Ramen can’t be dead; it just got here.
No more reasons to innovate
When Lucky Peach launched their website several weeks ago, the content was singular in focus: Ramen. There were essays on alkaline noodles, a guide to regional ramen in Japan, Q&As about the best place to find a bowl, and a tête-à-tête between David Chang and Peter Meehan over the state of ramen as we know it, which Chang suggested, probably with a grain of shio, is DEAD.
So is ramen really over? Is the trend-spiral capable of taking out a soup that spans continents and many decades of preparation? And why? Did Obama kill ramen? Hipsters? If you buy Chang’s argument, the internet did it. He says, “Now the Internet’s changed everything. People can get all the information they want instantaneously, and that has killed innovation in ramen.”
Anyone can google one of Momofuku’s ramen recipes, which took years to create; then buy all the ingredients at Food Depot X and make a consistent, inferior product without even breaking a sweat, let alone enlisting a translator: “There’s no more dreaming about food in the same way, no peering into the windows of restaurants and imagining what the dishes might look like.” says Chang. “People complain about food and restaurants becoming more and more uniform. It’s because there’s no more thirst for knowledge, no catalyst for imagination or reason to try to create new and different things anymore.”
Plenty of reasons to innovate
Peter Meehan offers the counterpoint to Chang’s argument, saying that, in his ten years of eating and reviewing ramen, the quality and appreciation for it has, in fact, never been better: “Ramen is better than it’s ever been. We know more about it, we have greater access to it, and for every mind that’s opened to it as a possibility, the chances for it to spread in popularity and improve are exponentially improved.”
The ramen craze is fairly new to Richmond. Restaurants like Grace Noodle and Foo Dog have recently brought their take on ramen to the table. Will Richardson, chef and founder of Shoryuken Ramen, a roving pop-up concept, has emerged as a leader in RVA ramen. His Monday/Tuesday residency at Lunch. | Supper! is usually packed and often sells out.
Richardson has a different perspective on the ramen debate, conceding some points to Chang, saying, “I have to agree that the increasing accessibility to recipes and preparations over the last couple of years has led to more generic and maybe ‘watered-down’ versions of the same thing, because there are more people who can replicate the recipes.” But Richardson took issue with the idea that ramen cooks have stopped innovating, suggesting Chang’s perspective is jaded, after being so integrally connected to ramen’s explosion in popularity in the last few years.
Richardson adds that ramen has come to a point of regional innovation that mirrors its trajectory in Japan. “What’s going on in Japan is who can make the craziest most over-the-top bowls. We’re trying to carry on with the same adventurous spirit, built on solid understanding of traditions.”
For him, American ramen, specifically Richmond ramen is the next step forward. And that means tapping into his creativity: “We’ve also done special ramen–ramen with pulled pork BBQ, boiled peanuts and collards; a carnitas ramen; a Thai-influenced spicy peanut ramen; a green curry; even a buffalo chicken ramen with Gorgonzola cheese.” He says the key will be to find a balance between perfecting the classics and innovating, “So our Classic Ramen is going to get better and our Special Ramen is going to get crazier!”
The Origin Story
Richardson’s memories start in restaurants. His grandparents, Ong and Ying Leung owned Moon Gate Restaurant in Richmond from 1976 to 1993; his great aunt owned Ling King Inn in Chesterfield from 1973-96; and family from Chicago to New York owned sit-down Chinese restaurants for as long as he can remember. Growing up, Richardson practically lived at Moon Gate–every day after school until night, all day on weekends.
The prince of the empire, Richardson had his choice of meals, mostly fried rice and cheeseburgers, he recalls. On special occasions, he delighted when his grandmother would make pork steamed buns or tsung chay, which he describes as a kind of Chinese tamale with mung beans and cured meat.
With such a background, it should have come as no surprise to Richardson’s parents that he would want to pursue a career in food service, and yet, it totally did. He recalls their reaction, saying, “It was something along the lines of, ‘You’re crazy! We did all this so you wouldn’t have to!’ They didn’t realize that it meant something more to me than just making a stable living.” Now his family has come to respect Richardson’s career path. “It wasn’t until Shoryuken started taking off a bit that they thought I might be on to something. In a way, grandma’s approval was the indicator that told me this was working.”
After a classical culinary education and working his way around Virginia in various French and Italian restaurants, Richardson found himself cooking at Selba, where he was growing a healthy ramen obsession, even featuring it on the menu occasionally. He said, finally, he was so tired of driving to DC or New York for a decent bowl of ramen, he decided to solve the problem himself. Shoryuken was born.
In terms of ramen training, Richardson’s path was one of self-teaching, followed by un-learning, and re-learning. First came translating recipes, then ruining noodles, and finally reconnecting with secrets that were already programmed into his DNA–his grandmother’s chicken soup recipe, which is now half of his double soup, and the secret to the perfect noodle alkalinity.
He realized after searching the same internet everyone else searches that, at one point, he had actually been eating ramen almost every day of his life: “It brought me back to the Chinese origins of it. I was like, ‘Wait a minute, this is just a different version of kansui…my Grandma’s favorite noodle,'” a Hong Kong-style noodle with almost exactly the same springy alkalinity as the ramen noodle recipe it took Richardson nine months to develop.
At Selba, Richardson found a crew that would follow him and, thankfully, work for noodles and beer as compensation. He began taking private gigs and scheduling pop-ups, such as his monthly series at The Rogue Gentlemen. Now working at Supper!, Richardson has had to be creative to make his current pop-up schedule feasible: “The owner, Rick (Lyons), has been beyond generous to me in providing some room during my Supper shift to make sure I can tend to my broth and other things for the ramen service. Otherwise, it would have been impossible.”
Rarely is Richardson able to connect with diners during service, but educating RVA about ramen is important to him. When Southern Season approached him about teaching a ramen class, he knew this would be the way to do it. The first sold-out class was a kind of Ramen 101–its history, terminology, and etiquette. Richardson says that the next class, which will be in the spring, will be all about what else ramen can do: “Most people think of ramen as a cold weather food, but we’re already working on recipes for hiyashi (cold) ramen, tsukemen (dipping) ramen, and mazemen (mixed ramen) that will be showcases for all the beautiful seasonal offerings that come with the warmer parts of the year.”
When I ask where Shoryuken will end up after this pop-up series ends (February 24th), I see a glimmer in his eye. Then I see him glance over at marketing partner Sarah Choi, who’s prepping for service and watching us from the bar. He won’t say exactly where they’re going, but he’s sure of one thing: As Shoryuken zeroes in on a forever home, despite offers from investors in Northern Virginia, Richardson will stay in Richmond.
“I feel like Shoryuken is and always will be Richmond ramen. We started with that in mind and have worked closely with local restaurants and vendors in order to keep to that standard,” He says. He adds that Richmond is the perfect place for ramen because these days, ramen is about more than tradition. In fact, it’s about bucking tradition altogether, and that’s something Richmond knows all about. Richardson says he plans to shop at the local farmers markets and base his specials on what he finds: “When we have a brick-and-mortar restaurant and can regularly source more of our ingredients, you’ll find me at the market every morning…Our focus will be Richmond first.”