Sometimes, my Special Sauce interviews are the best way to catch up with old friends and colleagues. I was reminded of that when Chris Ying and Ivan Orkin, co-authors of The Gaijin Cookbook: Japanese Recipes from a Chef, Father, Eater, and Lifelong Outsider, walked into the studio.
The first thing you have to know about Ivan and Chris is that they are great company. The second is that, since they’ve worked together for long enough that they’ve established an easy rapport, one that comes through in every one of their exchanges. Consider this snippet of our conversation, when we on what role cleaning plays in becoming a chef or cook in a restaurant.
Ivan: I was a dishwasher.
Chris: As all good cooks should start.
Ivan: I agree. If you don’t know how to clean, then you can’t cook.
Chris: If you don’t love cleaning…
Ivan: I have to say, that as I become a better cook I’ve learned to actually love cleaning. I mean, when I cook, man, you should see it. I mean it is sparkly…When I talk to a young cook it’s always, “Look, I promise you, when you hit that point when you can have your station be clean, you’ll know that you’re a good cook, because what happens is if your station is messy you can’t see what you’re doing and you lose track.” When I was leading the kitchen, I’d say, “Everybody stop. Nobody cooks. We clean now for five minutes. Everybody straightens, refills, get it all together. Everything gets wiped down. Wash your hands. Everything gets set.
It’s in moments like this one where you can see why both Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo’s Most Unlikely Noodle Joint and Gaijin Cookbook are compelling reads, even as they are also wonderful cookbooks.
I want to note, too, that this episode also features advice from both J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who answers a pressing culinary question about what it means to marinate something “overnight,” which was submitted to the digital mailbag by Camille Germany. And then, with Thanksgiving just around the corner, I thought it would be fun to check in with Daniel Gritzer about the art and science of gravy. To hear how you can get your gravy right this year, how long you should really be marinating meat, and the first part of my conversation with Ivan Orkin and Chris Ying, you’re going to have to give this episode a listen. It will be time well spent, I can promise you that.
Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce 2.0, the Serious Eats podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we begin with Ask Kenji, where Kenji Lopez-Alt, Serious Eats’ chief culinary consultant, gives the definitive answer to the question of the week that a serious eater like you has sent us.
J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: Those three things… salt, acid, and proteases… are the three things to watch out for if you’re going to plan on doing an extended marinate time. If I’m marinating in wine or a citrus juice, then no more than a few hours.
EL: After Ask Kenji, a conversation with our guest, or in this case, guests. Today, Chef Ivan Orkin and writer and man-about-food-and-media Chris Ying, the co-authors of The Gaijin Cookbook.
Chris Ying: I was just the whitest Asian kid you could be and I never invited friends over. I never shared our food… the way we ate… with anybody.
EL: So the shame involved the kind of food that your parents served you at home?
Ivan Orkin: I had the same shame, but it was because my mother’s food was so horrible.
EL: And finally on today’s podcast, a teachable moment in Serious Eats’ test kitchen.
Daniel Gritzer: So you weren’t looking at your pot and Uncle Henry walked up and thought he’d thicken your gravy and he just put some flour straight in and now Thanksgiving is ruined! But it’s not, we can still save this.
EL: First up, our chief culinary consultant, author of The Food Lab, Kenji Lopez-Alt. Kenji, serious eater Camille Germany, wants to know, “When a recipe says to soak overnight or marinate overnight, how many hours does that mean? When I soak something overnight, I’m probably not going to get to the next step until the next morning, so that would be about 24 hours, not eight to 10. Sometimes the recipe will specify, but not very often.”
JKLA: The real answer to this question is that there’s no real answer. You have to trust your source. On a site like Serious Eats where we are very careful with our directions, if it is important we’ll tell you the exact frame of time. So it’ll say eight to 12 hours. It’ll say overnight, approximately eight to 12 hours. If it’s not important, then we’ll just say overnight, and that could be eight hours, that could 24 hours. Most likely, it could probably even 36 hours: probably it’s fine.
The real answer is that it depends on the recipe. There are certain types of marinades that will negatively affect meat if you let it sit for too long, particularly ones that contain a lot of acid. Say you’re marinating in red wine…
EL: In lemon juice or whatever.
JKLA: Exactly. Some of those you want to limit the amount you marinate in them because they can really toughen up meat proteins, so that can cause your meat to turn tough. With those types of marinades, I generally wouldn’t go even more than four hours with those. If it’s a relatively weak acid, then you could overnight. Like buttermilk, when I’m brining my chicken for fried chicken or for making tandoor chicken: something like that where it’s marinating in yogurt. That I’ll let go overnight because it’s a relatively weak acid. But if I’m marinating in wine or a citrus juice, then no more than a few hours.
