Kyle & Jamie attempt a ramen dinner party
Editor's note: this post is LONG overdue -- this dinner happened over a year ago. Kyle, I'm sorry I'm the worst! When should we throw our next one?
PART 1: MEETING KYLE
If there was ever an alignment of the stars, it would have been when Kyle and I finally met each other. While an exciting first introduction, it was a process that was nearly a year in the making. The union of our mutually freakish obsession with ramen begins with one tremendously awkward photo of Ivan Orkin and myself at the now shuttered Bar Tartine in San Francisco.
After that first comment, I quickly scanned @kylekkim and discovered a fellow ramen lover also in San Francisco. Always apt to follow other ramen fanatics on Instagram, I tapped 'follow' and thought nothing more of this small transaction. That is, until a year after this fateful follow, I began a new job at the same company where Kyle had been working. Eventually, I uncovered an unofficial Instagram account that features the dogs of employees at this company. Obviously I followed it. And here Instagram intervened again, thanks to the divine power of its creepy algorithms, by surfacing Kyle's account to me as a mutual follower. ...do Kyle and I work at the same company? I immediately pulled up my company's directory, and there he was! Being the shameless individual that I am, I sent Kyle an email that went something along the lines of, "Hey so... I think we follow each other on Instagram, are both obsessed with ramen, AND work at the same company. Should we meet haha?!" A mere few minutes went by before I heard a sheepish "Are you Jamie?" from over my shoulder.
Regardless of who it is, meeting someone in person who you've only ever been digitally acquainted with will always be jarring. Here was someone with whom I had been swapping digital affirmations and checking in on for hot SF ramen tips, but now in real life. We had the requisite moment of initial awkwardness and isn't-this-so-crazy banter, but soon enough the conversation veered into more esoteric terrain as we started talking ramen. And so were the beginnings of a friendship forged by ramen.
PART II: WE THROW A PARTY
The minutiae of office drudgery is made slightly more tolerable with a larger share of my work day devoted to instant messaging with Kyle about ramen. We would force fellow coworkers to get ramen with us after work, go on coffee walks to strictly discuss ramen, and scour San Francisco for ramen-related events to crash. Given the natural trajectory of things, we decided that it was time to throw down and bring our friends together over a ramen dinner party.
With that germ of an idea followed many evenings of recipe testing, weekends of hunting for obscure ingredients, and booking conference rooms at work for “meetings” -- where a casual passerby glancing in would have felt nothing was amiss, as we would both appear busy, but we were just thinking about what food we were going to force upon our dinner guests.
Details were painstakingly considered, from the playlist, to the invites, entrees, and appetizers. Originally, I shied away from doing appetizers. “Kyle, do you think we can handle appetizers - let alone preparing two types?” I fretted, realizing that I’d never prepared appetizers before. And Kyle’s response “we’ll figure it out” was all that needed to be said.
We settled on pork belly bao and nori tacos for our two appetizers. For the format of our dinner, we decided that in addition to the agreed upon appetizers, we would each attempt a ramen of our own creation. Kyle, being level-headed as he is, went for a surefire classic: a tonkotsu ramen. I decided to counterbalance by creating a quirky butter miso ramen.
In the first iteration of my butter miso, I was convinced that it would feature pea shoots as a topping for some reason. Thank goodness for recipe testing. Pea shoots, while undeniably delicious, do not fare well as a topping. Much like spinach, these greens wilt rapidly when cooked, rendering them a sad, withered crumple to the side of the bowl. My objective with the butter miso was to have a vegetarian-friendly option that evoked freshness and earthiness. Though, the sight of those shriveled pea shoots instead evoked things like death and sadness. Back to the drawing board.
Aside from greens, the butter miso would feature soy marinated quail eggs, corn, oyster mushrooms, and spiced edamame. Its tare would be a white miso. On the side you’d be given a spoonful of herb-infused butter to chuck into your broth as you please. Minorly traumatized by the poor presentation of the pea shoots, I ultimately settled on serving the ramen with a sheet of red leaf lettuce jutting up dramatically from the side of the bowl and daikon sprouts garnished on top to imbue a sense of freshness. Meanwhile, Kyle’s ramen recipe coalesced smoothly without much second thought, as though he had been secretly toiling away for months.
