Ramen. To the uninitiated, the word might conjur thoughts of the instant variety, that MSG-laden late-night staple of comfort for students, bachelors, and drunks. Others, lucky enough to have experienced the real thing, will think higher thoughts of steaming bowls of obsessively crafted and precisely assembled broths, noodles and toppings. Well-executed ramen, many would argue, is one of the most comforting and satisfying foods on the planet. Perhaps even, true devotees might suggest, one of humankind’s greatest achievements.
When word broke a few months ago that Jamison Blankenship, David Koon and James Sato, the Chef de Cuisine, Executive Sous, and Sous Chef at Morimoto were decamping from that gleaming shrine of haute Japanese cuisine for the greener pastures of Brooklyn to dedicate themselves to mastering the simpler pleasures of ramen, the initiates rejoiced.
In late August, the trio opened Chuko on Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights. We sat down with Jamison, David and James to find out what makes good ramen, and how the three found themselves together in one of the highest-flying kitchens on the planet, plotting their escape to open a noodle shop in Brooklyn.
So guys, tell us about Chuko. How did you come to leave the glamour of the kitchen and the food at Morimoto to make ramen in a former diner in Prospect Heights?
Jamison: We all worked together at Morimoto. I spent over five years there. James and David, before I ever thought about it, were thinking about doing a ramen shop. When I started thinking about leaving Morimoto and branching out on my own, I had just moved to this area. I knew I wanted to do something special, here.
Around that time I was approached by a company about doing a ramen place at Laguardia airport. I researched that, thought about that, and I got really excited about the idea of doing ramen.
You know, we’d been doing ramen with Chef Morimoto for years. We had a good foundation with doing very clean, simple ramen. So that’s when we all started talking about doing something together.
We all wanted to move away from doing really expensive high-end dining. We wanted to do something small, something personal, something where we’d be back there cooking, something for the neighborhood, and really, something for us.
Ramen seemed perfect. It began there. Through the opening of Chuko, through our own experiences and our own experiments with ramen, we realized we didn’t want to do ramen like everyone else – we wanted to do it our own way.
We’ve really come together as a team back there in the kitchen. We’re having fun. We have great purveyors for all of our products – pork, vegetables, everything. We’re constantly improving our technique. And we’re doing that by subtracting – by refining, simplifying, getting really just to the essence of what we’re doing.
David: I think we all really wanted to do something that wasn’t pretentious. I grew up eating ramen, so it’s something that I love now and always have since I was a kid. The goal is to have something for the neighborhood. Something that’s accessible to everybody.
So ramen might not be pretentious, but it’s pretty refined right? Aren’t the Japanese pretty exacting about their ramen?
Jamison: In a sense it’s not complicated. It’s broth, it’s noodles, it’s toppings. But it’s not simple or easy to execute well.
David: You know, it’s interesting – the roots of ramen go back to China. It’s a traditional Chinese food that made its way over to Japan at some point. And in Japan, it’s a national obsession. There are something like 80,000 ramen-yas in Japan. It’s the national dish. Everyone making ramen there has their own recipe, their own style. It’s this secret world that no one shares, especially with an outsider.
James: There’s probably one ramen shop for every twenty-five people. Every neighborhood has at least one. Many have multiple ramen shops. Traditionally, the stock is a well-guarded secret. Every shop has its specialty, whether it be a pork-based stock, or a seafood-based stock. You find a wide variety of styles across and within the different regions of Japan.
Like Dave said, it’s a phenomenon over there. It has been for a long time. Everybody eats it in Japan.
Jamison: It’s kind of like barbeque, in that the approach varies from region to region. Everyone has secrets and special ways of doing it.
David: Ramen seems simple to the eye, but there’s so much underneath it all that makes each bowl different and special.
When it started coming to New York, all the people coming from Japan were bringing their own versions.
When did ramen start appearing in New York? I know there’s been a bit of a ramen craze recently, but could you find it before that?
