Japanamerica: Ivan Orkin x Cibo Matto

Published July 9, 2014

Ivan Orkin—chef and proprietor of Ivan Ramen, the Lower East Side’s gem of a ramen shop—looks on as Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori, the frontladies of New York-based Japanese band Cibo Matto, delicately slurp up his immaculately prepared noodles, chopsticks in one hand and spoon in the other. But before they dig in, sitting at an intimate corner table in Orkin’s restaurant, they each position their bowls for the perfect Instagram photo. Though they had not met before our interview, Orkin and Cibo Matto will reunite again this week for Le Fooding’s Beach Club festival in the Rockaways, July 11 through 13. Orkin plans to dish out a summery chilled ramen soup to the tunes of a Cibo Matto DJ set on the festival’s first day. Le Fooding Beach Club will also play host to other heavyweights of the New York culinary scene, including Momofuku Milk Bar bakeress Christina Tosi, whose popsicles will appear on the menu each day.

Orkin is known as the first American chef to open a ramen restaurant in Tokyo (the first Ivan Ramen opened its doors in 2007). “The name of the restaurant is Ivan Ramen, so I can do whatever I want,” he says, describing his twists on authentic Japanese noodles, like okonomiyaki (a savory Japanese pancake) made in a waffle iron with scrapple and topped with apples and bean sprouts. But despite the occasional foray into experimentalism, Orkin has been praised by Japanese and American patrons alike for the authenticity of his cuisine.

And after the first ramen shop came three more—one in Tokyo and two in Manhattan, leading Orkin to split his time between New York and Tokyo. When he sat down with Cibo Matto, he had just returned from a short vacation in Tokyo, which he describes as “the greatest place on earth.” His love for Japan, Japanese culture, and especially the food is nearly palpable. He evokes the ingredients—nearly all made in-house—that go into his offerings with verve, from homemade noodles (almost unheard-of in the Tokyo ramen scene) to his special combination of broths that give the soup its distinct umami flavor. A father of three married to a Japanese expat, Orkin has traveled between Japan and the United States for the past 30 years.

Hatori and Honda, the Japanese principal members of Cibo Matto—Italian for “crazy food”—arrived in New York in 1994 and 1986, respectively. Though they frequently tour in their home country and work with a record label there, the band is based out of Manhattan. After a nearly decade-long hiatus, Cibo Matto reunited to tour in 2011, releasing an album, Hotel Valentine, earlier this year. The band’s earlier work featured food heavily in songs like “Sci-Fi Wasabi,” “White Pepper Ice Cream,” and “Le Pain Perdu,” but more recent work finds them expanding thematically. Each song on Hotel Valentine is titled for a part of a stay at a hotel—tracks like “10th Floor Ghost Girl” and “Housekeeping” are bookended by the first, “Check In,” and the last, “Check Out.”

Orkin and Cibo Matto found themselves united both by their respective artistic and technical appreciation for food and music, both preparation and consumption. Their conversation was punctuated by appreciative sighs of pleasure and slurps of Orkin’s classic shoyu (soy sauce broth) ramen and a new gourmand specialty, triple-pork triple-garlic noodles.

IVAN ORKIN: I was gorging myself on your music this morning.

YUKA HONDA: Thank you!

ORKIN: I have to admit that I had never heard your music before, but yesterday I put it on Spotify and I listened to it all the way home from Brooklyn, and then I listened to it this morning while I was making breakfast, and I really like it very much. It’s really fun. Really great sort of jazzy kind of energy. Very nice. So I’m sorry I didn’t hear it sooner!

HONDA: No, that’s okay!

MIHO HATORI: Thank you!

ORKIN: You’ve been in the States a long time?

HONDA: I’ve been here a really long time.

ORKIN: So you guys are just like regular American people. [Honda and Hatori laugh]

HATORI: I guess. I have to watch more American games of the World Cup, though.

ORKIN: See, now, I root for Japan and you root for America.

HONDA: They both lost now.

ORKIN: It’s easier to be an expat in America than an expat in Japan.

HONDA: We’re just so far from everything. It’s very rare that people come and speak our language or eat our food. It’s amazing to see a ramen shop in New York.

ORKIN: I love Japan. I mean, I didn’t go to Japan to open a ramen shop. That was just kind of an accident, but I worked in the ’70s in New York in a little tiny sushi bar in Long Island, and then I was like, “Wow, I love Japanese people.” And the chefs were really nice to me. They were always giving me food, and always giving me a lot of attention. Fifteen years old and eating raw chicken heart with garlic and everything. I was really intrigued by Japan, so when I went to college, I decided to study Japanese, and then kind of fell in love with Japan. The first time I went to Tokyo, I had a really strange feeling of coming home.