JKLA: Proteases, which are enzymes that break down proteins… Any time you see the word ase at the end of sciencey-sounding word… lactase… it means that thing breaks down whatever is in front of it. So protease breaks down proteins. Anything that has proteases in it… for example, that would be many types of fruit juices like pineapple or papaya juice or pear juice or apple juice, also, things like soy sauce, and of course commercial meat tenderizers. All those are proteases and those will turn your meat mushy if you let them sit too long in there. A little will tenderize and too much will turn it mushy.
So with those types of marinades… again, depending on the concentration… we’ll recommend anywhere from four to maybe 12 hours.
EL: Sometimes in our recipes we say at least X hours.
JKLA: Yes. Then finally, salt. Many of our marinades are actually brines in disguise, which means that they are flavorful liquids that have quite a bit of salt in them. Generally, the purpose of the salt is twofold. It’s partly to season the meat, obviously… make it salty, because salt tastes good… it’s also to help break down some of the protein structure in the meat a bit, and salted meat breaks down in a different way than meat with a protease would. What happens is that some of the muscle proteins loosen up so that as the meat cooks it doesn’t expel as much moisture, it doesn’t squeeze up and tighten up as much. That’s why a brined chicken breast is juicier than an unbrined one, or why ham is always juicy: because it’s been brined for so long.
But that’s the downside of brining for too long, is that it can get that ham-like texture. If you’re marinating a steak and you have it in a marinade that’s kind of salty… say, something with a bit of soy sauce, extra salt, herbs, whatever it is… and you leave it in there for a couple days, then when you go to grill it and you cut it up it’s going to have that smooth texture of ham, which is interesting and maybe you don’t mind it, but it’s definitely not what most people think of as steak.
So those three things: salt, acid and proteases. Those are the three things to watch for if you’re going to plan on doing an extended marinate time. But again, my main advice would be just to go to a good source: one that is careful about this kind of thing, such as Serious Eats, and then you don’t really have to worry about it. If it’s important, the instructions should explain.
EL: Yes. So what we’re saying really is people who write soak overnight or marinate overnight doesn’t really answer the question.
JKLA: Well, it could. I’m sure we have recipes that say that. My fried chicken probably says that and it’s because it really doesn’t matter. You could do it for eight hours. You could do it for 24 hours, and it’s going to be just fine.
EL: So now we know. We know people should confidently soak overnight or marinate overnight when it says that.
JKLA: Yes. Assuming you’re working with a good source.
EL: Thanks, Kenji. Kenji Lopez-Alt is Serious Eats’ chief culinary consultant and author of The Food Lab.
EL: Now it’s time to meet our guests who are both friends of Special Sauce and of Serious Eats. Ivan Orkin is the owner of two terrific restaurants in New York City: Ivan Ramen and the Slurp Shop. Chris Ying has written a zillion cookbooks, is one of the founding editors of the late, lamented Lucky Peach, the founder of the nonprofit Zero Foodprint, which helps restaurants reduce and offset their carbon emissions, and… I know this is beginning to sound like a late night infomercial… an executive at David Chang’s Majordomo Productions.
EL: Welcome my old friends. Chris Ying, Ivan Orkin: they’re in the house.
CY: What a lovely house it is, too.
EL: We don’t mess around on Special Sauce. You get the expansive studio with the views out the window.
CY: It’s crazy that you record from this mega-yacht. It’s unbelievable.
EL: It is our mega-yacht.
CY: Yeah. Just floating down the Hudson. Who would’ve known that this whole show was recorded on open water?
EL: And we sent the help out because we didn’t want you to feel uncomfortable.
CY: I appreciate it, I appreciate it.
EL: Let’s start with you, Ivan. Tell us a bit about your path to what I call ramen royalty, which is Long Island college culinary school cooking in restaurants here. Give us the two minute… which is…
IO: Like the rabbit hole?
IO: I guess essentially, I have always been in love with food. I happened to get a job at a Japanese restaurant in the late ’70s before anything Japanese was popular or hip. Something struck a cord and I just fell in love with not only being around food but being around the process and the hospitality and the interaction with guests. It all struck a cord. As my life moved forward from that and I went to college, I decided… I had to study a foreign language, because I failed French in high school, so in order to graduate college I needed to study a foreign language, so I chose a school… University of Colorado… that offered Japanese and I studied it.
