot down there, and I was friendly with him. … I sort of treated myself like an outsider a little bit so that I would force myself to work harder and not just say to everybody ‘hey I’m coming from Japan with this great concept, you’re going to like it.’ [It was] more like, I was going to create a new concept for New York and work really hard to make people really happy.
What businesses do you like in the area?
I got to Mission Cantina. All the folks on my block I really like: the new Thelma next door, Pig & Khao, wd~50, Clinton Street Baking Co. Yesterday I went to Taqueria Diana — it’s great. They do an outstanding job and it’s really reasonable. A lot of times I walk over to Abutzo for a cortado, I still think theirs is the best in town. It’s funny, once you’re downtown, everything’s really close. You can easily walk into SoHo, you can easily walk into Nolita, you can totally walk all through the East Village, and there’s so much to do.
Ramen is so trendy right now. Do you worry about competition?
You can’t have competition. There’s just not that many [ramen shops]. You wanna see competition? Go to Tokyo — I’m one of 8,000 there. They’re everywhere, 8 or 10 on one block, so here in New York we’re more sort of part of a guild. There’s also styles of ramen: Just because you eat at Ivan doesn’t mean you cant eat at Ippudo. Everybody’s sort of doing their thing. A lot of ramen shops have really great personalities, and that’s true of restaurants — you might have five places you like to get a hamburger.
I don’t believe in competition as a bad thing; it makes you better, it makes you work harder. If competition is what knocks you out, a lot of times it means you didn’t stay relevant. You gotta work.
What’s different about your new outpost?
Downtown is a whole new ballgame. We’ll share some of the dishes but other than it it’s a totally different restaurant. We’ve added a spicy ramen at Slurp Shop and people seem to like it. I only took one dish off the menu that I sell in Japan.
What’s the secret to eating ramen?
It’s hard, it’s a very hot bowl of soup and you want to eat [the noodles] as quickly as you can. If you chew on them it’s harder to eat them efficiently. The longer you take, the soup gets a little mushy. They’re kind of overcooking in that soup. Eating at its peak of freshness is really the way ramen tastes best. I just think it’s more fun to eat it that way.
Who’s the tougher audience: Tokyo or New York?
I think sophisticated diners are always challenging. New Yorkers are great because I think they’re very demanding, but if you do a good job they’re very loyal. I take my customers super seriously — they go out of their way to come to your restaurant and I try really hard. I want to make people happy. I’ve been lucky, people have been very nice to me. New Yorkers and Tokyo people, they’re big-city folks who are used to having good stuff, and high expectations.