I read a quote from you saying ramen in Japan and, for that matter, around the world, is getting heavier and richer, but not necessarily better. Could you expand on this? Everyone loves ramen in Japan, but it's eaten mainly by younger people, often students, who need energy and want to be filled up. Diets in Japan are very good, but when it comes to ramen, the Japanese are eating this super thick, overly salty, very fatty tonkotsu. The chefs are encouraging this. It's become a battle of ramen chefs – who can make the richest broth.
Your new Sydney pop-up eatery, Sokyo Ramen, challenges that notion with lighter styles, like the yuzu shio ramen. There are different ramen flavours, but shio, if you ask a lot of ramen chefs, is the hardest one to make. It has to be very light and you can't boil the soup. Done wrong, it could be flavourless, but it's that trickiness that I really love at times. It's much easier to give someone a pork-based ramen.
Your yuzu shio ramen takes on other unexpected aspects, like a sprinkling of rocket leaves... I really love putting salads in everything that I make, so I thought I could add a salad on top of ramen, too. Also, most ramen chefs use pork belly. I use pork cheek because it’s a bit different and a real pain in the butt to prep, so I know no one will copy me! Pork belly comes with that big old fat on it, whereas the pork cheek is more like a tuna belly, with marbling all in the meat.
"Tonkotsu's like a heavyweight, right, as a boxer. And mine's ultra-lightweight. It's kind of an unfair fight, but I still think that lightweight guy has a chance."
Tonkotsu ramen features on your menu, too. Tell us about its ‘gyokarui’ style. Gyokarui means seafood. My focus is on light ramen, but people don't want some super thin, unflavourful tonkotsu, so I needed to put in other components. I put in scallops and prawns – you get the umami hit from those guys, plus, I'm a seafood guy, and I think when you add a little bit of seafood to anything it tastes better. Tonkotsu's like a heavyweight, right, as a boxer. And mine's ultra-lightweight. It's kind of an unfair fight, but I still think that lightweight guy has a chance.
I heard you use a specialty grower for Japanese ingredients at your Sydney restaurant Sokyo? Yeah, we have one lady who lives near Byron Bay in the woods. She has this little backyard and grows different vegetables as a hobby. She grows as much as she can and sells to Japanese restaurants and grocers like Tokyo Mart, but I'm one of the bad guys who's like, "Hey, can you grow 400 of these for me every week?"
Do you use her produce at Sokyo Ramen? No, we sell, like, 500 ramen daily, so I'd wipe her out in a day!
You were born in San Francisco, where your dad worked as a master sushi chef. Did you spend a lot of time in the restaurant growing up? My mum passed away when I was young and, obviously, my dad had to work. We used to have these private tatami rooms with Japanese-style bamboo mats and closed doors. My younger brother and I would play and fall asleep in that room, so the staff would carry us home.
Did you plan on becoming a chef, too? My dad, he thought computers were the thing, so that's why I got a degree in IT. I was a computer guy, I went to college and graduated with that, but I was helping my dad all the time. Cooking was the life. We needed to make something for ourselves. It was a small, local restaurant. When we made a menu special we'd write it on a piece of paper and stick it on the wall.
"We ripped out the sushi bar from the old restaurant and carried it across this busy main street. I still remember it, thinking, "We are so stupid!""
After finishing school you helped your dad start a new restaurant… When I finished high school my dad sold the restaurant. He went and purchased this small little box, with only about 30 seats, which was right across the street. Right from the word ‘go’ we were super busy because we'd been closed for maybe six months. In that time I learnt a lot. My dad's just a chef, so I designed the menu, rewired the speakers at the restaurant and even painted the tiles. We ripped out the sushi bar from the old restaurant and carried it across this busy main street. I still remember it, thinking, "We are so stupid!"
I imagine that was a major learning curve… When we opened the next restaurant, we were so broke – working 18 hours a day, and open seven days a week, too. It was really hard, but really fun. I know for sure, that was the hardest opening I’ll ever have to do!
Any big projects in the works post pop-up? Yeah, I've got a load, but I can't tell you right now!