IO: One thing led to another. I found myself in Japan once and then twice. In the interim of the two times I lived there, I became a cook.
EL: You became a cook in serious restaurants in the States.
IO: Yep. I worked at Lou Tess and Mesa Grill and I did all kinds of cooking and I never tried to work in a Japanese restaurant because it was so forbidding to try to even ask to work in a Japanese restaurant as an outsider.
EL: Even though you worked in a Japanese restaurant. It was your first gig in high school. But you were so far down the totem pole you were like, “I’m just happy to be here.”
IO: I was a dishwasher.
EL: That’s pretty far down, man.
CY: As all good cooks should start.
IO: I agree. If you don’t know how to clean, then you can’t cook.
CY: If you don’t love cleaning…
IO: And if you don’t love cleaning. I have to say, that as I become a better cook I’ve learned to actually love cleaning. I mean, when I cook, man, you should see it. I mean it is sparkly.
EL: Are you one of these chefs who makes sure that everybody at their station… it’s spotless before service and it’s spotless afterwards?
IO: Yes. I mean, of course, Saturdays, it doesn’t always go that way, but yeah. When I talk to a young cook it’s always, “Look, I promise you, when you hit that point when you can have your station be clean, you’ll know that you’re a good cook, because what happens is if your station is messy you can’t see what you’re doing and you lose track…” To me, when I’m the weeds and I need to get myself back… when I was leading the kitchen… I’d say, “Everybody stop. Nobody cooks. We clean now for five minutes. Everybody straightens, refills, get it all together. Everything gets wiped down. Wash your hands. Everything gets set. And I’m not starting the line again…”
EL: Even to this day?
IO: Oh yeah.
CY: This is what David Chang talks about all the time, is that’s a lesson you learn only after decades. You’re in the weeds: you have to do the one thing that doesn’t make any sense at all, which is stop.
IO: Yeah, you have to stop, because it’s the weeds, and the weeds is something you can’t explain to anybody. You have to experience it. But being in the real weeds is probably one of the worst feelings you’ll ever have in your entire life, because it’s complete free-fall and you don’t how to… It’s like being on an oiled incline and you’re just going down. You have to stop because then you have to assess: “Okay, where are we at? Why did this happen? How do we get everything reset?” Cleaning, for me, is a process where you take control back and then you can all of a sudden see where everything is, and then you can ask, “Okay, where we at? What are we doing?”
EL: But then you moved to Japan and… like a crazy person… you decide that, “Okay, what should an American in Japan do? Let’s open up the five millionth ramen shop in Tokyo.”
IO: Right. It’s funny, because I’ve thought obviously I’ve created the cottage industry in myself. So I talk about this a lot, but it also causes me to reflect a lot.
IO: I think that, first of all, I didn’t myself as a foreigner. My wife and I would be driving down the street and we’d see a white dude walking down the street, like, “Hey look, there’s a gaijin walking down the street.” And my wife is Japanese and wife would be like, “Honey, you’re a gaijin.” I’m like, “Well, not really. I mean, I live here. I speak the language. I pay taxes. My kids go to school.”
EL: And we should define gaijin. It’s really a disparaging term for someone that’s not Japanese that’s there.
IO: Yeah. It is and it isn’t. It’s funny. Because yes, it depends on the tone. It depends who’s saying it. There are many times when I’ve been described as gaijin in the absolute most simple terms. “You’re not Japanese.” Ultimately, it just means you’re not Japanese. It doesn’t mean, “I hate you.” It doesn’t mean, “You’re bad.” It just means you’re not Japanese.
EL: So it’s contextual?
IO: Yes. And I’ve had people say it with absolute most hatred: “You’re a gaijin. Get out.” So it’s come from both sides.
EL: And amazingly enough, they were really successful. The community in Tokyo were like, “We don’t care if this dude’s from America. His Ramen is good.”
IO: I think also part of it was that, as I was saying, I didn’t think of myself as a foreigner. I was a member of the community and it was something I was excited about doing and I was excited about ramen and I understood the culture. So rather just running through like a bull in a china shop, I thought about how I could think of my neighbors, how could I…? And in Japanese culture, introducing yourself, giving small gifts, being very aware of how people perceive you and how they feel if really important and I did all those things.
EL: So it sort of lessened the cultural appropriation issue.
IO: Yeah. You know what? I did this in this little area of Tokyo. All the people on my little street were all in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. They were the nicest people in the whole world.
