All photos by Jennifer Haile
Yuji Haraguchi is the nicest chef you will ever meet. That’s the first thing you’ll notice about him. His unassuming nature is beguiling, the guy is monstrously talented, yet he has none of the ego and bravado of today’s post-‘reality chef’ food world. He’s sort of the mild-mannered Clark Kent type who moonlights as a super chef and walks the streets by day unrecognized amongst the city’s great unwashed masses.
It’s hard to quantify the legacy that Yuji has carved for himself in his short time climbing the ranks of New York’s notorious ramen scene. Names like Ippudo, Momofuku, Rai Rai Ken and Orkin strike hunger in the hearts of foodies at their mere mention. And increasingly, Yuji Ramen is beginning to be thrown around amongst those.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Yuji started making ramen at Roberta’s, the queen bee of New York restaurants. Perfecting his recipes after the last customers had gone home and all that remained was a group of hungry chefs. Who better to guinea pig your pork broth on than Max Sussman and crew?
BYT: So tell us what your definition of izakaya is?
Yuji Haraguchi: The definition? Just a gathering place with friends.
BYT: So it doesn’t mean anything about food?
Yuji: Not really, it’s more like like a place. Gathering, and eating and drinking.
BYT: Like tapas kind of?
Yuji: Yeah. It’s like you work for a new company and they have a party at a bar to introduce the new employee…
BYT: Because your houses are too small in Japan to host a bunch of people?
Yuji: I’m not sure, we don’t really have house parties in Japan. The food is visually Japanese food you know, small plates.
BYT: Small plates because.. why? Easier to do with a bunch of people?
Yuji: I guess I don’t know
BYT: Where did you grow up?
Yuji: About two hours by bullet train (to Tokyo)…
BYT: What’s the major industry?
Yuji: There’s no major industry, it’s more like suburbs once you get out of the busy area.
BYT: So you came to America for college or before that?
Yuji: College, yes. First I started playing baseball right up until high school, and then after that I came to Oregon for studying for two years and then went back to Japan and got married. She got in to law school and that’s when I started cooking. I never cooked until then. Then I went to work for something in food, but I had to still pay the rent, so I started working for a seafood company.
BYT: What’s the name of the company?
Yuji: True World Foods…
BYT: What was a typical day – you didn’t catch the fish?
Yuji: Meet with the customers, introduce new products, meet with the chefs and they would say ‘What do you do with this or that fish’ and I’d say ‘I like this etc.’…And I got really good at it so I came to new york and I started doing marketing for the whole company. But I still took on more restaurants when they needed more information about the product especially Japanese seafood.
BYT: How many restaurants did you sell seafood to?
Yuji: Up in Boston maybe 80, here in New York about 20.
BYT: How did you take the fish around?
Yuji: I had a truck. When I was in Boston, I went to the fish market. Buy and sell – it’s worse if you do it together. If the company’s big it’s separate, usually.
BYT: So you would buy directly from the fisherman?
Yuji: It doesn’t work that way. When the boat comes they usually want to sell everything that they catch to one company so they don’t have to think about selling. So those companies are usually processors so they make everything and they freeze it or something. Or like a bigger company, like wholesalers – they buy everything and try to sell it to other wholesale companies.
BYT: What does Yuji mean?
Yuji: My name means ‘second child, second male’. People think “Yuji Ramen” but if I do Yuji they think, “Why did he take the ramen out? Right, they do more than ramen.”
BYT: What does Brooklyn-style food mean to you?
Yuji: Brooklyn-style to me is very simple -good ingredients, sort of rustic but comfortable, good atmosphere, affordable.
BYT: So where Japan meets Brooklyn?
Yuji: Yes. If you look at the Japanese restaurants in Manhattan, they are too Japanese to me. You understand how Roberta’s works right? The vibe is more laid back, people’s energies are different. I’m thinking ‘What if Roberta’s becomes a Japanese restaurant?’ That’s what I’d like to create.
BYT: Tell me a little bit about – you were working at the fish place and then what…
Yuji: Well I wanted to cook, right? Make ramen. I asked the chef at Roberta’s if I could come and practice. He was my customer; when we a had food event, Chef Carlo (Mirarchi) came to me and he said I want to use your fish. Come to the restaurant and tell us how to cut the fish. Anyways, I could tell he was a good person and had a good spirit so I went to his restaurant and did a fish demonstration for his staff, and I had a really good concept of mazemen ramen and I wanted to be the first one in America to do this style. But I had to practice so I called Chef Carlo and I said, ‘Can I come in and practice?’ and he said ‘Thursday after midnight you can come in and bring your ingredients and cook for us.’ And I said ‘Okay, I’ll do that.’ And I kept doing it for maybe a month, two months. Once a week. They liked it and then they introduced me to Kinfolk Studios, who was looking for somebody for a popup restaurant. That was the end of January and I went there and they asked me to do twice a week so I did twice a week as a second job until end of February. Then they asked me to do three times a week. And then Timeout Magazine came at the end of March and too many people came and I couldn’t handle it as a second job. So I quit and that became my full time job.
BYT: Did anything crazy happen there?
Yuji: We had to share a kitchen with this other pop up, Frej Restaurant — a Scandinavian tasting restaurant so they did a Monday through Wednesday tasting, all reservations…I had two shelves in a tall refrigerator, so I had to go shopping every day.
BYT: So you had to be resourceful.