HONDA: Oh, wow.

ORKIN: Americans will be like, “Oh, it’s so amazing that you understand Japanese culture,” but to me, it’s not amazing. I think no different for you—you came to America, something about America clicked for you, and you were like, “I like it here,” and then you made some friends and it’s kind of natural. If I speak English better, I can understand more things and I can have more fun, and life is much more accessible if you speak the language of the country you’re visiting, and then it becomes this really organic natural process of acclimating to your new country.

HONDA: We have that in common, I guess.

ORKIN: When I’m in New York, of course I speak English perfectly, and I’ve lived here all my life so I understand life here very well. But when I’m in Tokyo, even though I speak Japanese pretty well and even though I understand Japanese people’s feelings generally, every day I learn something new. Every single day. A new word, or a new idea, or I see something I never saw before. And I’m a very energetic person, so that thing is really good for me. I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoy living in Japan for so long, is because every day is fresh. Do you guys both live in the city?

HONDA: Yes, I live in the West Village and she lives in Nolita.

ORKIN: Oh, nice. Nolita’s really nice, right? It’s really become quite a neighborhood, really oddly hip.

HONDA: When I moved here in ’86, I lived on the street that you are actually living on, by Nolita, and there was nothing. Not even street lights. It was scary. Graffiti everywhere, empty buildings.

ORKIN: Aren’t we so stupid that we didn’t just buy one building? Just one building. Could have bought it for like $80,000. Who’s ever going to live in Nolita? They didn’t even call it Nolita—they called it the Bowery or something, right? It was still Skid Row over there.

HONDA: Yeah, it was wild. The shelter scene in Bowery.

ORKIN: The CBGB and all that. Really funky. And now, this just two or three blocks from Alphabet City, and that was just downright frightening. Anything east of Avenue A was just really, really funky.

HONDA: I’ve actually lived between C and D, too, and restaurants wouldn’t deliver to us two blocks away, but they would do it for 10 blocks to the west. But they wouldn’t deliver to us, because we were Alphabet City.

ORKIN: It’s still kind of funky between C and D. Manhattan’s almost completely gentrified. It’s getting really close, which is a little bit sad. It’s one of the things I like about this restaurant and this street. Our regular customers are just normal people, regular people with normal jobs. They’re not super wealthy. Some of them have really good jobs and stuff, but it’s a really nice, real neighborhood. Really cool. Really interesting, the people you meet. Really nice people.

HATORI: The Lower East Side is still, I think, somehow the flavor is still there.

ORKIN: How often do you get to go back [to Japan]?

HONDA: This year we get to go back a lot because we released an album and we’re working with a really great label in Japan—Ryuichi Sakamoto’s label.

ORKIN: Right, I’m a big fan of his.

HATORI: He’s amazing.

ORKIN: I was listening to him this morning. The bossa nova stuff.

HONDA: Oh, cool. He loves food.

HATORI: Yeah, he’s a serious foodie.

HONDA: What do you usually listen to?

ORKIN: Well, I have to admit that I’m a Deadhead, so I listen to a lot of Grateful Dead. It’s never changed for me. But big jazz—a lot of jazz. Lately, I like Fred Hersch a lot. I like solo piano a lot. When I was in high school, I was interested in Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane. I like bebop and cool mostly. I can take a little hard bop, but not too much. I saw Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall in 1979 or something. It was really good. I really enjoyed that. [pauses] You know what I really love? Yano Akiko.

HONDA: [begins singing]

ORKIN: I saw her live in the city a couple years ago. She used to play a lot.

HATORI: She was here!

ORKIN: I used to watch her a lot. And I like Hiromi. She plays jazz piano.

HONDA: I don’t know this person.

ORKIN: She’s good! Really putting it out there. A little more free jazz than not, but she plays a lot of big players and she studied with Ahmad Jamal for a while, and she did a quartet with Stanley Clark and maybe Lenny White.

HONDA: What’s her last name?

ORKIN: I don’t know if she has one. [pauses] Maybe she does. I know she goes by Hiromi. But yeah, she’s pretty cool. But jazz has always been my main love, but I love music in general. I’m sort of a music guy. I’m going to see Zappa play Zappa next week at the Brooklyn Bowl. You ever listen to Zappa?