EL: Right. They didn’t know about cultural appropriations.
IO: Yeah, well, I don’t know about—
CY: Without getting too into the weeds about it, I think it’s an interesting point that you should talk about, Ivan. It was a journey for you. I remember we talked… I mean, we wrote Ivan’s first book together. It was more of a memoir. You talked about the first time you were in Japan you were kind of resistant to blending in. You would say, “Everybody on walks on this side of street. I’m going to walk on the other side of the street.” Japan only really opened up for you once you decided to embrace your outsider self in a different way.
IO: Absolutely. I actually felt a lot of guilt later on. I lived in Japan twice: once in the ’80s and then once there in 2003. When I returned, I said to my… I was going back because I missed it really badly and I dreamed of really integrating and just being a regular dude living in Japan and enjoying it. I said to myself, “No more. You will follow every rule. You will behave. You will embrace everybody and you will act the way you’re expected to, or you’re not allowed to go.” I talk to myself a lot. I made a pact.
EL: I think we all talk to ourselves a lot.
EL: Chris, you had your own path to your majordomo-dom. Wow, that’s good, right? Chris works with David Chang at his Majordomo media company. But your path was not linear. Your path was a do-not-try-this-at-home path, I would say. Talk about that. Your parents owned an ice cream shop at one point?
CY: It’s so good, Ed. It’s unbelievable.
EL: And a Mexican restaurant?
EL: What’s up with all that?
CY: I grew up with a pretty stereotypical Asian-American, tiger parent, heavy academic focus… play the violin, play the piano… upbringing. It was also stereotypical in that my parents held multiple jobs. My dad was an engineer and my mom was a microbiologist, but on the side they had ice cream shops and Mexican restaurants.
EL: I love the fact that it’s on the side. They have full-time jobs… probably more than full-time jobs… and, “Yeah, but let’s open an ice cream shop.”
CY: Yeah. It’s the only way to pull yourself up, right? And restaurants are the game that you can get into when you don’t really know anything else about being in a new country. It’s restaurants and cooking and serving people food. Ice cream and Mexican food was just what it happened to be. There was never any sort of express prohibition that I do food, and food was a huge part of my life, but it was also like a weirdly… A lot of first generation kids, food was kind of a weird source of shame for me, too. I never invited friends over. I never shared our food… the way we ate… with anybody.
EL: So the shame involved the kind of food that your parents served you at home?
IO: I had the same shame, but it was because my mother’s food was so horrible.
EL: Mine too, but that’s a whole other episode of Special Sauce.
CY: That’s a different thing. I mean, the food was great. We ate delicious stuff, but it was just embarrassing that your house smells different and this is no different than millions of Americans’ lives, but that carried on through college. I got a job as a professional cook in a kitchen in Berkeley while I was at school, but I kept these things so separate. I never wanted to mix… I studied English literature. I was just the whitest Asian kid you could be. I just didn’t want to mix these two things. I was like, “Food is this weird, frivolous thing I do on the side and it’s my weird fetish thing. I don’t want anybody to know this about me. I’m a serious writer.”
CY: I met Chang and lot of chefs through Chang. I met Ivan. I met these people, essentially… and this was a huge revelation for me. Talking to Chang and Ivan and people who you could have conversations with about politics and art and music and all this other cool stuff that wasn’t just food and you realize, “These are thoughtful, creative people, and I shouldn’t be embarrassed about food.” It has nothing to do with what they do: it had to do with where I came from.
CY: When we started Lucky Peach, it was the first food journalism thing I’d ever done.
EL: Right. Let’s talk about that, because you ended up with your degree in English literature from Berkeley, I believe?
CY: Yeah. My god, you’re unbelievable.
EL: And then you end up at McSweeney’s, which is not about food. There was some food aspects to it.
CY: It’s pretty aggressively not food.
EL: Right. It’s really not food. It’s sort of very meta contemporary culture and literature-focused.
EL: Was that fun?
CY: Yeah. It was really fun and rewarding and made me feel like cool in that hipster way.
EL: There’s nothing more hipster than McSweeney’s when you were there.
IO: Especially when you were there. It was the pinnacle of hip.
EL: We should tell people that McSweeney’s is all about contemporary literature and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
CY: It’s Dave Eggers who wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It’s his publishing company.
EL: Which is weird. I couldn’t read that book because that book was about my life.