Yuji: I didn’t like it, I worked like 20 hours every day of the Popup. So I had to wake up at 8 o’clock, go to Chinatown, buy everything and then go to restaurant and start prepping…I did it for half a year and then working at Roberta’s the other days, working six days a week.
BYT: And the other day, baseball?
Yuji: Baseball, shopping, girls.
BYT: So what happened when Time Out came to the Kinfolk Popup?
Yuji: They called me and they kept calling me with more questions and I thought ‘Wow, that’s weird,’ and then they asked me can I do a photo-shoot? Then I called Kinfolk and said Timeout wants to do a photo-shoot, can I use the kitchen and Kinfolk said no because of the other Popup restaurant, so I called Carlo and he said “Yeah, bring you’re stuff and we’ll do a photo shoot at Roberta’s,” so I did a photo-shoot at Roberta’s for Timeout and then until then it was just me.
BYT: So then you had to hire somebody…
Yuji: Yeah that was crazy too. because I didn’t know these people.
BYT: So you hired whomever you could find?
Yuji: Yeah I mean most people were very nice. I used to do demonstration at the French culinary institute like how to make sashimi from full fish, how to scale, how to filet, and then there was one guy who contacted me and he said ‘Can I work for you?’
Yuji: Korean. And I said ‘Sorry, I don’t have a restaurant. I mean I have a Kinfolk pop up but I’m not very busy.’ So when Time Out came I called a lot of people.
BYT: What are your favorite parts of Japanese culture that you miss being in the United States?
YUJI: Customer service in general is better in Japan. People take jobs very seriously, even people in convenience stores, like high school kids, they do jobs well, so overall the standard is higher for the work. In US, people work hard in higher-level work, but at the bottom, not so much. That is one thing I miss and never really got used to.
BYT: Are you a good fisherman?
Yuji: I wouldn’t say I’m good but I try.
BYT: You didn’t get into seafood and the ocean stuff until you came to the US?
Yuji: Yeah. I was not good at it when I came but I wanted to be good at it so I kept buying fish for the company and went to a few customers and watched customers how they do it and went back home and did it at home. If you keep doing it for 6 years you’ll be good at it.
BYT: Anytime you do something 10,000 times you become an expert…
Yuji: I think it’s more about the thinking. It’s not about doing it, it’s more about thinking about the structures, the how to… yeah it’s more about thinking. It’s not about how many times you do it. To me fishing is boring? But to be good at it you’ve got to think about it every single time. I make pasta at Roberta’s every day. It’s the same thing but it comes out different every day. The moisture is different each day, the feeling is different every day, so it’s a repetitious task but you want the result to be the same, so you change the process slightly every single time to get the same result.
BYT: It’s like science…
Yuji: Yeah, yeah, it IS science.
BYT: The science of fishing and cooking…
Yuji: You know what I find strange? What’s interesting to me about comparison between meat and fish, it’s like – any city in Japan or US, people come to fish. Like you go to San Francisco, Seattle, the fish market becomes a tourist destination. But the meat, the slaughterhouse never becomes the destination. Even Japan too, like you go to the coastal cities of Japan that are tourist destinations…I think fish in general attracts people.
BYT: Why is that, man’s relationship with the ocean?
Yuji: And because people eat meat more, in general, it’s weird — I think fish are more pretty as a whole…
BYT: You don’t think the cow is pretty?
Yuji: Cows are pretty to me. I think they feel too inflated to me, I don’t know. And fish has more kinds too you know. Meat’s just beef, pork, chicken – that’s it. But when it comes to fish, there are so many kinds. That’s interesting right? Like at Boston fish market people come and they eat clam chowder right? But Omaha…you don’t go there and eat ragu? And people are very fascinated when you tell them you’re good at fish. I’m really good at meat as well. I know all kinds of meats and one of the reasons I like Roberta’s is they use really different cuts of meat that nobody really uses…each cut has different muscle structures and it has a different taste and muscle lines, and they think about it and make a dish out of it that’s really awesome.
BYT: Have you seen Jiro dreams of sushi?
Yuji: I haven’t, no. But the director told him to use sushi as an art, something people can admire, and that’s really awesome. Jiro kept doing it because that’s his job, right?
BYT: So you played baseball in high school…
Yuji: Elementary school to high school. And now…
BYT: Now you play where, in Brooklyn?
Yuji: Yeah, Japanese team.
BYT: You’re batting, what’s your percentage this year?
BYT: That’s pretty good right?
Yuji: (laughs) That’s pretty good.
BYT: Are you a Yankees fan?
Yuji: Now I am. When I came to Boston, two more Japanese guys came to Boston, and they have a kitchen inside the stadium, they cook from breakfast to dinner, and the chef was Japanese because he wanted to cook something even for Japanese people. And I became a good friend of the chef, and every week Monday or Wednesday I’d deliver the fish for the Red Sox.
BYT: Did you get to meet them?
Yuji: Yeah a lot of them. I met Manny (Ramirez), I got a high five. I have all the autographs. That was fun, carrying the fish through a gym in the stadium where they work out, I would just carry the fish right through there…it was fun. They got me all the tickets. The baseball classic — so 4 years ago Japan won the tournament and a Japanese chef was the chef for the Japanese National Team and I asked the guy to get an autograph of Ichiro, so he did and I have it.
BYT: So when you were growing up, your mom cooked?
Yuji: Not cooked but made stuff — my family was never into cooking .
Stay tuned on Yuji Ramen updates via Facebook; he’s gone on a noodle trip at the moment, but will be back at the Brooklyn Flea (One Hanson Place) starting December 1st.