While working on her story on the American ramen revolution, Fast Company contributing writer Elizabeth Segran spoke with Taka Igo, executive chef at the Cambridge, Mass., outpost of Santouka, a Japanese restaurant chain. Here, Igo reveals why he pursued the lonely, sometimes monotonous, life of a ramen master–and (a few of) the secrets to making the perfect bowl of noodle soup.
What does it take to be a ramen master?
It takes a lot of time. I’m now 29 and I’ve spent my entire career so far devoted to mastering the very specific recipe for Santouka’s Tonkotsu soup. It is a trade secret, so I can’t share what is in it exactly, but it involves boiling pork bones for hours and also boiling down other vegetables and special ingredients. It is incredibly difficult to get the same consistent taste every time.
After about five years of learning the craft, I was ready to qualify to be a ramen master. I had to demonstrate my soup making skill to Santouka’s founder, who invented this recipe. Only after he offers his seal of approval are you allowed to take charge of a restaurant, oversee the soup-making and become an executive chef.
Why did you choose this life?
I was excited about the possibility of traveling around the world to make ramen. I realized that by becoming a ramen master with Santouka, I would have the opportunity to go to locations around the world. I have already spent time in Bellevue, Washington, and now I am the executive chef in Cambridge, Massachusetts–places I would have never come on my own.
But in some ways, I don’t get to see much of the new places that I live. I am a bit of a workaholic and I am obsessed with making sure that the soup is perfect. This takes a lot of devotion. I’m sure if you cut me open, you’d see Tonkotsu flowing in my veins.
Please tell your female readers that I am still single and totally up for grabs. All this ramen-making sometimes interferes with my ability to date properly! And if they need an added incentive, I promise to supply all the ramen they could possibly desire.
Will do! Does making soup every day get boring?
When you focus on the smallest details of a craft, you start to notice little things and that can keep you interested. For instance, a customer might come in to the store regularly and feel he is drinking exactly the same soup, but as a ramen master, I can taste minuscule differences in flavor. It’s like any job: when you become an expert, you focus on perfecting the little things that other people may not even notice.
But at the same time, yes, it does sometimes feel monotonous. I’ve found that there are ways to focus on the things that aren’t repetitive, though. For instance, my job now is to work with other cooks to train them. I like working with new people, watching them learn and seeing how the relate to the work.
Do you think of ramen making as a creative job?
No, it is not creative at all. In the U.S. there’s this culture of treating cooking as something creative. In Japan, food is not really about being creative: It is about mastering the craft, learning all about one particular food, perfecting all the nuances of it. American chefs sometimes don’t treat ramen this way. David Chang, for instance, is not a ramen master. For him, making ramen is about being creative and thinking about food in new ways. That’s very different from how we treat food in Japan.
Do Americans eat ramen differently from the Japanese?
Well, there’s a lot less slurping here. Slurping is sort of part of the ramen eating experience in Japan. But also, Americans like to sit at the restaurant for a while and eat slowly. In Japan, eating ramen is a speedy experience: You go into the store, get your food fast, slurp it up and you’re out the door.