Special Sauce: Ivan Orkin on Love, Loss, and the Tastiest Chicken Bits

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[Photograph: Courtesy of Ivan Orkin. Negima yakitori photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

This week's Special Sauce features Ivan Orkin, the chef behind Ivan Ramen and Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop in Manhattan. For those who don't know, Ivan was one of the most celebrated ramen chefs in Japan, both because of his superb ramen and because, as an American, he was something of an oddity in the noodle scene over there. In fact, his passport became a kind of calling card; as he says, "It's a great hook, an American opening up a ramen shop in Tokyo."

So how does a nice young Jewish boy from Long Island end up as one of the best ramen chefs in Japan? It turns out that Ivan's love for Japanese culture began when he was working as a dishwasher at a Japanese restaurant as a teenager, where the staff took him under his wing and fed him all kinds of strange and interesting things, like raw liver smothered in chopped garlic. It's fitting, in a way, because Ivan says he equates love and warmth with food, despite growing in a family that was "absolutely not interested in eating." That experience sparked not just a love for all things Japanese, but also a passion for hospitality, which he pursued by setting off to culinary school.

But Ivan's story isn't so straightforward; his decision to be a chef wasn't immediately rewarded with success. We talk about some of the setbacks and obstacles he has overcome over the course of his career, including the tragedy of losing his first wife while she was pregnant with his second child. Ivan says that he is an optimist, a "glass-half-full kind of person," and that in the aftermath of his wife's death, "I had a boy, who was beautiful, who gave me all the reasons to soldier on"—which I found to be a testament to his remarkable personal resilience.

We also talk about other, lighter topics, such as Ivan's love for chicken cartilage, skin, and feet, and about how your palate needs exercise just like any muscle. But there's a whole lot more in this week's episode, which is just part one of our conversation.

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