The Ramen Shop
There are moments in life when things come together nicely, like homemade MAYONNAISE. I first wanted to interview Asher when his ramen shop pop up was still operating out of the chef's pass of Pickle and you'd happily wait in line for 20 minutes in the wind and rain for a bowl of delicious ramen. He was my saviour. I'd lived in a village famous for its ramen in Japan and those cravings had not subsided in the 4 years since i'd been HOME.
So I got in touch, we even took some photos, but I never got around to doing the interview. I was doing the City Market classes at the time and life was busy. I wouldn't know it at the time, but another saviour had come into my life, the amazing Mike and his wonderful wife Lisa who regularly attended the classes. That's what I LOVED about doing those classes - meeting like-minded people. I've stayed friends with a lot of the people, Mike especially. So one day when I mentioned I was struggling, he offered his services. Considering he would always email me with any mistakes in the latest story I posted (in a loving way of course), I knew he'd do a great job, and I was right! He also suggested Asher as his first interviewee, someone I'd been desperate to interview. It all fell into place, my happy place.
How did The Ramen Shop come about?
The idea for The Ramen Shop goes back a wee way, when I was travelling around and working in Europe. The whole time, there’s always that thought in the back of your head – you want to go home, you want to do your own thing. I don’t know why but when I started in hospitality, I knew that before I was 30, I wanted to open a restaurant. I’m pretty stubborn like that. I always had ideas in my head about how I could do that, how I could achieve it, so I kinda of knew that I was going to have to knuckle down and do it somehow. There's one thing that always sticks in my head from when I was overseas. I can remember three or four conversations with chefs, all in a row, and every one of them said “I had this idea and someone else did it” Every time! I didn't want to be in that position.
Why did you come back to New Zealand?
I came back to open Pickle which was really cool. I was really proud of what we were doing there and the food was two years ahead of what it should have been. There I meet Tsubasa who came in on our opening night and said “I want a job. I don’t want to cook Japanese, I want to cook something else” and I had to say “Look, all I’ve got is a commis chef role”. I mean, here is a guy who’s been working in kitchens for 10 years. He ran Sakura before it closed down but he was happy to do it, 6 months down the track I brought up an idea I’d had of a noodle house, sort of influenced by what David Chang had done and the idea that somebody who isn't Japanese could do it, it gives you a bit of freedom.
So, do you think that people would look at you and say “Well, you’re not Japanese, what do YOU know about noodles?”
Definitely people look at you funny, but when you've been a chef for a while and especially worked in fine dining and high-end cuisine, you should be able to take most cuisines, try and understand them from the base up and replicate it and having the confidence to do your own thing is very important. One thing that always annoys me is when people say “You are a white guy, why can you do that, it’s not authentic?”. Authenticity is simply somebody doing one thing in a certain place at a certain time. It’s nothing more than that.
So why ramen?
The lack of a ramen shop in Wellington! Things started adding up. One day I was sitting in the kitchen with Tsubasa and said “What do you know about ramen?” and he said “I like to eat it?” and that was pretty much it! He’s never worked in a ramen shop either so I had a noodle recipe that I got off somebody a few years ago and we started experimenting with some broths. I’d be bouncing ideas of Tsubasa, going “How’s this?” until we decided to do that first pop up which was what, May 2013?, and as soon as we put it on Facebook and Twitter it went crazy, which was good. The pop up concept was a cool thing and it works.
Did you enjoy the pop up style of doing things?
Yeah, it was one day here and one day there. Fortunately the guys from Pickle were more than happy to let us do it so we started doing it just after those big earthquakes happened in Wellington. I think the big one was on a Saturday, two days before the second pop up we did. We still did it and then got the engineers report on that building which basically said that there can’t be a restaurant here for a year which was pretty painful.
How did that affect your plans?
