So, what’s a “Gaijin”?  The gaijin in Ivan Orkin and Chris Yings’ latest cookbook is a New York Jewish-American over-the-top ramen chef.  With a slew of assorted restaurants that have now gone viral, Orkin’s rollercoaster ride career – a painful slow-start and sudden meteoric rise – is the stuff of miraculous conceptions.  A “Cinder-fella” story just made for the Hollywood big screen.  

A Gaijin is a Japanese term typically used to refer to non-Asian foreigners. Some consider it an ethnic slur – a negative, disparaging remark; others consider it impartial or neutral.  Orkin defines gaijin as a term used “for people like me . . . .  a white guy, clumsily bumbling through Japan, leaving a wake of social miscues and broken dishes behind him.” 

He has come to terms with the fact that he will always be considered a gaijin “even though (he’s) lived in Japan for the better part of three decades (most of his adult life), speaks Japanese fluently, (has) opened two stupendously successful ramen shops in Tokyo, and (is) raising three half-Japanese kids. . . .”  He is, as a matter of fact, exuberant in embracing his gaijin stature. “I can’t help it,” he states, “just like I can’t help being head over heels in love with Japan.”

Ivan Orkin. Photo by Aubrie Pick.

Ivan Orkin: A persistent nonconformist

To fully appreciate The Gaijin* Cookbook, profiles of its co-authors may provide some insight into their somewhat unconventional approach and structure of their recent publication and its abnormal fit  – its context – in the lexicon of cookbooks. We begin with Orkin, the creator of the gaijin recipes.  

Characterized by those who know him as funny, brash and outspoken, he has described himself as a “a bit of a black sheep, self-proclaimed slacker… A mediocre high school student” and “a go fuck yourself kind of guy”.  Born in 1963 to a family of high achievers, he was a problem “wild child” – an enigma to his artist-mother and lawyer-father.  “Ivan was very difficult.  He was a nice person, but he was hard to live with,” his mother revealed. “He had difficulty in school, he had difficulty with friends…We were really consumed with just getting through each day.”   

Orkin’s persistent nonconformist behavior metastasized vigorously throughout his budding career. In early 1990, his eventual business partner David Poran described Orkin, when they met as students at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, “like Woody Allen on 12 cups of coffee.”  To which Orkin has acknowledged, “I irritated my classmates . . . and after a few weeks almost no one was speaking to me.  I didn’t even attend my own graduation.”

In 2013 a New York Times article reported that Orkin “may have become the first chef in Manhattan to intercept a bathroom-bound customer and order her back to her seat.” According to the piece, Orkin reasoned, “She got up right after the ramen hit the table!” He said in self-defense, citing the first commandment of ramen: It must be eaten while still volcanically hot.

For Orkin, ramen is a dish with no rules, unconfined to rigid conventions or protocols. Befitting his personality, it is a freewheeling “maverick cuisine” that can be made with as many variations as imaginable: the noodles thick or thin; the sauces of differing flavors; toppings wide-ranging. DNA in over-drive, he stated, “I chose to make ramen because I can do whatever the fuck I want.”  

International celebrity

From 2006, when his Ivan Ramen 10-seat restaurant opened in Tokyo to rave reviews and notoriety for his umami flavored handmade noodles and complex broth, he made history as the only American to ever open a ramen shop in Japan – where ramen enjoys a cult-like status. “I settled on the ‘double soup’ style of ramen which is what I am known for. It is,” he described, “a much lighter and brighter soup that is half whole chicken broth and half dashi.” Far from a plated cliché, he noted, “My ramen has a certain balance, a certain harmony; it’s a little more refined.”  

In 2010, his 16-seat Ivan Ramen Plus, opened nearby. It featured a neoteric menu using vegetarian ramen and experimented with western flavors like plum vinegar, cheese, roasted tomatoes, lemon garlic oil and noodles made from rye flour.  It sealed his reputation as the unsurpassed ramen chef in Japan with huge lines, and thousands of Japanese devotees – an unheard-of accomplishment for a gaijin. Touted in the press as “not only the face of an entire culinary genre but one of the most prolific and accomplished ramen chefs in the world,” Orkin remarked, “I opened a ramen business not because I love ramen, but because I love Japan.”

