Ramen wasn’t Ivan Orkin’s calling. At first.
In 2006, Orkin (Jpn'87) was living in Tokyo with his family, jobless and restless. The U.S.-trained chef tried for three years to fit in with the Japanese culture he adored, but struggled to find his place in Japan as a Jewish Long Islander.
“I felt quite hopeless,” said Orkin, who had worked at top New York restaurants, including Lutèce. “I felt like I was never going to find my way.”
His wife, Mari, a native Japanese, suggested he open a ramen shop.
“I didn’t have a clue how ramen was made,” said Orkin.
But ignorance was no obstacle.
Orkin developed a unique twist on traditional ramen — thin noodles served in a piping-hot meat or seafood broth, sometimes with other toppings — a hugely popular dish in Japanese cuisine. Tokyo alone has thousands of ramen shops.
Located in Tokyo’s western suburbs, Orkin’s 10-seat restaurant, Ivan Ramen, drew media and locals who were curious to sample an American chef’s take on ramen. Orkin offered homemade noodles (rare in Japanese ramen), aromatic flavors, few (but choice) toppings and light double-broth bases made with chicken and pork. Obscure-to-Japan ingredients like roasted tomatoes and rye flour added to the soup’s appeal.
In a glowing 2009 review titled “Ivan Ramen: Artisan ramen with NY accent,” The Japan Times wrote: “You will not taste anything like this anywhere else in Japan.”
Acclaimed Japanese ramen critic Hiroshi Osaki — who claims to have eaten more than 23,000 bowls of ramen — called Orkin’s ramen “amazing” and “delicious.”
Success in Japan has since led to two other ramen restaurants and a pizza restaurant in New York, a Netflix documentary and a new life back in the United States.
As The New York Times put it in 2013, “Ivan Orkin appears to have pulled off a chain of unprecedented feats.”
Orkin’s infatuation with Japan began when he was 15 years old and worked as a dishwasher in a sushi bar in Syosset, New York. He reveled in trying new dishes, which were radically different from the frozen meals he ate, and hated, at home.
When it came time for college, he chose CU Boulder, which offered both a dramatic mountain escape from New York and a Japanese studies program.
At CU, academics weren’t really Orkin’s thing — “I would make breakfast for my friends and they would do my homework,” he said — but he enjoyed the Japanese program.
“It’s one of my great memories of college,” said Orkin. “I learned just enough about Japanese grammar.”
After graduating, he moved to Japan and taught English for three years, a job he found unoriginal and uninspiring. He met his soon-to-be first wife, Tamie, and the couple moved back to the U.S., where Orkin studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. There he met his eventual business partner, David Poran.
“He was like Woody Allen on 12 cups of coffee,” Poran said of the young Orkin.
Afterward, Orkin worked under Bobby Flay at Mesa Grill and at Lutèce in New York. When Tamie became pregnant with their son Isaac Orkin (Jpn’19), he accepted a more stable, higher-paying job with Restaurant Associates, a New York-based hospitality company.
In 1998, when Isaac was two and Tamie was pregnant with the couple’s second child, she died of a sudden illness. Devastated and eager for his son to remain rooted in his mother’s Japanese culture, Orkin began taking him on annual trips to Tokyo. On one of these trips, in 2002, he met Mari over a bowl of ramen, and married her three months later. The couple settled in Tokyo, and Orkin began feeling his way into the future.
After Ivan Ramen took off in 2007, Orkin added a second restaurant in Japan and created a popular line of instant ramen.
“Ivan’s very analytical, he’s extremely intelligent and he’s slightly OCD,” partner Poran said. “I think that’s a combination for success.”
By 2012, ready to return to the U.S., Orkin and Mari moved their three sons to New York. He opened Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood and his flagship restaurant Ivan Ramen in the Lower East Side. They, too, were instant hits. The New York Times refers to him as “an American ramen master.”
These days, he stays out of the kitchen. Mostly.
“I still work on recipes, I still train people, but I don’t have a spot in my restaurant,” he said. “But when there is something for me to do, I’m there all day and all night.”
Last year, the crew behind Netflix’s Chef’s Table, a documentary series profiling renowned chefs, came calling.
“Netflix was the first time I ever really allowed a television camera to see my life that closely,” he said, adding he filmed five days in New York and five days in Tokyo. “It was hard telling everybody your innermost secrets.”
After the episode aired in February 2017, Orkin’s name, and food, grew more famous still.
“It’s completely been one of the most wonderful things that’s ever happened to me,” he said.
These days, Orkin, who lives in the Hudson River Valley north of New York, is exploring potential new ramen restaurant locations elsewhere in the U.S. Meanwhile, he’s also dabbling in the pizza world. He and Poran opened Corner Slice inside the Gotham West Market to rave reviews.
“The pizza business is a big deal for us,” said Poran. “We have big expansion plans.”
There’s never really any telling what’s next for Orkin.
“If there’s anything I’ve learned in this life," he said, "it's when I get tired of doing something, I’ll just do something else.”
Photos by Daniel Krieger