Josh Reisner describes his perfect bowl of ramen and the importance of taking naps
Josh Reisner (@chefjoshr, based in Queens, N.Y.), most prominently known for being one of the top eight finalists on the second season of “MasterChef Junior” at the age of 10, is also a serious ramen enthusiast. Two days after a collaboration with Shuya Cafe de Ramen in Astoria, N.Y., I was fortunate enough to get time with the promising young chef to catch up on everything ranging from his perfect bowl of ramen, his favorite ramen spots in the world, and what defines his approach to ramen. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
JL: So I’ve been reading up about you just before this and it’s pretty astounding. I read a line somewhere that you have been cooking since five and had a passion for food since before you could walk. Is that even possible?
JR: A lot of people ask me how my passion for food developed and are surprised to learn that my parents don't really cook. My parents are foodies, so they would bring me to restaurants. I think I had my first ikura when I was four months old. They would take me to Momofuku Noodle Bar -- they had David Chang making us ramen back when he wasn’t very famous. I could remember almost every single food experience I’ve ever had... And I think that just evolved into a love of food.
JL: It sounds like your parents did a really good job exposing you to the New York restaurant scene when you were growing up. Was there a moment of recognition in the potential you had and believing that the spark could translate into something?
JR: My parents did a lot for me regarding cooking, and I value that so much. There was a place in my neighborhood called Young Chefs Academy where I started when I was five. Kids would go after school to learn cooking and recipes. But I think I liked that more than little league, for example. I did it for a week and hated it. A year after that, I was like “That was really cool. Maybe I should go back.” I wound up doing that for like three, four years. At seven, I got my first chef’s knife, which I still have today. The team at Young Chefs Academy recommended that I audition for MasterChef Junior when I was 10. Initially I was scared and very, very skeptical. I had all these images of Gordon Ramsay throwing things, cursing, being extremely intimidating, and of me embarrassing myself!
I liked cooking before and always loved food, but after MasterChef I love cooking and love food much more. Before MasterChef Junior, I thought I wanted to be an engineer or an architect. After MasterChef, I was like, “This is what I really like to do.” After MasterChef, I really got into ramen in early 2015.
There was this place called The Brooklyn Kitchen. I started volunteering when I was 11. The most important class was the ramen class. Kenshiro Uki -- of the Uki family of Sun Noodle -- was teaching it. And then, two weeks after, I was at the Sun Noodle factory in New Jersey. A month after that, I was at Ramen Lab, and then a month after that I was volunteering at Ramen Lab where I met famous ramen chefs.
JL: It sounds like there was this turning point where you got really into ramen. I was also reading that you’ve got a couple different specialties and interests, but I’m wondering what was it about ramen specifically that drew you?
JR: Japanese and French food have a very important place for me. The thing about ramen for me was that I always liked the broth, noodles, and toppings. It’s a culmination of so many techniques. Once I really considered it, it’s like the perfect food. If you were to ask me “What would you eat if you could eat one thing for the rest of your life?” I would say ramen because of the broth: I don’t think there’s many dishes in the world with broth like tonkotsu or broth like shio. Obviously there’s consommé and there are some very light broths or very thick broths but the intensity of the flavors of Japanese ingredients are very important.
JL: What a coincidence, if someone asked me that question I would also say I would have ramen for the rest of my life! So you say ramen is the perfect food. If you had to imagine the perfect bowl of ramen, could you describe it element by element?
JR: I think for a simple shio ramen, the perfect shio ramen would not be too fishy. Maybe one part fish to three parts chicken. A bit of scallion floating on top. Sous vide chicken chashu. Though it might seem more sensible to put a salt flavored egg, I really love the shoyu flavored egg. And then something else that I really love that gives a warm, toasty umami flavor would be shiitake or button mushrooms fried with garlic and lemon.
And then there’s obviously tonkotsu. The best bowl in North America is Keizo Shimamoto’s Triple Threat Ramen. It’s called the triple threat because it’s the perfect culmination of chicken, fish, and pork. There’s a smokiness from the fish, the roasted flavor from the pork, and this meaty, earthy flavor of the chicken. It’s seriously delicious.
JL: I'm going to have to try it. Last time I was in New York, Keizo actually was on vacation so I couldn't try any of his ramen, which was a bummer! So what about the noodle? That was the aspect that I was very curious to ask you about.
JR: The Yebisu noodle from Sun Noodle is my go-to noodle for mazemen, shio, shoyu, and basically everything. I think that’s the perfect noodle. It’s so toothsome.
JL: Why is that?
JR: It’s definitely on the thicker side. Number one, it has a beautiful color.
JL: Describe the color for me.
JR: The color is almost like buttered popcorn. When you mix it with the fat and the broth, it just shines. Some people have a problem if the noodle is too thick that it overwhelms the flavor in a shio ramen. What I do is when I use that noodle, I just add a lot more chicken and a bit more salt. I cook it for 50, 55 seconds and I usually don’t shock it. It’s a killer noodle. Very versatile.
JL: In all your dishes that you create, is there a Josh signature you like to sneak in there?
