Keizo Shimamoto never imagined he would become a ramen chef. Nor did he imagine he would become a major player in the American ramen scene.
When the second-generation Japanese American began his blog, Go Ramen!, in 2007, he simply saw himself as a ramen eater. He started the blog to document his adventures slurping noodles around his native Southern California — and occasional trips to Tokyo — through the lens of an amateur.
“I didn’t see myself as a food critic,” he says via Zoom. “People would ask me, ‘What’s the goal of the blog? Do you want to become a chef?’ And I’d say, ‘No, I just want to eat ramen.’”
His eyes were truly opened to Japan’s many regional styles of ramen at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum. “I knew ramen, but to see so many different styles all around Japan — I wanted to take a trip to experience that for myself,” he says. In the wake of being laid off from his job during the 2008 financial crisis, Shimamoto embarked on a 28-day, 55-bowl tour of Japan from Hokkaido to Kyushu and blogged about his travels.
Six months later, he came back to Japan to apprentice at the now-defunct Ivan Ramen under the American master Ivan Orkin, one of the biggest names in the international ramen community.
“Everyone thought I was crazy because I had no cooking experience, but I felt smart enough to be able to catch onto things, ramen or not. I was determined to learn more about ramen,” Shimamoto says. After four months at Ivan Ramen, he spent two years working at another Tokyo shop, Bassanova, including 18 months as its manager.
That experience eventually took him back stateside, where he partnered with a team to open a now-closed Bassanova branch in New York City.
“I felt like I’d help them open up, maybe be there for a year, then move back to Japan,” Shimamoto says. “But as fate would have it, I ended up parting with Bassanova New York and didn’t know what else to do. (But) I had this ramen burger idea from messing around with it in Tokyo.”
Searching for a new direction, in 2013 Shimamoto debuted the ramen burger, a hamburger using discs of crispy ramen noodles as buns, from a friend’s empty booth at the Smorgasburg food market in Brooklyn. It became an instant hit.
“The success of the ramen burger… was unimaginable, but I kind of resented it at the same time because it wasn’t ramen,” Shimamoto says. “My passion is ramen, but I was becoming known as the ramen burger inventor, and nobody really knew my background.”
However, the success of the ramen burger allowed Shimamoto to launch other ramen enterprises. He opened his first shop, Ramen Co., just a year after the ramen burger launched, but a key partnership fell through and it soon shuttered.
All of these experiences allowed Shimamoto to refine his goal: to elevate the quality of ramen in America — not only through his own bowls but by improving the ramen made by others. His next step was to open a wholesale kitchen, Go Ramen Go Life Inc., to make soup for ramen shops.
According to Shimamoto, since America’s initial introduction to ramen was largely instant, it meant consumers had no reference point for good ramen, and restaurants didn’t have much of an incentive to make the giant leap to labor-intensive craft ramen. This led to a culture of suppliers selling restaurants various shortcuts, like soup concentrate.
“I hated seeing all these other ramen places using concentrate or frozen stock, saying that it’s ramen — but it’s not really ramen,” Shimamoto says. “I felt if I can specialize in making really good broth, then that would make their ramen more authentic.”
But there was still the itch to run his own shop, so Shimamoto launched Ramen Shack — first as a cart at Smorgasburg, then with limited hours in front of his wholesale kitchen in Queens — primarily as a showcase for his broth business and new noodle factory, Shimamoto Noodle Inc. Soon, Shimamoto says it became a “kind of mecca for ramen nerds to eat at.”
“I wanted to keep learning,” he continues. “The only way I could keep learning was to do all the steps myself. I felt noodles in America were lacking. In Japan, there are many great noodle manufacturers. Good ramen shops over there don’t need to make their own noodles.”
Eventually, bureaucratic red tape forced Shimamoto to give up the broth business. He kept operating Ramen Shack, but owning a 10-seat ramen shop in New York proved difficult. A rent increase caused Ramen Shack to close in 2019, and Shimamoto began to devote his time exclusively to his noodle factory.
COVID-19 has since halted his noodle business, but with the pandemic came another opportunity for Shimamoto. He moved back to California, where he was tapped by Myojo USA Inc., a major noodle manufacturer under the umbrella of Nissin Foods, to become its director of innovation.
Shimamoto, meanwhile, says he’s excited to influence American ramen culture from another angle: giving more people access to good noodles, whether it be home cooks for whom making noodles from scratch is time consuming, or for shops that currently can’t source a custom noodle (or even good noodles at all).
“My goal is to improve ramen. Not just one shop at a time, but from an internal distribution position,” he says about taking true “craft ramen” nationwide. “Now, a lot of home ramen cooks are making the most authentic ramen in America. Just like Japan 10 to 15 years ago, the home ramen craze is happening in America and people are really geeking out about it. That geekiness will take over ramen shops in America and these home cooks will open their own shops. But making noodles on your own is tough. I want to give those people an option of a noodle factory with top-quality, custom noodles.”
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