James: I grew up in New York. There was a small ramen chain called Dosanko. I think their last location was in midtown, and that went out of business in the late 90’s.
It’s been around New York for a long time. My parents actually had a ramen shop in the early 70’s. But it’s only gotten really popular, gotten really noticed, in the last few years. It’s been around, but it was never really on the radar until recently.
I went to Japanese school in Flushing in the 70’s and every Saturday after Japanese school we’d go to a ramen shop. At the time, the only places you could probably get it were in Flushing or a couple of other neighborhoods with a large Japanese or Asian population. But it’s been around.
So guys, what makes ‘good’ ramen?
Jamison: Everything has to work together. It can’t just be a broth, a noodle, a topping. We use a different noodle with each broth. When we were developing our broths, we tested so many different types of noodles, and we started to realize that the right noodle really matters. A certain kind of broth needs a certain kind of noodle. The broth will stick to the right noodle the right way. The right noodle with the right broth will sound a certain way when you eat it. That matters. And the toppings have to work well with the noodles and the broth. It can’t be random. There has to be a purpose.
In our pork broth we use mustard greens. And that little bit of bite from the mustard greens helps balance the richness of the pork. And the thin noodles we use with the pork broth lighten everything up a little bit. Harmony, purpose, and quality are all important.
David: When we first started playing around and developing our recipes, we had the wrong approach. We all loved ramen, and we were trying to copy other styles of ramen instead of cooking our ramen. We’re all trained. We all cook. So our first instinct when coming up with our recipes was to try to deconstruct other ramens. And we couldn’t get it right. By trying to attack it that way we weren’t achieving anything. It wasn’t developed, there was no body, the flavor was unbalanced. There was no soul.
I had visited Ivan Ramen in Japan. Ivan Orkin is an American expat chef, from New York, living in Japan. He’s really popular now in Tokyo. He’s got two tiny ramen shops. He’s kind of a cult hero in the ramen world. He’s like a rock star in Japan. I went to visit him and he was like, “I came here and I couldn’t get it right. I realized, you know, I’m a trained professional. I can do this. I know how to develop flavors and balance a dish. I know what I like to eat. So I just cook what I like to eat and hopefully people will enjoy it.”
He wasn’t going to compromise what he wanted. He broke with tradition and made ramen the way he wanted to make it. That stuck with me, and after we struggled while trying to figure out our ramen, we reached a point where we said, “You know what, let’s stop trying to copy some other ramen. Let’s just do what we want to do. Let’s make it the way we want to eat it.”
Jamison: You know, when we did that we started to understand the broth better. Early on we were perplexed by our pork broth. We were looking for a rich, cloudy, pork broth and we couldn’t get it. We were overloading it with pork, trying to emulsify pork fat into it, doing all these things that just overcomplicated it. And through all those mistakes we ended up with our version, that’s…absolutely lovely. It’s simple. It has a beautiful pork flavor. The fat emulsifies naturally, and we have to do very little to it. So we ended up finding our own way through trying to copy something else, and failing.
James: Like you said earlier, it’s all about subtracting.
So what kind of ramen exactly were you trying to copy?
Jamison: We were trying to copy traditional styles, or concepts of ramen – a traditional tonkotsu pork broth, a miso broth – we actually invented our own vegetarian miso, which is…stunning, I think. We were brought up on shoyu, or soy broth ramen – that was Chef Morimoto’s style of ramen. So we knew conceptually what styles we wanted to do. We just had to give them our own fingerprint. We had to get them to where they all share our identity in some way.
In Japan, or even here, is there an orthodoxy regarding how ramen is made, or should be made? Or do people interpret it in their own way?
Jamison: I think it’s a lot more open and adventurous now.
David: It used to be that you must do it this way or that way. It was very traditional. You couldn’t mess with it. But the younger generation has started doing their own thing a little bit. Trying to break through that mold. Everybody gets tired of doing things the same way all the time. We want to be creative. But society dictates it – Japan has traditionally been a very rigid society. You can be experimental with your ramen, but if you don’t have a market for it, you can’t sell it.