HONDA: I know Zappa, but I didn’t know that his son is doing Zappa?

ORKIN: Frank Zappa was one of the great guitar players, and then his son is apparently also an amazing guitar player. So he plays all of his dad’s music.

HONDA: Do you listen to vinyl or CDs?

ORKIN: You know what, I’ve been moving so much. I used to have an amazing vinyl collection and I had a stereo. I used to clean every album perfectly. I had a zero-stat and the whole thing. I never had a scratch on any album ever. Every album was just perfect. But then I left, I went to college in Colorado and then I moved from Colorado to Tokyo and then I moved to California. I was just moving so much that I just couldn’t maintain a stereo.

HONDA: You need good speakers. You deserve a good audio system.

ORKIN: You think so?

HONDA: Yes. I think it’s important for life. Did you live in Tokyo?

ORKIN: My wife is from Akishima, and then both of my restaurants are in Setagaya. One is in Rokakoen, which is a really small town on the Keio line. The other restaurant is in Kyodo.

HATORI: Oh, Kyodo!

ORKIN: Yeah, it’s a really fun little town. The Odakyu line is funny because the beginning part is a really, really, really nice part. The whole Yoyogi-Uehara and that whole area is pretty chichi.

HATORI: It’s actually a very stylish town these days. There’s a lot of cool restaurants there.

ORKIN: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s ever-expanding. The trains have gotten faster. Since you guys have lived there, the trains have changed a lot.

HATORI: Japanese train signs, station signs, are really representative of the Japanese mind to me, because it always has the station where you are, the station you were previously at, and the station that is the next station. When I came to New York, I was very confused. It just doesn’t say where I was and where I was going. But I realized after a while probably most people don’t need to know what station you were previously at. But I think it’s just some weird Japanese mentality that we need to know, we need to connect the plot.

ORKIN: In Japan, because it’s a group society, everybody is aware of everyone around them. So to me, I think of—what’s the word—meiwaku wo kakeru—which I love. “Meiwaku” means “to disturb” or “to interfere,” and in Japan, people are just aware. The Japanese culture can be very invasive, because everybody has to do everything the same way. You have to sort of give up a certain amount of independence, but what you get in return is a certain amount of orderliness and cleanliness and things work really well.

HONDA: Why ramen? Why did you choose ramen? Did you have a calling?

ORKIN: No. It’s kind of a two-part answer. First of all, I lived in Japan for three years in the ’80s, and then I moved back to America and got married and went to cooking school and had a whole separate life and didn’t go back for a long time. So for, like, 15 years, only once in a while I went back to Japan, and I was just dreaming about ramen, so when I finally moved back and settled 10 years ago, I was eating ramen constantly. And it was right when the ramen boom was really picking up speed, so there was a lot of really delicious ramen. I would drive, and my wife would be on her cell phone—they had the Ramen Navi and she would say, “Okay, there’s a really good ramen shop two towns from here! Make a right! Make a left!” She had a really good job—she’s a set coordinator, and she’d do magazine and TV shoots and I was sort of her assistant. I watched the children. But I was getting sort of irritable, and I was getting bored, and one day she said, “Why don’t you open a ramen shop? You love ramen, you eat it all the time.”

HONDA: Wow, cool wife.

ORKIN: The ramen shop is a big, secret thing. No one talks about it. There are secret tare [seasoning for ramen], and there are secret soup-making styles, and they won’t tell anybody. You ask, “What’s in your soup?” and they’re like, “Nothing, there’s nothing here.” [mimes covering a bowl] So I just decided to kind of make it up. I ate a lot of ramen. I have a really good food memory so I could remember the flavors I like. I learned how to make noodles at home on my little pasta machine, and then I bought this big machine. In Japan, I make all the noodles at the shop.

HONDA: Wow, that’s real old-school.

ORKIN: I just have a normal sort of life like I would have in New York, which for an expat is really exciting, because like I said, although my passion is food and ramen and all those things, my first real love is Japan, so I kind of got to do the whole thing.

HATORI: That’s awesome.

ORKIN: It’s fun. I’m back here because I had a couple of really cool opportunities and sometimes I feel really sad about not being there, but I have two restaurants, so I’m there pretty regularly and I have an apartment.

HONDA: The other restaurant is ramen, too?

ORKIN: Everything’s ramen. In Japan, I have two ramen shops, but they’re really typical ramen shops. One is 10 seats and one is 14 seats.

HATORI: Counter style. You can really observe the quality.

HONDA: Real ramen style.