His international celebrity established, in 2011 Orkin and his family returned to New York and opened his first of two U.S.-based restaurants: Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop in Hell’s Kitchen in 2013; and soon after, his 50-seat Ivan Ramen in the Lower East side. Here, he went beyond his just ramen menu, incorporating American comfort food and Jewish traditions, offering items such as: a rice bowl topped with smoked whitefish; four-cheese mazemen (a no-broth ramen), bagels with Shiso Gravlax (an herb in the mint family and cured salmon); steamed pork buns.  “I’ve never pigeonholed myself,” he continued in typical Orkin stride, “I’m not a ‘ramen chef,’ whatever the fuck that is.  I’m a cook.”

A nine-page introduction in The Gaijin* Cookbook provides the backdrop to Orkin’s intriguing, unorthodox, chaotic rise to fame. It should not be overlooked, as it sheds an illuminating light on his fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants pilgrimage to fame and fortune.

Chris Yang. Photo by Jami Witek.

Meet Chris Yang

Chris Ying. Orkin’s co-author, Ying, worked with him on a 2013 book, Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo’s Most Unlikely Noodle Joint (A Cookbook).  It featured 40 Orkin ramen recipes (including one that was thirty-six pages long).  

The two shared the same literary agent who suggested they get together to work on the first book. It was Ying who convinced Orkin to name their second collaboration The Gaijin* Cookbook, pointing out that Orkin had spent most of his life as an “outsider”.  Acknowledges Orkin, “Most of the experiences and information in (Gaijin*) comes from my head, but (Ying) has given it all meaning and utility…it’s as much (his) book as it is mine.”

Ying grew up in Southern California’s Orange County, the son of Chinese immigrant parents—an engineer father and a pharmacist mother who also owned two Baskin Robbins franchises and a Mexican restaurant. According to Ying, “Food was always at the center of everything…I was a chubby little guy (who was) only visually and nominally Chinese. My spoken Chinese is terrible.”

At U.C. Berkeley he majored in English, and cooked in restaurants throughout college. Chez Panisse (a famed Michelin star restaurant for three years) was “the nicest restaurant” where he had worked. Unabashedly, he admits, “I cooked there because I thought it would impress women. It didn’t.”   

Finding the restaurant business “frivolous; not a career path” he turned to the publishing world of work.  As a designer, editor and publisher, he has written and edited numerous books about food. The author of The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook and You and I Eat the Same, he also published The Wurst of Lucky Peach: A Treasury of Encased Meats. A hardbound multi-issue of the Lucky Peach magazine that Ying helped found, he became its editor-in-chief.   

The bestselling quarterly was co-founded by Chef David Chang (Korean-America founder of the burgeoning Momofuku international restaurant group), Peter Meehan (food writer, author and restaurant critic at the NY and LA Times), and Ying. It debuted in 2011 and was lauded as “original and unpredictable . . . . somewhat chaotic, often ground-breaking.” It was a food magazine that published articles and recipes “about food that could be distinct, irreverent, important, (and) of literary merit”. 

The quarterly drew on insider knowledge of famous chefs and top food writers from throughout the culinary world. Each issue focused on a single theme, exploring it through essays, art, photography and recipes.  Considered one of the most original publications in the food-writing business, it won multiple James Beard Awards and quickly garnered an impressive following.

The pioneering periodical met its demise after a short three-year run, terminated by friction rumored as colliding differences in vision, financial and management styles. Lucky Peach was mourned by its multitude of fans who described the loss: “Food journalism before Lucky Peach was mostly homogenous, boring and cliché-riddled.”

Like his co-author, Ying’s energy propelled him to a multitude of other enterprises. He wrote a regular column for the San Francisco Chronicle. He co-founded ZeroFoodprint, a nonprofit dedicated to helping restaurants and chefs fight climate change by reducing their impact related to growing, shipping, cooking and disposing of food – major contributors to approximately one-third of the world’s greenhouse gases.  

He is the creative and editorial director of MAD (from the Danish word for “food”), a grassroots nonprofit organization in Copenhagen working to make food better, healthier, more delicious, more sustainable, more available. 