CY: Yeah, we’ve talked about this. Even people that didn’t have the actual factual events that Dave did of losing their parents, losing their loved ones, that book really defined this zeitgeist and this feeling of being adrift and needing to start something. And then the thing that Dave started was McSweeney’s it was a place for authors and artists who weren’t seeing their stuff get printed in big magazines and big publishing companies. It found its way to us. We did lots of experimental, crazy fun things.
The only reason why Lucky Peach started with McSweeney’s was because what other company are you going to call up and be like, “Hey, we’ve got a food magazine thing? Do you want to do it?” We just said, “Yeah, sure.”
EL: It’s true. There must’ve been a moment for you when you were there… It’s like when people to work for Serious Eats, especially in the early days. It was just like, “Go crazy. Here’s your canvas. You are artists, whether you’re Kenji Lopez-Alt or whatever. I’m not going to get in your way. If I have anything to add the conversation, I will, but otherwise have at it.”
CY: With Serious Eats, was it more that you had enough experience where you’ve realized and recognized the value of letting these people run free, or was it that you just didn’t know any better? Because for us it was that we just didn’t know better than to let people run free.
EL: You what’s funny? I think it was a combination of the two. I’d had a lot of experience. I hated gatekeepers. I had this abject hatred of gatekeepers. I hated pitching stories, whether it was to my editor of the New York Times or my editor of Gourmet or wherever it was. It was like, “I spend more time pitching than I do writing.” I hated that. So there was that part of it that I wanted to remove.
I also wanted to make it okay to go deep. I assume that this was true at McSweeney’s, too. It’s like, “Kenji, you want to write 10,000 words about chocolate chip cookies? Have a ball.”
CY: Why not?
EL: So that was intentional. The other part about me not knowing any better… god damn you Chris… is that it was true. I never held a job long enough to have any of that responsibility. I was terrible at having jobs. The world’s worst employee.
But at McSweeney’s, I assume Dave Eggers just had that same thing. And maybe it was a combination of, A, not knowing any better, and B, that was his feeling.
CY: He was like you. He hated gatekeepers. He had published Heartbreaking Work…. He had published a few books and worked in that world and just couldn’t stand the systems of it. He tried to be a cartoonist and couldn’t get his cartoons in the paper. He was the one who hated gatekeepers. He was the only one who had had any experience with them. I started working there when I was 22. Every single person started when they were 22, 23.
EL: It’s the same with Serious Eats!
CY: We just didn’t know. That’s the thing. One person knew that gatekeepers were stopping us and he just hired everybody who didn’t know any better but to listen to him and the way that it was like just do whatever you want. I know how calculated that was on our part, but it seemed like a smart move on his part.
EL: For sure, because I hired a lot of 22 and 23 and 24 year olds.
CY: Also, we’re cheap.
EL: Yeah. It was what I could afford. I mean, don’t rub it in, but it’s true. You know, Max Falkowitz, who used to work at Serious Eats and is a great writer, used to say, “I never worked at a place where head people encouraged you to go deep, encouraged you to go down rabbit holes, to follow your obsessions. I presume Dave Eggers was probably the same way.
CY: Yeah, very much so, although we didn’t know. It was kind of a rude awaken and it continues to be. Ivan and I talk about this kind of thing all the time. I spent a lot of time at McSweeney’s. I was there for six, seven years. And then Lucky Peach, where we were again with a guy… and Chang, who was like, “Yeah, why don’t we just do whatever you want? Why don’t we just publish Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters in the back of the magazine?” It wasn’t until way later that I had the very dumb epiphany that this wasn’t how most people do things. I didn’t know.
CY: That’s what always intimidates about the next generation of people who are trying to do things.
IO: The problem is that as you get bigger, that thing starts to untangle.
EL: Yes, it starts to get harder and harder.
IO: When you’re small it’s easier. I’ve done the same thing in my businesses. But as you get larger… and when you start off, everything is by the seat of your pants. You don’t have a lot of money. Everybody’s excited, so everybody is pumped to do it. But then you have a problem with an employee or you have a complaint and you’re like, “I need an HR department now and I need this.” And it just gets very complicated.
EL: It’s so true!
CY: It’s a balance, because you want to maintain that and you now where the energy came from. You know it came from this chaos. But you also know, “We cannot run our business like this anymore.
EL: Right. Chaos isn’t sustainable. And you and I talked about this after you won a Beard Award. You guys had that party at the bowling alley at Chelsea Piers. You said, “You kind of made it seem like it was okay to do this in food.” Both you and Meehan said that to me and that made me really good because I admired greatly what you guys did at Lucky Peach.