The culture is so traditional that it’s hard to break through. But that’s starting to happen. Ivan Ramen is a perfect example.
Have you guys been to Japan to do any on-the-ground ramen research?
Jamison: Not me. Chef Morimoto promised me for years that he was going to take me! But it never happened.
James: I have family in Japan, so I used to spend summers there. My brother is living there now. Growing up, we’d go once a year and stay for a month or so.
David: I left Morimoto for a hiatus for a year. I went to Asia. I went to Asia to eat. It became something else…more of a cultural journey…but food was always in the background. I spent two months in Japan. In Japan it was all about ramen. I had four meals a day. All ramen.
For some reason, you can eat it every day. It doesn’t weigh you down. It just gives you energy. In Japan, at a ramen-ya, you’re in and out in ten minutes. There’s no talking. There’s no fussing. You sit down, you get your bowl of ramen, you eat it fast – so its integrity is not compromised. And everyone knows this. They don’t explain it to you. They assume you know.
They understand that the chef has gone through an arduous process to prepare this bowl of ramen for you. They don’t want to ruin it by letting it sit there. Here of course we can’t expect customers to sit there and inhale their ramen in five minutes.
Jamison: Ha ha. No. We’re in Brooklyn. The community can eat the way the community wants to eat.
David: We’ve actually compensated for that a little bit with the design of our noodles. We’ve designed them so they can sit in the broth for longer without melting away.
This is the way people eat here. We’re not going to change their eating habits. And we don’t want to.
David, when you were in Japan eating ramen four times a day, what did you learn about ramen?
David: You don’t learn much about technique, but you learn about balance – balance in terms of salt, density, textures, flavors – and about how the whole bowl has to work together. Everyone’s ramen is different, but they all work. Nothing is fighting anything else in the dish. Everything works together. Nothing overpowers anything else. It’s all about harmony.
So how did you guys all end up in the Morimoto kitchen together? What chain of events in your lives led you there, and then to Chuko?
Jamison: I started cooking late in life. I went into the Air Force when I was nineteen. Got out when I was 21 or 22. Moved to New Orleans and started waiting tables. Did that until I was 26 or 27. Decided I really loved the lifestyle, really loved this little dark world of the restaurant industry. It’s unlike any other culture. It has its own language, its own rules, its own schedule, its own nightlife. You find yourself going out with restaurant people all the time, talking about the restaurant world all the time. I liked it. I liked the camaraderie.
I wanted to cook. Tried culinary school for a semsester, dropped out and just started cooking – working at restaurants. I went from making a lot of money as a waiter to five bucks an hour working a salad station. I decided I would just work. I’d work as hard as I could and learn as much as I could. That led from one place to the next place to the next. Before I moved to New York I had a restaurant in D.C. called Nectar. It was great, but I was probably too inexperienced at that time to run a business. So my wife and I decided to move to New York. That winter I saw an ad in the paper for Morimoto coming to New York and I thought, “Man, I’d love that.”
I mean, it was Morimoto! We’d seen him for years on TV and all that. I’d always been curious about Asian cuisine. I had played around with ingredients, but just slightly – I didn’t want to do an injustice. I thought it would be a great learning experience. I had wanted to apply for a sous-chef position, but I was too late. So I ended up taking a line cook job just to get my foot in the door, which ended up being the smartest move I ever made in my life.
I remember going in on day one and David was there. I think we clicked. And I just started busting my ass for Chef. Later that year I was promoted to sous-chef. About seven months after that I was promoted to chef do cuisine, and I was chef de cuisine for the next four years.
Without Chef Morimoto…I wouldn’t exist. This wouldn’t exist. He opened up my mind and my world. But after about five and a half years it was time to get out, break free.
Morimoto is such a large world. It’s such a big restaurant. There are so many employees. There’s such a big menu. There’s so much that goes into every dish. There’s so much pressure.
