Brian: I was planning to do Ippudo tomorrow night for dinner.
Me: I’d recommend going to Ippudo at an off time unless you want to wait a while to get seated.
Brian: It’s all about the story. I want to capture the madness.
I don’t have a habit to lug my DSLR out to restaurants. It’s not easy to be inconspicuous with a camera the size and heft of a small saucepan. In an effort to not put staff and other patrons on alert, I find my compact does the job of documentation ably, if not bringing the optical firepower to deal with challenging light conditions. Maybe I’m overly self-conscious. Perhaps when I find my way to that one thing about which I’m as passionate as my new friend is about ramen, I won’t care how I look either.
Brian MacDuckston is the writer and photographer behind Ramen Adventures, one of the most extensive English language blogs covering the ramen scene in Tokyo and beyond. You may want to hide your utensils before viewing, lest you inadvertently damage your monitor by lunging a spoon or pair of chopsticks at it. I learned that Brian was planning a rare trip back to the US to visit family, but also with a barnstorming tour of our top ramen hotspots (Hawaii, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York) in mind. I generally avoid stalking strangers over the internet, but this seemed too much of a great connection to pass up. Though my attempts to make ramen entirely from scratch in my kitchen (here, here and here) probably put me into the upper tier of obsessive enthusiast already, Brian is the ramen geek’s ramen geek. Fortunately for me, Brian is also gregarious and immediately agreed we should get together over a meal.
So it was that I found myself at Ippudo NY during the peak of the dinner rush. We waited an hour for our seats but, in a twist of irony, between pre-ramen beer, sharing and learning about each other, and meeting Sarah, another Ramen Adventures fan who had met Brian in Tokyo, I wished it had been even a little longer. I took advantage of being tucked in the corner and solidarity in dueling heavy artillery to get the kind of photos that only come out well with a big sensor and super wide aperture lens in Ippudo’s nightclub-like ambient lighting.
What’s funny about all this (unslakable demand leading to constant lines, the house music, chic decor and lighting), and as Brian was quick to point out, is that Ippudo in Japan is a high quality but completely normal chain of restaurants. The team behind the marketing for the New York branch has done an admirable job of re-branding it as an ultra-unique haven of exotic cuisine. Not bad for something that’s considered cheap and accessible comfort food in its land of origin. I love having Ippudo here, but the status it has achieved says as much about its own trailblazing as the lack of market competition. Ramen chefs of the world: New York (and plenty of other places) would welcome you with open arms.
Watching Brian photograph and make mental notes about our experience was something akin to being in the studio audience for the taping of a TV show. You realize that what you see in the final product is the distillation and stylization of the most important elements the creator wants to use to convey a message. When we each tell our own stories, we help others know who we are by drawing out those aspects about which we are most excited. We have to capture the madness.