Well it was always my dream to open a restaurant, but it was Tsubasa's dream to open a ramen shop. When somebody tells you their dream and you can help them with that, there’s no bigger push. I don’t know how many opportunities you get to make somebody else’s dream come true. The ability to do that probably pushed me more than anything else because I had an offer to go back to Australia and open a place with a friend of mine who was doing well but I decided no, no this is what we are going to do, it was a real line in the sand moment. So we launched on social media and got responses from guys like Sean at Golding’s who were stoked to do it, Dom and Shiggy at Hashigo were really into it, the guys at Flight were in to it and it just kept on growing and all of a sudden it took on a life of its own and we needed to find a permanent spot.
We looked at the old Little Penang site and a few places up Cuba, things like that and the numbers were just scary, especially selling $12 bowls of noodles – that’s a lot of noodles! Newtown seemed like the right crowd for The Ramen Shop.
What was your driving philosophy when opening the shop?
Restaurants are always 1/3 about food, 1/3 about service and 1/3 about environment. You can’t do it any other way, so being able to create something that was a bit cool, a bit trendy was the idea. I ended up finding this really horrible, dirty, smelly Indian restaurant but the shape was right. The biggest desire was to replicate what we did at the pop up in Pickle, seating along the counter, it had a great feel to it, an alleyway feel, and that is what I really wanted to replicate.
Tell us about the design for the restaurant
I had a very clear idea in my head, don’t know where it came from, but I knew what it was going to look like and that’s how it looks now. Convincing some of the tradies as we were tearing down the walls that it’s fine that it’s not plastered, that’s the look I’m after was interesting. The ability to build 90% of it myself, build those tables, the chairs, the shelves – I’ve still got some scars from it… but that ability to put love into something, like food, makes a difference. Plus it saves a lot of money!
What were some of the challenges you faced while setting up the restaurant?
The lack of love in that place was incredible – I’ve been around the world and that was the dirtiest kitchen I had ever seen, without question. You know, I’ve cleaned plenty of extractor hoods and things like that but I’ve never had to use a paint scraper to remove grease. It was beyond belief – I had a rather animated discussion with the Health Inspector, purely about the state of the place.
Any issues finding ingredients?
No, because of our approach to food. We are going to do what we do, we won’t be dictated to about how we have to do something, which actually gave us a bit more freedom. We’ve taken the approach that if we were in Japan it would be the same approach – these are the ingredients we can get and will be good so that’s what we are going to make, we’re in New Zealand so we’ll do it our way.
Have you made any changes for New Zealand palates?
No, not necessarily – the number one way we decide what goes on the menu is “Do we like it?” and if it passes that test, it’s on. We have a trust in ourselves, between Tsubasa and I, we have 25 years kitchen experience. We should be able to sort that out without any problems.
Where do you do like to eat when you go out?
Went out last night and had a fantastic meal at Duke Carvell’s. For me, I tend to pick a restaurant on how hospitable it feels. I like the food they are doing at WBC but you can’t beat KC for a good meal now every now and then. The Banh Mi over at Nam is a great little treat. I haven’t eaten out anywhere near as much as I’d like to as I’ve been fairly strict on money and time after opening the shop, but I’m getting out a bit more now. Places where you are going to be looked after are hugely important as is the environment – it’s my rule of thirds again.
What about junk food, what are your thoughts on that?
I love junk food, I really do.
What’s your “go to” junk food?
KFC, or fried chicken is just awesome, I love fried chicken, it's great, it really is. You can’t beat fish and chips. A good burger. Not a complicated burger but a good burger and there’s a big difference between the two, I'm not a fan of gourmet burgers.
What's your Last Supper meal?
I would ask my mum to cook - we grew up on a farm and so the gangs of shearers would come in once a year to do the shearing and it would be a bunch of workers and Mum, in a domestic kitchen, would cook these feasts - lasagnes and bacon and egg pies and all that sort of stuff. Even the simple sandwiches, it was ham off the bone with nice tomatoes. To me, and it's a nostalgic thing, those feasts they are NZ soul food, you know, a mutton joint for breakfast thats been sitting in the fry pan for so long that the fat is almost rendered out and they've been braised in it so it's almost a confit. That would be it, shearers food I'd call it, with a few salads thrown in there, yeah, that would be it.
