David Chan + Mike Satinover's Ramen Lab pop up and looking ahead to their 2018 Ramen Resolutions
David Chan (@nichijou.ramen) and Mike Satinover (@ramenover) are ramen fanatics that have each garnered strong online followings due to their passion and dedication to honing their craft. When the two aren’t toiling away in their kitchens, David (based in Sacramento, CA) is a civil engineer by day while Mike (Chicago, IL) is a full time marketing researcher. In an unprecedented move, Ramen Lab at Sun Noodle brought the two home chefs together to host a week-long pop last month featuring recipes of their own creation.
JL: I thought it was really interesting that you guys had never actually met before doing the pop up together. David, you just reached out to Mike to see if he’d be interested in collaborating right?
DC: We've been talking for maybe a year or two through Reddit or Instagram. Whenever we both post something, we’d share feedback, and bounce ideas off of each other so we got to know each other through the power of the internet. When Kenshiro [of Sun Noodle] suggested doing a pop up for ramen enthusiasts or home cooks, Mike was the first one who popped up in my head.
JL: Mike, how did it feel to be approached for this opportunity?
MS: Having heard about Ramen Lab ages ago, I was super interested. And basically this thing falls into my lap with David messaging me out of the blue so it was like “no question, let’s go for it.”
JL: I’m curious about the process of coordinating and planning an entire popup event remotely. Both of your backgrounds are quantitatively based. How did that inform your process?
DC: We started emailing each other to just bounce ideas off. I definitely wanted to do a shio, Mike definitely wanted to do a miso, and from there it evolved. We had to share our recipes with each other to try cooking them ourselves since we weren’t physically in the same place.
MS: We started a couple months out just thinking about what we wanted to actually deliver. We’d come up with the concept, pitch it, and see if Kenshiro liked the concept. David made these spreadsheets that were basically a sheet per recipe that includes the ingredients, amounts, serving size multipliers so we can scale up or down as necessary. It allowed us to make the recipes at home and made it easier to figure out how much to order.
JL: How did you guys land on including a mole ramen on the menu?
MS: We have our namesake bowls: David’s got his shio and I have a miso recipe. But we wanted a third because it felt weird to just have two on the menu. Initially, we thought about collaborating on a shoyu. We also recognized that in America, people really like spicy food. But a spicy shoyu didn’t sound very good. David recommended we pitch a really out there idea like a coffee ramen and that flipped a switch in my head. I’d been working on this mole miso for a while so we combined the ideas. Like taking the peppers from the miso and combining with the coffee and shoyu components from David’s idea. For toppings, we included pickled onions which broke through with their acidity. It was kind of funky but still made cohesive sense as a dish.
JL: Was that the most popular bowl?
DC: I think the miso was probably the most popular.
MS: It’s unfortunate, I heard comments that people were upset that we didn’t have any tonkotsu. I think this is a broader comment about the landscape of the American ramen scene -- I think most Americans are looking for something really rich.
JL: How much of the process and planning did you guys have creative control over?
DC: We had a lot of creative control with the exception of doing sous vide and equilibrium brined eggs. Nobody will advertise that they’re doing sous vide because from the Health Department’s perspective, it is a big no-no. We couldn’t get sign off on sous vide chashu so we went with a traditional braising technique. Mike had this idea for an equilibrium brine for the egg, which he can explain.
MS: When making ajitama or steeped egg, you often have a salty solution that you steep peeled boiled eggs in for about four to six hours. I don’t like that approach because it takes a bit of guesswork to know when it’s done. One way around this is to make the brine content equal to the amount you want in the eggs. The problem is that the Health Department also didn’t like the idea of holding eggs that still have a liquid center in the fridge for more than 48 hours. It freaks them out so we had to bail on that.
JL: What was it like watching the Ramen Lab staff try your bowls for the first time?
DC: We spent two days prepping those bowls and the staff had no idea how it was going to taste. So when we saw that they were actually smiling while eating it, that was a good sign. It validated our work. It felt like we had been practicing to perform at a concert for months. It’s not until you get in front of a live audience when you get butterflies. But once you start playing the music and see other people enjoying it, that’s a big accomplishment.
MS: Right. You’re not not making noodles for ten people, you’re making it for hundreds of people. At that scale, the nuances can really change the flavor. Of course we feel good about them, but to see the staff taste it and enjoy it was amazing because it wasn’t just in our heads anymore. It was like “We’re ready, we’re going to crush this now.”
JL: What new tools or utensils were you exposed to where you thought, “damn if I owned this, it’d really change my ramen game”?
MS: Ramen Lab had these industrial gas lines that shoot into the ovens, stoves, and the noodle boiler. I can’t even imagine what the gas bill is like. The industrial range was like cooking on a jet engine. You could take a cold, wet wok that you’d just washed and within 10 seconds it’s smoking. I came home and cooked ramen for some friends and was so upset with how dainty my stove was.
JL: You guys are ruined! Were there any disasters that occurred in the kitchen that may not have been visible to customers during service?
