Sunday, November 8, 2009

大つけ麺博 (The Big Tsukemen Festival in Hibiya)



A few weeks ago I mentioned that I had been given the chance to help out at a tsukemen festival near Hibiya park. Ivan Orkin, owner of Ivan Ramen, gave me, Nate, and Keizo this opportunity. We were happy to accept. Not just happy, ecstatic. This could be my biggest ramen adventure to date!


I worked on Saturday and Sunday, probably the 2 busiest days of the festival. Why so busy?


Sure, Ivan's line was long, but not long enough to command a 2 hour line for the ticket machines before the place even opened. Something else was going on.


Minoru Sano was here for 2 days. Sano-san is just about the biggest name in ramen. If he approves of your shop on TV, you are set for life, as is the case with 69 N' Roll One and Koshinbo, who's owners were there to show support for the event. He doesn't approve many shops. He has been likened to the famous "Soup Nazi" from Seinfeld.


Here's his line. Nope, that's the gap point.


Here's the real end. People were waiting up to 3 hours for a chance to sample the master's noodles. Since we were working hard, one of his staff brought by one for our staff to share.


Excellent noodles sprayed with a konbu seaweed "mist". The soup was very light, like weak chicken broth. A unique interpretation of the usually heavy tsukemen for sure.


But I'm getting ahead of myself. It actually started for me quietly at 9:30am.


Everything was brought in big Tupperware containers, cooked and assembled on the spot.


These tomatoes were quick to run out. 500 roasted tomatoes lasted no more than 3 hours. If you ever go to Ivan's shop, get one on your ramen.


We made a salad of spring onion and pepper grass, tossed with kosher salt, fresh cracked pepper, and a kiss of light dressing. Actually, I thought the salad alone tasted pretty bad, but when paired with the chicken it became amazing. I'm always amazed how ingredients can work like that. Too little or too much and a dish is ruined. In the last couple hours before closing, I kept "accidentally" making too much salad and eating the leftovers.


The salad was included, and customers could choose to buy extra toppings as well. For 100 yen each, we had roasted garlic, Ivan's original style eggs, and the roasted tomato. Most people got all 3.


The process was simple.
  1. Cook and cool the noodles and place them on the plate
  2. Put the salad on the noodles
  3. Put a bowl of hot soup on the plate
  4. Toppings
  5. Serve
When we were on point, it worked like clockwork. Each person was on their task. I would lay out plates, maybe pre-load some with toppings, then the second the salad was place on I had it over to the guy who would put the soup on. The plates would get passed hand to hand to hand. Like a well oiled machine.


Then there were times when it didn't work so well. The system of pre-loading toppings hit a wall, I'm sitting with 8 plates in front of me, and the noodle guy is expecting fresh plates to be out in the next 2 seconds. Customers are getting served without their garlic, and its a mess.


But this was a rare case, and even when we were doing 8 bowls at a time (the norm was 3 or 4), life was good.


Ivan headed things up....


... when he wasn't taking care of business.


And the lines grew...


and grew.


So how was the tsukemen we dished up? Luckily I got a break halfway through the day to try it proper.


The soup was a white chicken cream soup with 20 ingredients. This was something I could drink straight (and did a few times).


The egg was amazing. I talked with Ivan a lot and he told me he had an option to go with a big "egg" company. Instead he had his staff peel and transport a few thousand of these. It was worth it.


After lunch, walking back to Ivan's, I thought I'd take some pictures of other workers.


In the back of Keisuke's , I snapped this shot, then the big guy yelled, "You want some?" I had two options with my reply. Option 1, "No sir, I just ate and couldn't possibly have another bowl. I know it's no charge, but I just can't. Take care!". Option 2, "Hell yeah I want a bowl of your crab and shrimp soup!"


The choice was obvious? Very similar to what you get at his regular shop.


Back at Ivan, things died down a bit in the evening, and we were at a steady pace of 3 bowls at a time. A few of my friends showed up to say hi. Thanks a ton P, Y, M, C, K, S, L, M, M, and K.



In the end, we did about 1200 each day. That's a lot of noodles. And a lot of happy people. Even though food at an outdoor festival isn't going to be as good as at a shop, the atmosphere was lively and not to be missed.


Around 10pm we finished cleaning up, and a few people went back to Ivan's shop to prepare for the next day. I got some well needed rest.


Day 2 was more of the same, minus Nate. But we kept cranking out the bowls, making mouths happy. I tried a bowl from Ramen Jun, all the way from Nagano.


The spicy miso and ishinori gave this bowl some good smoky flavor. Paired with a beer would be the way to go.


One bowl didn't get to try was at Ganja Ramen. Finally at the end of the day, amid an after work arm wrestling match....


I talked to the shop owner. It's a fairly new shop from... Kawagoe. I used to live in Kawagoe, years back. They had some interesting toppings.


Free ganja... but they ran out.


After 2 days of hard work, I couldn't have been happier. I know there is some novelty to seeing a gaijin doing it, but seeing people's faces light up when I'd yell いらっしゃいませ (welcome to our store!) was something else.

Thank you Ivan!


Keizo said...

Sweet! I don't have energy to write anything else.


wonderful post!
all these photos are amazing
and make me dream...