EL: But to Ivan’s point… and this is probably where you ran into problems in the end, which certainly in large part caused the demise… and the problems that I ran into in Serious Eats is exactly related to what Ivan just talked about. It’s one thing when you’re just a bunch of people trying to do what you love, and it’s another thing when you’re playing with other people’s money, when you have a payroll to make every two weeks, when there’s health insurance premiums to be paid…
IO: I ran a 10 seat restaurant for a number of years. I was lord and master. I could do whatever the hell I wanted. And I did everything myself. That’s the other part: once you want to start delegating yourself out so you can do broader things, now who’s really watching? And when Chris is putting the incredible engine… When you’re putting this… because it’s your brainchild. It’s yours. You’re there. But the minute you step back, you have someone who doesn’t care as much, and now problems start to happen and you’re like, “But don’t you care?” But they’re not because they’re not the owner and they don’t care as much.
CY: Look, I can try to sugarcoat it as some evolution of creativity or some change in how you approach the work or maturity, but the fact is it’s growing up and that term can have a negative connotation when you are the 22, 23 year old. But the fact is you have grow up. You have to grow up to grow your audience, to grow as an artist, to grow whatever. You’ve got to be mature in certain ways that will enable you to do these other things.
EL: But I wish somebody would’ve told me that to grow is to have pain inflicted on you.
CY: Oh yeah.
EL: There’s no such thing as free growing.
CY: Ivan and I talk about this too. You have to embrace that pain, is the thing. Nothing is sweet without the pain.
IO: But it’s also fun. It’s fun to scrap.
CY: Sure. Going back to the weeds, the weeds are kind of fun to be in.
EL: It’s funny you said it’s fun to scrap, because one of the things I’m dealing with now is that Serious Eater came, which was a memoir about Serious Eats and the rest of my life, and then I sold Serious Eats in 2015 and I don’t know what to do without the struggle. It’s a weird… and I’m not proud of that, by the way. It’s not a particularly good thing. But the struggle was part of my life for so long, to your point…
IO: I’ll speak for myself. It’s so organic. Like, at your level now, it’s harder to actually have this purely organic new thing to make, because you have so much experience and now people know you and the want to work with you, but when we’re nobodies and we’re just scrapping to make something it’s so much easier. You flow with it. You do your best. Like you were saying, you don’t really know. Chris was saying, “You don’t even know that you’re an idiot. You’re just doing your best.”
CY: Forgive me for making this forced segue, but the gaijin thing, the gaijin idea, The Gaijin Cookbook… an element of that is baked into this, where it’s like we didn’t erase the part of Ivan’s Japanese story that was hard, which is him being an outsider, which is him, for a time, not fitting in there. That’s central to what this book is about. And it’s not really just about Ivan’s story. There’s no American equivalent, thank god, for this word gaijin. Could you imagine how often that would be thrown around these days? But we should all understand the value of being a respectful outsider and struggling to understand somebody else. That’s the only way Chris figured out this cuisine. That’s the only we’re able to communicate the recipes and the stories that we put in this book, is through the pain and sometimes humiliation or the shame that I’m talking about that I felt about my food. You have to feel that to finally see the value at the end of the tunnel.
EL: So you guys collaborated on Ivan’s first book. I have to ask you, what was it like and how did you come to collaborate? I know the two of you well enough to know that you’re both pretty strong-willed. Chris has a little lighter touch, I would say.
IO: Really? I was going to say that…
EL: Maybe I don’t know him well enough.
EL: How did you come together and how did you work out the collaborative effort?
IO: Well, it purely came up because I got a literary agent that was working and Dave and Peter, maybe?
CY: It was all through Lucky Peach. The very first issue of Lucky Peach, Ivan’s arms are on the cover. An excerpt from a book that he had written for a Japanese publisher was in the book. But you didn’t know what to do with it because that publisher collapsed and…
IO: Yes. The original text of Ivan Ramen… the outline of the text, because Chris flushed it all out… was written by me and it was going to be published by Kondansha International. I had already had photographs… I had a book ready. It was ready to be edited when Kondansha International folded and they closed their international arm. They gave me back my manuscript. They gave me back my photos. And they said, “Good luck.”
EL: So then Lucky Peach published part of that?
CY: Yeah. I’ll tell you, the first time Ivan and I actually met was in Tokyo Narita Airport, I feel like.