As for the appetizers, the pork belly bao proved to be relatively straightforward. It was the nori taco, however, that required more creative finessing. Realizing that neither of us had any initial idea of how a nori taco might manifest in the real world, we doubled down on experimentation. In one experimentation session, we scuttled off into our own little corners to set up the taco’s component ingredients and executed our own ways of bringing it to life. My initial strategy was to brush a sheet of nori with sesame oil and toast it to fortify its structure before being loaded with other ingredients. This tactic left it a brittle and burnt version of its former self. When time was up, we compared notes. Ultimately, we decided to serve the taco in a cabbage cup resting on top of a small square of nori. The cabbage cup would impart the sensation of biting into a crunchy taco while preventing the nori underneath from getting soggy.
PART III: WE THROW THE PARTY
I sent out the cheesiest invite ever (complete with the subject line ‘A ramen-tic dinner among stellar company’) and it was officially on! The hardest part was securing the venue -- a home in Berkeley -- and not having the time to scope it out beforehand. Thus, we were left guessing about its space limitations, the amount of dinnerware, prep space, and other essential details. Oh well! We prepped and packed as much as we could, drove it all over, and hoped for the best.
What began as a leisurely afternoon of dinner prep melted away to reveal a looming panic as one minor hiccup snowballed into the next. Shortly after our arrival in Berkeley, we discovered there was an inadequate number of serving bowls for ramen. No biggie, nothing a quick trip to the local Dollar General (we keep it classy) couldn’t solve. With newly acquired dinnerware in tow, we continued prepping. Next, we realized the table we had been using in the kitchen to set stuff on had to be transported to the dining room to accommodate our guests. This meant our counter space was dramatically reduced. This also meant that the nearby staircase would have to make do as a prep station. Next, there was the curious incident of the imploded mochi. No need to elaborate there.
Ding-dong! The first of our guests had started arriving. Their conversation sounds really forced... I really hope everyone gets along! Should I go out there and warm the crowd? Oh maybe not, it sounds like the pot behind me is boiling over. So went my thought process as evening unfolded. We couldn’t focus much on the mingling beyond the kitchen since the madness of preparing dinner demanded our full attention. With sweat beading above our brows, Kyle and I rushed around each other throwing courses together. We plucked two of our dinner guests and appointed them to act as our de facto servers and bussers. At the beginning of each course, we’d rush out and explain each dish, and then rush back into the kitchen to begin the next course in a laser-focused, yet chaotic frenzy.
Appetizers were set out and it was time to prepare the main course. Following in the theme of general unpreparedness, imagine boiling noodles for nine dinner guests without noodle strainers. From a single, giant pot of boiling water we doled out ramen that had been boiled together in a giant mass. We divvied up the noodles and plated our bowls of ramen, making full use of our peculiar assortment of bowls and Dollar General tubs. We ran the food out with the help of our servers and we each described our bowls. All noise evaporated from the room as our friends took their first bites. We glanced anxiously around the room. Between bites, we heard sounds of approval and instantly collapsed with relief. Finally, we were relieved of kitchen duty to enjoy the meal amongst our friends into the evening. The conclusion did not come until the imploded mochi was served, of course.
Nearly all conception of time disappeared during the span of that dinner party. For me, that was one of those rare moments in life when I entered a true flow state. There was no point during that entire process - from conception to execution - when I felt I didn’t want to be there, wishing I could have been doing something else. While there were aspects of the event that could have been more polished, their improvised quality gave the night character - as well as anchor points to look back and chuckle at. There are few joys more whole in life than preparing a meal for others. And with a room full of smiling company, blissed out from either a food baby glow or from pure contentment - likely both, the long night was undeniably a hard-earned success.