St. Louis ramen lovers are one step closer to seeing a true ramen shop in the area. This past weekend, Qui Tran of Mai Lee Restaurant hosted Chef Shigetoshi “Jack” Nakamura for an intensive one-on-one ramen workshop. Nakamura has ten ramen restaurants in Tokyo and is a chef and consultant to Sun Noodle Company, which basically brought ramen to the United States. “Chef [Nakamura] is one of the most influential ramen chefs in Japan,” Tran says.
You might think of ramen as a packaged of noodles and a packet of seasoning from your college days. That's a mistake. Classically, it's a blend of mostly wheat flour noodles sitting in rich broth with tare (liquid salt seasoning) and various toppings.
This past Friday, Tran and Nakamura headed to one of the kitchens at Le Cordon Bleu of St. Louis in St. Peters to get to work. Marie-Anne Velasco, executive chef of Tran's as-yet-unnamed ramen shop, also spent the weekend learning, testing and perfecting ramen toppings and broths. Sun Noodle representative Asako “Alex” Ochiai was here to assist Nakamura as well as help translate if needed, but luckily Nakamura’s English is very good.
On the first day, the team spent the afternoon tasting noodles and broths that Nakamura had brought and preparing some toppings such as bamboo shoots and soft boiled eggs, plus the pork broth was started. In between all that, there was plenty of educating, discussion and questions. One topic? Water quality. After testing the St. Peters tap water, Nakamura and Tran decided to bring 54 gallons of water for day two.
The next day began with unloading the purchased bottled water and checking on the pork broth which simmered overnight in the 40-gallon steam kettle. Only twenty hours after the broth had begun did it put a smile on the chefs' faces. Nakamura's Saturday lessons emphasized patience and restraint.
He revealed specific bones he prefers, marrow contributions and noodle thickness, which determines the weight and richness of the broth. Too thin and the broth overpowers, too thick and the broth disappears. The first bowl of tonkotsu ramen, topped with egg, bamboo shoots, scallions, pickled ginger and sliced pork brought the kitchen to silence as each person tasted.
By the end of day three, five different styles of ramen were tested. In the afternoon, a few of Tran's friends showed up to taste; all left with huge smiles. Nakamura mentioned that it was the first time he had consulted and didn’t have any more suggestions.
Just like making a great broth, St Louisans will need patience for Tran to open. Look for his ramen shop to open in the first quarter of next year — maybe sooner. After all, great things come to those who wait.
Mai Lee, 8396 Musick Memorial Dr., Brentwood, Missouri, 314.645.2835, maileerestaurant.com.
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