JR: Since I’m not a restaurant, every single time I make ramen it will be a different bowl. I wouldn’t really call it a signature but there’s one I always go back to for pop-ups. Sometimes I change the oil on top. It’s inspired by Ichicoro, which is one of my favorite ramen shops on the East Coast. They take this sweet and creamy corn and blend it to make a puree. They’ll use that with a rich and flavorful chicken broth, where it’s almost like a paitan. I made a mazemen for the South Beach Food and Wine Festival with creamed corn and a bit of neboshi. I’ll take the sardines, remove the guts and head, and I’ll infuse it in chicken fat. In the tare is the green part of the scallions, maybe an inch or two away from the butt. A bit of onion that’s braised with the scallion and caramelized with a bit of oil. Add Himalayan pink salt and the Yebisu noodles. The broth is just chicken broth: half chicken and half regular dashi. On top, a simple sous vide chicken and either a egg sous vide or a shoyu egg. And there’s a bit of miso paste in the tare to get that umami flavor. One thing I will say, I really don’t like naruto.
JL: Just too artificial looking?
JR: I think one day I want to make my own. I’ve heard it’s very hard. But I don’t know. Something about the flavor is just not there for me. And just thinking about a plant that adds dye to blended fish… The thought of the fish cake really throws me off.
JL: [Laughs] There’s something not right about it. If you had to distill your ramen approach into three pillars, what do you think they would be?
JR: One would be experimental. A lot of my bowls of ramen are like a science project in school. They’re about experimentation and reflection; I’m always striving for improvement. The second pillar would be: recycling leftovers. I had leftovers from a Chinese restaurant and instead of a miso paste I used hoisin for a base. Instead of ground pork, I used lap cheong. On top I put the mapo tofu and it was really good! The third pillar I’d say is: regional inspiration. When I do dinner parties, I like replacing certain ingredients with ingredients from another region. For instance, when I did a ratatouille confit byaldi, I layered in Japanese eggplant and Hawaiian squash. On the bottom, I used dried fish and tomatoes and braised them together to develop a lot of umami. It’s all about replacing ingredients in certain dishes with other ingredients from certain regions. But not in an arrogant way, more in an homage kind of way.
JL: I like the leftover one because you’re describing a lot of Chinese ingredients, those were my childhood foods. So, you’re currently in ninth grade. There’s a lot happening and it’s a big transition. How are you balancing school and cooking?
JR: So I’m going to be honest here. I don’t get as much sleep as I want to. When I get home, I know I won’t be very productive with my homework because I’m very energetic so I’ll either cook a bowl of ramen or take a nap. Naps are very important to me because I can sleep when I know I won’t be productive with anything. The stressful weeks are the ones where it’s hard to fit everything in. Like this past week, I was organizing the pop up and would get home at like 8PM or 10PM and still do my homework. But at the end of the day, I think it’s fun and really cool that I get to balance these things.
JL: Ok, top three favorite ramen restaurants in the US and one international one?
JR: I’ll tell you my favorite three at Ramen Lab, then my favorite three in the U.S., and then one international one. So at Ramen Lab, third best has to be Gomaichi from Hawaii. The second best would probably be Lamen Nikkou. And the best one - and this might be a surprise - but it was Ichicoro. Their ramen was excellent. Their way of replacing certain Japanese ingredients and giving it that Cuban, Miami vibe. That gave me a lot of inspiration and I visited them when they opened their shop in Florida. For my favorite three in the U.S., the third one is Ramen Lab. If you want to leave Ramen Lab out, then Nakamura. The second is Ichicoro in Tampa. And obviously the first one is Ramen Shack.
I live in Queens, but it’s really getting up there with places like Shuya Cafe de Ramen or Mu Ramen. But when people ask me the top ten bowls of ramen, Ramen Shack comes up at least three times. Keizo does so many styles of broth and not only are they consistent, they are just so good!
Ok, international is this place in Sapporo called Menya Yukikaze Susukino. I don’t know if it was the experience or the ramen itself, but that was not only the best ramen but the best food experience I’ve ever had in my life.
It was hot in Sapporo that day. It was even hotter inside and the miso ramen was practically boiling. They also added Sichuan peppercorns and they had a really nice nutty flavor. The experience doesn’t sound very desirable, but it was interesting to have everything so hot and even more hot ramen. I was sweating in three minutes. Menya Yukikaze Susukino was a total hole in the wall. I really wanted to try authentic Sapporo miso ramen and I stood in front of the restaurant and was like, “This is the one. This is going to be the best miso ramen I’m ever going to have.”
JL: How did you know that it was going to be the best?
JR: I could just tell. You could sense the movement of the ramen chefs. They knew what they were doing. They looked like they were finessing it. Not finessing in a Tsuta sort of way where they had like, popped collars. But finessed in a way that looked extremely authentic.
JL: You just wrapped up your most recent pop-up two days ago. What are the next projects you have on the horizon?
JR: So this is not very public yet, but I’ve got three things on the board. I’m shooting something with a news media company and they’re featuring me in an upcoming video. Then collaborations with a barbecue place and a pizza place. My idea for the pizza so far is for it to be ramen-oriented. I’m thinking there will be a lot of smoked fish. The sauce might be an anchovy and miso base. On top maybe Japanese fish roe or Italian bottarga - which is Italian cured roe. I want to include mayu and in the center I’d sprinkle a bit of furikake. I know that might not sound good but..
JL: Are you kidding me, that sounds delicious. Thanks so much for your time and if you’re ever in San Francisco, I’d love to show you some of my favorite ramen spots!
Check out what Josh is up to here: https://www.instagram.com/chefjoshr/
All images reproduced with permission from Josh.