The Japanese people, culture, cuisine, work ethic (my god, their work ethic!) make up everything I aspire towards. Like any food-loving American tourist, I landed in Tokyo equipped with a list of all the restaurants I wanted to try, with room for recommendations from locals. I ate everything – sushi at Tsukiji fish market; bowls at the underground ramen row beneath the subway tracks; a traditional Omakase tasting dinner; sushi at Jiro’s; a dumpling spot in Kyoto; street food where it was available. The best place happened to be a tiny ramen shop in the Kappabashi district of Tokyo. The restaurant seats probably eight guests. The kitchen is staffed by two people, a woman easily in her 80s who stirs the hot broth and ladles it into huge bowls, seemingly unphased by the piping hot steam - you can tell she’s the one in charge; a younger gentleman cuts all the vegetables, braises the meats, and accepts deliveries from farmers. The dining room, if you could even call it that, is attended by one person, a woman also in her 80s. She delivers the bowls of hot soup, refills water glasses, and places the check down with a huge smile. It’s one of those situations where they know that we know that they know – they’re serving gold. Together they run this tiny place and serve the wildest ramen I’ve ever tasted. My ramen is nothing like theirs, doesn’t even come close, but what I try to mimic is the feeling I got when I took my first taste. It’s difficult to describe, but should fall somewhere between “unforgettable” and “holy shit.” Before COVID-19 hit, I had tickets booked to go back to Japan this October but that’s paused until things are safe again. Until then all I can do is serve my own ramen and dumplings and try to recall that indescribable feeling I had while touring a country with loads more culinary depth than I. I often think about how I wasn’t raised so much with a rich culture and family recipes passed on through the generations – I’m Armenian and Jewish, but my heritage wasn’t prominent while I was growing up. My wife’s heritage had her eating matzo ball soup, pozole, and borscht, but even with all that variety, none of it felt quite like it fit me as a cook trying to find his way. Over the years I think I subconsciously tried to find a genre, a culture, whatever you want to call it, of food, and Japanese just did it for me. I don’t try to replicate authentic recipes – I would never try to do what the ramen superhero ladies do in the Kappabashi district. Instead, I try to honor the gifts people like them gave me, chief among them a region of food that feels like home.
As always, thanks for letting me feed you.
-Chef Bobby Frank