The Gaijin* Cookbook

Orkin and Ying, as the preceding bio-details demonstrate, are NOT your typical cookbook co-authors. Their kindred off-the-wall back-groundings were destined to lead to an atypical, unconventional product.

To begin, Gaijin*s curious Table of Contents should put the average reader on instant alert: this is no ordinary cookbook and will probably leave one perplexed and possibly alienated. It requires a probing, open mind – one willing to forego routine and delve into anomalous territory.

It was purposefully created “differently from other cookbooks…structured around the facets of Japanese life (that Orkin has) come to identify with most strongly.” Peculiar and enigmatic, the section subtitles may even befuddle. But forge on. The six different recipe category chapters are introduced as “themes”: 1. Eat More Japanese (foundational recipes and flavors); 2. Open to Anything (foods and products from outside of Japan that merged and blend into a “new and delicious collaboration” over time); 3. Empathy (foods meant to be shared with loved ones in need of comforting); 4. Otaku: Geeking Out (dishes that require time to master with practice); 5. Good Times (small plates to share with drinks); 6. New Year’s (symbolic snacks coupled with showstopper dishes).

Mentaiko spaghetti. Photo by Aubrie Pick.

Recipes are mostly drawn from “what I cook at home, along with a couple favorites from my restaurants”.  A sampling from the rather obscure chapter titles: The Vanishing Japanese Diner (teishoku-ya) section in the Eat More Japanese Chapter include: Shogayaki (Panfried Pork Cutlets in Ginger Sauce) and Saba Misoni (Miso-Braised Mackerel).  The Open to Anything Chapter features fusion fare: Sushi-Ginger Pizza Bites (on gyoza wrappers) and the Tofu Coney Island (from a Long Island Jewish guy by way of Japan) incorporates tofu, yellow ballpark mustard and Miso Mushroom Chili.  Found in the Empathy Chapter (things eaten to feel better) are the Takikomi Gohan (Clay Pot Mixed Rice) and Niku Jaga (Pork and Root Vegetable Stew with Shirataki Noodles).

Buyer Beware: liberally seasoned – peppered with four-letter epithets – Gaijin* may not be the most appropriate giftie for your typical straightlaced G-rated families, friends…or grannies, e.g., the first page of recipes bellows forth, font emboldened: “How the Hell Do I ‘Eat Japanese’?”  It is what it is – got the picture?

A hefty 256-page, 8.5” x 10” tome (close to a 5 lb. bag of sugar) encased in a sturdy cover, it could (in a pinch) be used as a weight to help spatchcock a small chicken or – most certainly – a Cornish game hen. Generously laden with full-page drool-worthy color photos of plated dishes, it also offers several step-by-step images of the process in reaching final plating status. A variety of snapshots of Orkin, his family enjoying meals together, various chefs at work, scenic views and Japanese natives round out the book’s well stocked photo gallery. 

Family style Chirashi. Photo by Aubrie Pick.

The authors take the time and space to devote a number of introductory pages in each section to provide interesting background and enlightening information regarding the recipes. A welcome addition: it also offers an eight-page section devoted solely to the required recipe ingredients (the majority of which can be found “at any large American grocery store or with just one online order”).  Each ingredient listed is accompanied by a detailed description – a practical aid to novice chefs of Japanese cookery. For those not planning to launch into preparing the Gaijin* recipes (tsk tsk), the book offers the additional beneficial advantage of extending and expanding one’s intimate knowledge of Japanese culture and cuisine. 

Lauded by the cooking world, reviews of The Gaijin* Cookbook have been showered with praise: The New York Times (“Best Cookbooks of Fall 2019”); Bon Appetit (“One of the Fall Cookbooks We’ve Been Waiting All Summer For”); Epicurious (“Fall 2019 Cookbooks We Can’t Wait to Cook From”). 

My personal take? The Gaijin* Cookbook is a frenetic, engaging, personable book for lounging at home on the couch, as an insomniac’s late-night read, for a dedicated foodie workout in the kitchen. A good read, whatever your objective.     

Duck soba. Photo by Aubrie Pick.

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