CY: Yeah. What happened? We went back and forth over emails or something. I was like really interested in a story that we had published about Ivan in Lucky Peach. My strong suit was in editing and oral history, really. So I thought, “I can do something with this.” Ivan and I agreed to partner and we just agreed to it, was honestly…
IO: I was still living in Tokyo when we agreed to work together, or had I moved back yet? I can’t remember.
CY: You were halfway back. You still had the shop. You still had your apartment in Tokyo. We were like, “Well, we need to go to Japan together.” I had never eaten a bowl of ramen in Tokyo. I had never met Ivan before.
IO: All of a sudden he’s sleeping on my floor in my 149 square foot apartment.
CY: That’s not even an exaggeration. It was so tiny. I slept on the floor in this tiny town. And where Ivan’s shop was is not really the Tokyo of your imagination. It’s not bright lights, big city. It’s like sleepy, low-slung houses and a local grocer and tofu artist.
IO: The definition of off the beaten path.
CY: Yeah, but that was the first time we met. I will say this: we are both strong-willed. I do have a lighter touch, thank you very much. But the two of us-
IO: He his from Orange County.
CY: The two of us have never actually fought about anything.
EL: Really? So the collaboration was not that hard?
CY: No, because I think we trust each other in our fields. That’s not to say we just isolate our tasks. I know Ivan is an actual reader and actual person who can write and use the English language really well and tell stories. Ivan knows that I have a cooking background. Neither one of us disrespects the other person’s input.
IO: That’s a great point, because Chris is a really good cook, so it’s really great. Whenever we work together, Chris understands how kitchen flow works and he understands…
EL: Do you think if he wasn’t a good cook…?
IO: I don’t know. I think what Chris said was really cool. I think that’s true. And also, I’m a lifelong reader. I’m a pretty good writer. I’m obviously nothing like Chris… it’s not my profession… but I’m an okay writer and I understand grammar and I understand structure really well. I can look at something written and I can know if it’s good or bad pretty quickly. I think together we could really bounce off each other’s stuff.
IO: Then I think both of us are really hard workers. Chris wouldn’t have to say, “Why didn’t you…?” I’m not that stereotypical chef who’s like, “Dude, you’ve got to write even one recipe, please.” It wasn’t like that. He’d be like, “I need 10 recipes next week,” and I would write 10 recipes and send them to him.
EL: You bring up something that I think is really important because people have been asking me on the Serious Eater tour about, “What was it like to collaborate with Kenji?” What I say to people is, “Even though I can’t…” I’m a good home cook, but I’m not going to pretend that I’m Kenji. But what we shared was a worldview and a set of values and a pension for hard work. If you have those three things, you can collaborate.
EL: People say, “You’re jealous Kenji’s…” To me, Kenji’s success is like I’m a father whose son just got bat mitzvahed. It’s never about that. But in order for that kind of collaboration to work, there has to be shared values. There has to be a shared work ethic, to your point. There has to be all those things or else you are going to run into problems when you collaborate.
CY: I think part of that value system, too, is a shared vision of what you want this thing to be at the end. I think that’s hugely important and you both want to create the same thing or get to the same place. Maybe you have different methods to get there, but you and Kenji both wanted to succeed. You wanted Serious Eats to be great and you both wanted it to be a specific kind of thing.
EL: Kind of great, yup.
CY: You’re fortunate, honestly, having people like Kenji on staff and not having to rely so heavily on chefs. We relied really heavily on chefs with Lucky Peach and I’m not saying that wasn’t a huge honor and a great creative inspiration, but… I’m getting to why Ivan is different… you end up with people who’s goal isn’t necessarily exactly the same as yours. So you’re trying to extract a certain kind of thing from them and they don’t want to give it to you.
The thing that makes Ivan different and the reason why we don’t really butt heads on this thing is we have a shared goal in mind and he know when I’m bugging him to go into deeper detail from something that happened to him 37 years ago.
EL: That’s for a good reason.
CY: There’s a good reason for it. I tell him, “Hey, we cannot do this recipe because I’m a pretty good home cook and I can’t do this and I can’t find these ingredients.” He’s not going to be like, “No, I cannot water down my Japanese experience for the sake of these puny American readers.” That doesn’t happen. We want the same thing.
EL: We haven’t gotten into the Gaijin Cookbook in great detail, but you did come up with a great segue, so I’m going to come up with a not-so-great segue. We’re going to have to leave this episode of Special Sauce right here. Of course, thank you for coming and thank you for agreeing to stay around.
EL: Ivan and Chris, it’s always great to see you.
CY: Thanks so much for having us.
IO: Thank you. Awesome.