It was time for something with a little better quality of life. At that point, there was no going to work for someone else. It was time to do our own thing.
And as a cook you’re creative. You want to be creative. I had to hold all that back at Morimoto. There was no true creativity in that job. I was protecting his brand. I was the keeper of the flame. After letting that creativity sit dormant for so many years…it’s just been an amazing experience here. I didn’t think we’d start being this creative, and start trying new things so quickly, but it’s like the floodgates have opened and everything we learned at Morimoto has been liberated. We can do anything we want.
And that’s how I ended up here.
What about you, David?
Like Jamison I started late. After college I worked on Wall Street for about six years. I grew up in a restaurant. My parents had a restaurant in Brooklyn. I was born and raised in Bay Ridge. So after college, as a good son I went to Wall Street. Made good money but it wasn’t fulfilling. I was just in the grind. That itch to be in the kitchen was always in me. It was kind of…raised out of me by my parents to try to get me a better life, which is what every parent wants. They busted their butts so I wouldn’t have to. They wanted me to get a nice corporate job, make a lot of money…
They weren’t psyched about me leaving that to start cooking. They were like, “Do what you want, but why would you leave your cush life?” I was like, “Yeah…it’s cush but it’s kind of miserable.”
So I went to culinary school at CIA. I felt like I needed a crash course. I ended up cooking in Florida for a bit after school, but that wasn’t really my kind of scene. I came back to New York, and got a job at Spice Market. Somebody from Morimoto called me out of the blue and said, “We’re opening. Come in and trail.”
I felt a little iffy – I’d already committed to someone else. But the guy said, “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. You should at least come in and trail and see what’s going on here before you make your decision.”
That made sense. So I did it. I walked in and it was wild. It was this multi-million dollar kitchen setup. The restaurant was crazy. You went into the restaurant and there was like this big hole in the earth that opened up – this open lower area, and behind that was this unbelievable brand-new sparkling kitchen. And I ended up taking the job and that’s how I met these guys.
Jamison: The kitchen was beautiful, but it was really intense at first. Morimoto had this cadre of henchmen managing the opening. And they were all really suspicious of us – watching us, watching us, watching us. Judging us, judging us, judging us.
David: Oh yeah. We had to take all these little knife tests. They were always hovering, always watching.
When you open a restaurant like Morimoto, it’s an extreme experience. Everyone involved forms bonds that don’t break.
Jamison: It helped us grow.
David: Chef Morimoto knew what he wanted. He was very intense, as he should be. You have to be to have do what he’s done, and to have your name on the door of a place like that. It was definitely a tough first few months, but we worked our way into it, and eventually we were his team.
How about you James?
I grew up here in New York. In Bayside, Queens. My parents were Japanese, so they were pretty strict. They had a restaurant. They struggled, as immigrants.
I ran a day-trading desk during the 90’s, during the whole dotcom boom, and I did well. Then after 9/11 the market tanked and I decided to do something else.
I had worked in restaurants before as a server. I always liked restaurants. For me, I just can’t sit at a desk. It’s not my thing. I love food. I love cooking, so I decided to take a shot at cooking in a restaurant. So I trailed at a couple of places and I went to the Institute of Culinary Education.
After that I started working at restaurants in Manhattan. I worked at Nobu, I opened Spice Market…it was by coincidence that I ended up working at Morimoto. I wasn’t working at the time. It was two blocks away from my apartment, so I went over to check it out. Dave interviewed me. I got hired and he was like, “Can you start Friday?”
I was like, “Sure – I’m not doing anything.”
I think we all hit it off pretty well. I joined Morimoto five or six months after they opened, as part of the second wave of cooks that showed up. When Dave and Jamison decided to take a shot at this place a year or so ago, the opportunity seemed right, the timing seemed right…so here we are!
Chuko is located at 552 Vanderbilt Ave, between Dean and Bergen, in Prospect Heights