Abram Plaut on plotting Mensho's next moves, feeding David Beckham ramen, and getting gel manicures
I'm fortunate to be catching Abram Plaut (IG: @ramen_beast) on one of his occasional trips back to San Francisco. We arrange to meet outside of Mensho Tokyo, the place I've designated as our photoshoot location. As we greet each other, I'm reminded of how much Plaut exudes a kind of Californian nonchalance that's increasingly rare in a city teeming with go-getter techies. I joke that he's the perfect subject to photograph because he dutifully follows all of my instructions without hesitation. To that, he suddenly throws up a hand sign - one which shows off his new gel manicure (more on that later) and a sly grin, a small act of defiance to my steady stream of pose suggestions.
Abram is, in fact, from California. And it is precisely this home field advantage that convinced Chef Tomoharu Shono to select San Francisco as Mensho's first stateside location and Plaut as his right-hand man. Like all paths to prominence, however, there lay along its meandering trail tales of seemingly unrelated deviations and opportune crossings.
Abram is a sort of ramen renaissance man. Prior to becoming Mensho Tokyo's co-owner, Plaut moonlighted as a ramen columnist for Japanese Playboy, dove deep into Tokyo's sneaker trading scene, has eaten thousands of bowls of ramen, and launched the Ramen Beast app based on his accumulation of ramen knowledge. If his frenetic responses during our interview are any indicator, I'm led to believe the ramen world will be hearing more of him yet.
JL: What's a typical day like for Abram Plaut?
AP: Oh man, that's a tough question. On a typical day in Japan: I wake up around 9 or 10AM and then I work - a lot of my work is internet-based - for a couple hours then go to a ramen shop I've never been to for lunch. And then there are times where I don't eat ramen for weeks at a time.
JL: How many times do you eat ramen in a week before you're ramen-ed out?
AP: If I'm eating totally different styles, I can eat ramen every day for a couple of weeks and not get sick of it.
JL: So then, what cuisine do you crave after you are ramen-ed out?
AP: Sushi. It's probably my favorite food over ramen. Ramen is not my favorite food.
JL: Controversial! I might have to make that the headline of this column.
AP: I appreciate the sushi culture in Japan - it's so hardcore! Honestly, my first love in Japan might have been sushi. Like the way it's put together and the whole orchestration by the chefs behind the counter and their interacting with the customers - it's so unique. Ramen is fast food, but sushi is an event.
JL: Going back to your typical day. What sorts of internet-based work do you do, exactly?
AP: So originally, I went to Japan to teach English. After a few years, I had to figure out a way to continue living in Japan without teaching because I didn't want to make a career out of it. I was always a sneaker head in college and living in Japan, I realized I could buy limited edition or vintage Jordans to sell here. There's a huge market in Japan that's different than it is overseas. And I know the U.S. market for sneakers. It started out as a hobby but it got to a point where I felt more confident investing my money in sneakers than in the stock market. I don't know if Apple's stock is going to go up or not, but I know these Jordans are going up! It eventually overtook teaching as my main work. For six to seven years, I was like a day trader but for sneakers. It afforded me the luxury of having my own schedule to go eat ramen. The sneaker business is part-time now as I'm focusing more on ramen-based work, like trying to open restaurants in other countries. I meet with Shono a lot and play a lot of basketball. Otherwise trying to live life to its fullest.
JL: Great segue from fashion to ramen. On social media, we see that you wear a lot of fresh clothing. How do you make sure your clothes stay fresh while you're slurping noodles? Do you bring an apron with you? Like how do I make sure my Ramen Beast shirt stays fresh?
AP: I would get as many stains on that as possible. That thing is meant to get stained up -- like a badge of honor. But the whole point of slurping is to bring the noodles and the soup together, you're not trying to suck everything in and make a big mess! When you're slurping, use the chopsticks as a guide to keep them straight so they're not splashing everywhere. That being said it's easy to splash a little and a lot of ramen shops will offer aprons. But sometimes people overthink the slurping thing. Nobody cares if you're slurping the right way. No one cares if you're making noise. Ramen is a personal thing. It's just you and the bowl and you're just supposed to enjoy it.
JL: What was a memorable ramen experience that you had recently?