EL: Now it’s time for a visit to Serious Eats’ world headquarters test kitchen.
Daniel Gritzer: Gravy is a sauce made by taking a meat stock and also the drippings from a roast, such as a turkey…
EL: Serious Eats’ managing culinary director, Daniel Gritzer.
DG: And thickening it with a roux, which is just a mixture of flour and butter. A good gravy is all about that perfect velvety, silky texture, and that’s what you want to nail. You don’t want a gravy that’s too thin and watery. You don’t want a gravy that’s thick and clumpy and gloppy and lumpy. It’s really easy to get it right, you just have to note a few key techniques.
So I’m going to melt my butter. It’s about three tablespoons of butter. Just a bit less than the total amount of flour I’m using. And I’m doing this for one quart of stock. Get the butter melting. What we don’t want to do is brown the butter here, although it’d probably still be delicious anyway.
In goes our quarter cup of flour. I whisk it around. I’m going to make this paste. As soon as the flour doesn’t smell like it’s raw anymore, we can start adding our stock. The key here is to add it in small increments while whisking. It’s going to seize up and make a paste. It’s almost like a dough. Add a little more. It might get a bit lumpy for a second, but it’s at a consistency where you can very quickly beat out those lumps. At this point, it’s thin enough that I really can just pour and whisk and the same time. Now it’s going to be a little thin to start out, but as soon as it comes to a boil and cooks for just a bit, it’ll thicken back up.
I’ve got here the drippings from a roasted bird. I’m just going to take some hot water and you can see it dissolving into the water. All right. I’m going to scrap this deglazed good stuff right into the gravy. The gravy is a good consistency when it coats a spoon and you can tell… you can run a nice line through it. Bit of soy sauce, which boasts the umami. Pepper.
Let’s try it.
Let’s say hypothetically that your gravy is too thin. What now? Well, you have a few choices. The first thing you can do is you can reduce it down. The risks with reduction are, first of all, you lose volume. Also, if your gravy is already salty enough, any reduction you do is going to concentrate the salt and make it too salty. If you don’t want to use reduction, you have to thicken it another way. One of the easiest ways to do that is to add a thickener like flour or cornstarch or a roux. The key is to not create lumps in the process.
So if our gravy is too thin, one thing we can do is make something called a beurre monte, which is just a mixture of flour and butter. Kind of like a roux except we don’t cook it. Roughly equal parts flour. Similar amount of butter. I’m just going to mash the flour and butter together, carefully, to make a flour and butter paste. Lumps form when a dry starch goes straight into the liquid and it forms these pasty balls. When you intersperse the starch with fat, that keeps the starch granules separate. Then when it goes into your liquid, you’re not going to have the formation of lumps.
So I take it and I whisk it right into my gravy and no lumps will form in the process, and the flour, after a few minutes will start doing it’s thickening. If I try to thicken it with cornstarch, what I want to do is make a slurry. I don’t want to dump the cornstarch straight into my gravy, because I have a risk of lumps if I do that. So I’m going to take my cornstarch in a dish and I’m going to add some of my gravy to it here first and stir it around. It’s easy to get lumps out in a very small quantity of liquid. It is hard to lumps out in a very large quantity of liquid. And then I’ll put that slurry into my gravy and whisk that in. Once again, no lumps. With the help of either flour or cornstarch, my gravy is now back to a good consistency.
So you weren’t looking at your pot and Uncle Henry walked up and thought he’d thicken your gravy and he just put some flour straight in and now Thanksgiving is ruined! But it’s not, we can still save this. What do we do if we have lumps in our gravy? The first thing we can do is we can just strain out the lumps. That’s very easy. Right through a fine mesh strainer. Push it through. And lump-free gravy comes out the other side and all that thick, pasty flour stays behind in the strainer. That’s method one of removing your lumps: horrible, offending lumps.
Another option for removing lumps is to just blend them out. You can use a countertop blender or an immersion blender. Let’s see how well this works. It should be pretty good.
The moral of this story is that lumps are bad but lumps are also really easy to deal with, even if you make the mistake of introducing them to your gravy.
EL: Serious Eats’ managing culinary director, Danel Gritzer. More tips from our test kitchen next time.
EL: That’s it for today. Next week on Special Sauce, Kenji will be back to answer… with his usual scientific precision… your culinary question of the week. Do send in your questions to Special Sauce at seriouseats.com. Plus, the rest of the Ivan Orkin and Chris Ying saga. All this on next week’s Special Sauce. So long, serious eaters. See you next time.