ORKIN: We also do all kinds of really fun appetizers. In my shop, when we first opened, there was no English. Not on the menu, nowhere. And I had a few foreign customers get a little upset. They were like, “Why is there no English?” And I said, “Because we’re in Japan.” [Honda and Hatori laugh] I speak Japanese, so it’s fine for me. I train everybody, and none of the workers speak any English. There’s no English—it’s all Japanese.

HONDA: So your appetizers are more a fusion?

ORKIN: Well, this is how I see cooking. I think the reason I don’t love the word “fusion” is because it implies that you’re taking two different things and trying to put them together, whereas I think most real chefs tend to have lots of different experiences in different types of jobs, and then they travel and they read books and every time they get a new idea their cuisine changes a little bit. So there’s all these things, and I have all of these inspirational ideas about the different things I like to eat and that’s just how I make things. I guess my only rule with this restaurant is I like the food to have some connection to Japan. I won’t serve any southeast Asian ingredients, but that’s only because it upsets me that a lot of Americans don’t see the difference between anybody from Asia. They don’t have lemongrass in Japan, they don’t have Thai chilis, they don’t have kaffir lime leaves. That’s a totally different part of the world. I won’t make a coconut lemongrass ramen. [all laugh] Ever.

HATORI: We feel your love, really.

HONDA: That’s kind of how we want to make music, too. We like to take what’s there and what we like, just try to take them apart and make a new combination and kind of make it delicious.

HATORI: That’s the idea.

ORKIN: Well, I really see cooking as the same as any form of entertainment. I think restaurants are entertainment because people don’t really come to restaurants to eat. Especially in places like Tokyo and New York, people have small homes and they need places to meet people. So to me, I see theater and live music and the restaurants and all those things are all pretty much the same. If it’s conceptually well-realized, people understand it and enjoy it. If it’s too fractured and it doesn’t make any sense, it fails because people don’t understand it. You understand, but if you started trying to talk about your music in a technical way, most people would lose you. You’d say, “Well, it’s a B-flat major and then we use this synthesizer and let me tell you about the synthesizer. It’s really cool,” and people would be like, “Huh? What?” The finished product and the way  you present it is all that they really care about.

HONDA: I feel like my biggest influence for my music is my mom’s cooking. The way she cooked is kind of like my goal in music. She was really an amazing cook, but she was very creative. She was a housewife, so she’s trying to make things with what’s here and also what we ate the other day that we liked and leftovers and trying to make really great food out of it.

ORKIN: What’s the thing you miss the most when you guys go home? What’s the one thing you have to have when you get back to Tokyo?

HONDA: Soba.

HATORI: Good soba, yeah. Because we used to have Honmura An. They used to have a really good one. But now it’s gone. It would be really nice to have one inaniwa udon restaurant here.

ORKIN: Right.

HONDA: Sometimes I find Korean—my friend has a really amazing Korean barbecue place and at the end of the meal you can get Korean ramen that’s sometimes better than a real ramen shop that specializes in ramen.

HATORI: It has good dashi.

HONDA: Yeah, the soup is really good. And somehow when it’s Korean food, the noodle quality matters less. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because the soup is so festive. When it’s soy sauce ramen, the material really matters.

ORKIN: So you guys are playing on the day I’m there [at Le Fooding]?

HONDA: Yes!

ORKIN: I really enjoy your music, I have to tell you.

HONDA: Thank you! We’re just DJing that day. We do a mixture of songs we like.

HONDA: We have toured the entire Americas—South America, Japan—and then we are going to go to Japan to play Blue Note, actually. In Japan, it’s really cool. They have really good food and they’re making special mini food. The food is really incredible. And one of our songs is called “Emerald Tuesday,” so they’re making a special Emerald Tuesday cocktail and they have a special menu when we play. It’s really exciting.

ORKIN: Nice, nice!

HATORI: They have special pasta for our show.

ORKIN: When are you going to be at Blue Note?

HONDA: August 14 and 15. So we’re doing that, and then in September we’re doing the West Coast. October we do a West Coast tour and then a tour of Jakarta. I’ve never been there. It’s very exciting.

IVAN ORKIN WILL BE PREPARING A SPECIAL RAMEN AND CIBO MATTO WILL DJ ON THE FIRST DAY OF LE FOODING’S SAN PELLEGRINO FRUITSTOCK EVENT THIS WEEKEND AT THE ROCKAWAYS. FOR MORE ON THE EVENT, PLEASE VISIT LE FOODING’S WEBSITE.