Wondering, wandering, and making sense of the world.


The Japanese and American Ramen Chef

The Japanese Master Ramen Chef

Let’s call this man Sho. Sho grew up in a regional town in an insignificant prefecture in Japan. After graduating from the local high school, like many of his classmates, he decided to work instead of go to college. While his teachers recommended the local construction company because of the foreseeable demand for roads and bridges in the area, he chose to work for his uncle who ran a rundown ramen shop in town. Sho loved ramen and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Sho’s uncle’s ramen restaurant was not popular, it attracted customers purely for the lack other ramen choices in the area. Sho thought of many different ways that the recipe could be improved but his uncle would not listen to him. While the pay was not good, Sho lived at home and saved as much money as he can so he can open his own restaurant someday.

After five years of working in a mediocre restaurant, Sho finally saved enough money to buy a property at the edge of town to start his own restaurant (or enough money that the bank was willing to lend the rest).

For the first few years, the restaurant did not bring in too many customers because of its remote location. Those around Sho urged him to quit as he was barely making payments on his loan, but Sho refused to do so. In the mean time, some of the avid local ramen fans started to write about the hidden gem online. Soon the word spread through the blogosphere, Twitter, and Tabelog (Japanese equivalent of Yelp). Lines formed around the restaurant everyday, at all times of the day, and people came from all over Japan.

Those around Sho then urged him to expand the restaurant and move to the center of town but Sho refused, worried that a bigger restaurant would lead to decreasing quality. He stayed put in his remote location, serving the handful of customers he was able to service.

In the mean time, the media discovered the restaurant and flocked to the remote location. However, the master refused all but a select few interviews citing his belief that “the customer comes first.” The restaurant becomes a legend in the ramen community, a must-visit-site for anyone claiming to be a ramen expert.

Around this time, Sho got a lot of requests from those wanting to study under him. He refused almost all requests, taking only a couple who showed true dedication to become a ramen chef. After ten years of studying under Sho, the first apprentice, with Sho’s blessing, moved away and started his own restaurant in the style of his master in the center of the city. The apprentice’s restaurant does well but not as well as his master’s, because it’s not the original.

After 25 years of working six days a week with no holidays, those around Sho finally convince him to take a vacation. He takes a week off to go to Hawaii with his wife, but fails to enjoy the too foreign experience and is glad to be back when he returns home. Once back in Japan, Sho’s everyday routine of creating the perfect bowl of noodle soup continues until he retires at the age of 75 when his body can no longer handle the arduous tasks.

The American Master Ramen Chef

Let’s call this man Sam. Ever since watching “Tampopo” as a high school student, Sam was interested in ramen. He had his fair share of instant noodles growing up but believed that the real thing has to be better. After all, real Italian food was so much better than mac and cheese.

Sam’s first trip to Japan during spring break in college was a revelation. After the first bowl of ramen, he could not stop. In the seven days he spent in Tokyo, he ate more than twenty five bowls ramen, completely ignoring all other forms of Japanese food. After coming back to the US, he started reading as much as he can on ramen, which was very little in English (he had no inkling to learn Japanese). The next year he moved off campus to an apartment with a proper kitchen where he experimented with his recipe ever day, pissing off his roommates.

After graduating from university with mediocre grades and a degree in political science, Sam scrounged together money from friends and family to start a restaurant in the edge of his hometown (so he could live at home). After a trial period where he learned all the difficulties of running a restaurant (his high school waiting experience didn’t come in that handy), he took out an advertisement in the local newspaper and promoted the restaurant aggressively through Yelp.

The patronage grew slowly but the turning point came when the local TV station covered the restaurant (after all, it was the only dedicated ramen restaurant in a 200 mile radius). The number of customers quickly grew, and when the taqueria next door went bankrupt, Sam bought it out to double his restaurant size. The business grew steadily with increased media attention.

Sam then opened his second restaurant in the nearby city, followed by another restaurant in New York City. In five years, Sam opened more than twenty restaurants in the US covering most major metropolitan areas. Around this time, Sam started publishing several books on ramen such as the “Master of Ramen” and “Around the world in 80 bowls.” Most of the content is ghostwritten.

The media expansion continued as Sam then started appearing in different TV shows before he started his own short-lived show, “It’s Ramen Time” on a niche cable channel. Taking advantage of his media exposure, Sam then sold his naming rights to a major food company who produces and markets instant ramen under his name. At this point, the master is rarely seen in his restaurant, but instead on the road promoting his brand and books.

Sam then got the idea to start a restaurant in Japan, which became a media sensation on both sides of the Pacific. However, once the hype dies down, the restaurant closes down due to lack of customers.

When Sam’s restaurant in Japan failed coincided with when the ramen fad started fading in the US, and many of his restaurants struggled to stay in the black. Sam had to close several of his restaurants and after few years of stagnation and decline, he decided to sell his entire empire to a private equity. The company then streamlined the management system, modified the recipe to cut costs, and made the restaurant chain profitable again.

By this point, Sam had already retired to a small island in the Caribbean where he sips rum and cooks bbq for his neighbors.

Both stories are of course fictitious, stereotypical, and “truer than true,” but should resonate if you come from either one of these countries. The goal isn’t to oversimplify the cultures but to highlight how differently we think about growing something, even something so simple as ramen.


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