Are there any chefs that have particularly influenced you?
I think the chef that had the biggest influence on me, and he'll hate me saying it, was Peter Roddy, who owns Noir in Melbourne. He was junior sous at Royal Hospital Road when it received 3 (Michelin) stars and to survive that kitchen, it says a lot. We worked together in Australia and he gave me so much confidence because I'd come from New Zealand and our dining standards, even 10-12 years ago, weren't flash, at all, especially not when you come from Palmy. We were working at this resort and the executive chef and executive sous chef didn't turn up for the job, basically, for 6 months so we ended up doing it. So at 20, I was running a 220 seat table d'hôte restaurant. I got thrown into the deep end. He always pointed out that the most important thing is how much you care. No matter what you're doing as a chef, if you care, you won’t use that not-so-good piece of meat, you just won't do it or you won't serve something that you’re not quite happy with.
What's the best, or first, childhood memory you have of food?
Making hokey pokey - I used to make it continuously, I'm surprised I've got any teeth... It's still fascinates. As a kid, seeing some water, baking soda, sugar, golden syrup and 10 minutes later, you've got an awesome sweet, that was cool. The other thing is, we used to pick blackberries around the farm and catch freshwater crayfish - you can cook them by putting it in a cup live and pouring boiling water over it and it cooks perfectly, works really well.
What do you like to eat at home?
Generally something that can be thrown in a hot pan and heated up pretty quickly, a bit of sauce. I love greens, whether it's roast brussels sprouts with a little bit of fish sauce across them, some sort of meat, something like that.
Off the top of your head, what's in your fridge at the moment?
There's a bunch of preserves that Mum gave me, there’s not a lot in there. Generally, in my fridge, is a bunch of sauces, butter, a cheese of some sort. If I’m going to make something, I like to go to the market and pick something specific up, very rarely will there be much else there. In the cupboard, you've always got some pasta, rice, noodles, just to throw something together.
Do you have a favourite dish that you like to make?
My favourite would be the raw veg and ash salt, something carried over from Pickle. It's simplistic, a celebration of ingredients but it also shows a lot of technical skill to be able to do something simple but push the boundaries and it just accentuates the quality of an ingredient, you know, not trying to dominate an ingredient but accentuate it. Very rarely is the plate not polished off and it's just cool. The sweet isn’t as sweet without the sour so therefore the fresh isn't as fresh without the burnt and I think that dish in particular is a combination of the last eight years in food as a chef and to be able to make something that simple is awesome.
If you could eliminate one food from the world, what would it be and why?
It's the packets of pre-made pastas, those things. Either that or chicken flavour, you know how you can get chicken chips that don't taste anything like chicken? Two minute noodles with chicken flavour? That does my head in and definitely those packets of pasta, they taste of plastic.
What do you see as upcoming food trends?
What I like that has been happening for a while is that people are looking back at historical food and bringing them back. That’s what the New Scandinavian cuisine was all based upon, doing research into how society survived previously, how they cooked things and what's our identity? I really like that, I like looking back and seeing how things were done in most basic environments and how can we, as chefs, accentuate that. Sourdoughs, fermentations, pickles, basic cuts of meat. I'm stoked to see roast cuts being used in restaurants, that's awesome, I know it’s very trendy at the moment but it's been something I’ve been waiting for to come back, it's cool because it increases your knowledge of food. The more knowledge you have of food, the more you respect it, the more you are going to put some love into it and actually think about what you are going to do, rather than generically cooking a steak
Is there anything you think is over-rated in the industry?
Kale. There's nothing wrong with it, it's just over-rated.
The Ramen Shop, 191 Riddiford Street, Newtown, Wellington
(04) 389 2263