AP: We did an event with Wagyu Mafia, David Beckham, and his son. They invited Shono to do a special wagyu ramen bowl. It was private, maybe 20 people. I got to explain all about the ramen, what went into it, and who Shono is to Beckham and his son.
JL: Did Beckham have the correct slurping technique?
AP: I don't think they slurped at all! But I wouldn't expect them to. His son was very shy and didn't say a word to me, but they were both super nice, super polite.
JL: How do you choose which ramen shops to try next?
AP: It's a combination of things. Word of mouth is important. I follow Instagram, blogs, and those detailed magazines that come out every year in Japan listing the best new shops. The shops that catch my eye are the ones that have bowls that are unique but also well-balanced. You don't want something uniquely crazy to the point where it takes away from the flavors or the eating experience. Of course, location matters. Ramen is not a profitable enterprise so the best ramen shops are not in central, premium areas on Tokyo -- you have to travel to find them. I have a list and I'm constantly adding to it. It's an endless cycle.
JL: What does your involvement in the Ramen Beast app look like these days?
AP: These days the Ramen Beast app has become almost like a diary or journal of the ramen shops I eat at in Japan. I am eating at new ramen shops all the time -- 195 this year as of July 17th -- and the app is such a great way to not only document where I have been but also make these places more accessible for people who want ramen and don't speak Japanese. It's a lot of work, almost like having a start-up, but it's a fun hobby and I try to upload new info and make updates when we can. Not every place makes the cut, but most do. There are around 550 shops in the app right now, but most of them are in the Tokyo area. I'd like to eat at the best ramen shops around Japan over the next decade and document all of them. A lot of beasting remains to be done....
JL: What fuels your continual quest for ramen?
AP: So in the beginning it was purely fun for me, I just love ramen. But then I realized that I'm doing something that people are envious of. I'm doing something that people don't have access to. I've put in a lot of work to build up knowledge of the ramen game and this takes serious time. You can't do it in a week, a month, or even a year. It's one of my passions so I just asked myself, "If I could make a living just eating ramen how awesome would that be?"
JL: With all the connections you built up in Japan, how did the introduction with Shono happen?
AP: The main writer of the column I wrote for approached me and asked me what I thought of opening a ramen shop in the states. I told him the restaurant business in the states is tough but that being said, if we could bring a ramen master to the Bay Area, 100% we would crush it. We had a couple candidates but I knew Shono's ramen was good. He has multiple shops in Tokyo that I've eaten at before. I took Shono and Kei, the writer, to San Francisco, showed them the sights, met some commercial brokers, and checked out some spaces. Afterwards, we decided to form an LLC and committed. I always liked Shono's ramen but the partnership has worked out better than we could have expected. We've become good friends through this process. He's such a versatile chef, so creative and willing to try new things. Putting chefs - and especially Japanese ramen chefs who don’t speak English - into an unfamiliar environment can be challenging but Shono invites those challenges. He's a great partner to have.
JL: What's the division of labor like between you and Shono?
AP: My role is more of the producer; I set everything up so that he can focus on the food and concept. I know how foreigners think so I act more as a consultant. I leave the food up to him. The number one thing he gets inspiration from is other countries and other cultures' cuisines. He likes eating dishes he's not familiar with to give him ideas. And on top of that, he loves using what's local.
JL: What's next for Mensho?
AP: There are a lot of different concepts and we're taking them as they come. We've closed on Sao Paulo and Bangkok, I just don't know when they're opening. We're close to closing on other deals but I don't want to jinx them!
JL: Now I've been saving this question for last, can you tell me more about your nails?
AP: So I have a friend that I originally met on Myspace who's a fashion designer. We were internet friends for 10 years before we finally met. He designed the skull logo on the Ramen Beast shirt! So he's a very cool, unique person. He was all about getting his nails done when he first came to Tokyo last year so I had to set it up. We made an appointment at some random unmarked building and I was thinking of just doing two pinkies. I looked at the nail art magazines and I'm like, "Wait a minute, these black little triangles with the white zigzag -- you can do that? Holy shit this is awesome. Fuck it, I'm going all in." So after that it's been on, every single month. It's a huge conversation starter and I meet a lot of cool people through that. My next appointment is next week!