MS: Nothing crazy happened but we did have one scare where the staff told us that we wouldn’t have running water the next day. It was terrifying. I was like “We gotta shut down.” David was like “No we’re not shutting down, we’re going to get it done.” He was the calm, collected done of the two of us. We were preparing to fill all the stock pots with water to the brim and also have a couple buckets of water, hoping that would be enough. In hindsight, it wouldn’t have worked. We wouldn’t have been able to clean dishes or anything at all!
DC: I thought, “We’re only doing this for a week. I’ll pull an all nighter if I have to.” According to the notice, we’d have water until 8AM the next day. So after the first night’s service, at about midnight or 1AM, I was planning to chop everything, make soup, do anything we could. Then I would just sleep in until service starts the next day.
MS: What could possibly be worse than the scare of not having water in your restaurant for a water-based dish? We just loaded up as many containers with water as we could accommodate and when we came in the next day we saw that we had running water for several hours.
JL: How many hours in did you guys stop and go, “maybe we should read that notice again”?
MS: In the afternoon at 2 or 3PM after we finished prep. I was like “Something is amiss.” Then we looked at it and we realized it was impacting a street further west than ours.
JL: What other flavors have you guys been toying around with but maybe haven’t verbalized in the real world yet?
DC: I’ve done a matcha wasabi salmon ramen. I want to do a negi shoyu coffee ramen. And I want to try a French beef stew recipe.
MS: I’ve been working on a mushroom ramen. It’s going to have truffle oil, porcini, morels, and shiitake. Whenever I make ramen, I think about how I can layer that ingredient through several facets. The ramen will have ground up powdered mushrooms. It’ll also have mushrooms cooked in aroma oil and mushrooms will be in the tare steeped in soy sauce. You’ll be able to pick up on different notes even though it’s the same ingredient.
JL: Do you guys have a signature that you leave in every bowl or something that guides your ramen creation?
MS: I’m fascinated with the way a tare can dramatically change the composition of a dish. Toppings accentuate, but soup is the soul of a bowl of ramen. So for me, my signature is the way I think about tare -- how do I make a tare that’s powerful, like in miso, or a tare that helps elevate the natural flavors of the broth.
DC: For me, my engineering side really shows. Ramen is both an art and science. In terms of art, you pick the toppings, you arrange them. Also trying to find that balance that speaks across the dish. When it comes to proportioning things out, I try to calculate as much as possible: the salt content and exact quantities for example. I like being able to reproduce my ramen the same every single time.
JL: What are your top three ramen shops in the U.S. and what’s one international one that really stands out for you?
DC: First is Ramen Shack by Keizo. He’s doing amazing things and you can’t go wrong. The second is Mensho Tokyo. Living in California, that was a shop that spoke to me and showed me that ramen could be more than what was currently available. The third one isn’t a shop but Akira made one of the best bowls I’ve ever had.
JL: The one with the wagyu in it that you guys had for family meal, right?
MS: Akira was getting ready for his pop up the following week so he had some extra wagyu that he brought in. That bowl was incredible. It’s a paitan boiled from beef bones but it was really light. You’d expect it to be creamy, but it didn’t set in the fridge at all and stayed liquid. He made this insane tare that had sake kasu or sake lees. The pulp from making sake had a sweet flavor to it, which he added to the miso tare.
DC: He also used sansho pepper -- a green, Japanese version of Szechuan peppercorn -- that has citrus notes that balanced out the richness of the wagyu and beef broth. The best internationally is Motenashi Kuroki. It’s very refined and they borrow from flavors that aren’t Japanese. They have a chicken roulade with olives and sun dried tomatoes.
MS: Ok, top three in the U.S. -- again, Ramen Shack is number one. I can’t think of anyone who’s close to the level Keizo is operating at with that much output and consistency. I’d put Ramen Lab as number two. Their concept is amazing to me. They host incredible chefs and the space is designed perfectly for having people come in to eat ramen. And three is Noodle in a Haystack in SF. It’s not a shop, it’s ticketed and you go to their apartment to have their ramen. They’re very modern, thoughtful bowls. Favorite ramen in Japan… The Sapporo boy in me is going to tell you it’s a tie between Junren, which is old school Sapporo, and Saimi, a new school Sapporo joint.
JL: What are your ramen resolutions for 2018?
DC: I loved doing the pop up so I’m going to try an do more in California. While doing the pop up, there must have been 10 different ramen shops that came out to visit us. It felt like a big family over there. California doesn’t really feel like that. So I want to create a Northern California ramen network. Besides pop ups, I’ve been looking into maybe teaching a class to educate people on how ramen is made, opening their senses to recipes beyond tonkotsu, and showing others the nuances that make ramen great in my mind.
JL: I will help you with that movement. I’m so jealous of what Ramen Lab puts on for the East Coast, I wish we had a West Coast equivalent. Mike?
MS: I am also going to start doing pop ups here. I’m still in conversation with venues, figuring out logistics, and getting ServSafe certified. It’s all about doing this more and seeing if this can be a financial viable career. Ramen Lab showed me that this is something I really enjoy. Getting better ramen into more people’s hands and spreading better ramen in Chicago is what I’m always pushing towards, whether that means more pop ups, eventually opening a restaurant, I’m not sure!