"This is my soul food. I love it."
I'm in the basement of Slurping Turtle, chatting with chef Takashi Yagihashi, and he's explaining how he got into the ramen business. His culinary background had long been focused on higher-end French and Japanese fare, evidenced by his eponymous Bucktown restaurant. But once he achieved success in that world, he wanted to master—and, lucky for us, share with Chicago—the cuisine that brought him comfort and happiness as a kid in Japan.
Yagihashi goes on to recall how after baseball practices and games (he played pitcher, the natural position for a future chef), he and his friends would eat ramen to satisfy their athletic hungers. "I'd go to the ramen shop all the time," he says. But in order to serve in the States the high caliber of ramen he knew from back home in Japan, Yagihashi first traveled there to train. He arranged to work under a shop owner he knew from his youth. Yagihashi actually paid the guy to work there, and while he was serving, patrons ate for free. The experience led to the now-legendary Sunday noodle brunches at Takashi restaurant, which in turn led to the opening of Slurping Turtle.
It was only due to lack of on-premises space, Yagihashi says, that Slurping Turtle at first outsourced its ramen-making to a California-based company that specializes in the craft. They followed his own recipe, but it could take up to two weeks from the time noodles were made before they were served in Chicago, thus requiring the use of preservatives. The noodles from California were hardy enough to make the trek without sacrificing any textural qualities, but they were subject to faint aging that Yagihashi says weakened their floury flavor. When a basement space became available in the restaurant's building, the team seized the opportunity, acquiring the extra room and installing a highly specialized ramen-making machine from Japan. Making the noodles in-house meant no need for any preservatives. "Now we are achieving a more fresh taste," Yagihashi says proudly.
A chef friend in New York recommended the machine to Yagihashi for its productivity, power, and control. Being a nearly $40,000 investment, Yagihashi went to the manufacturer's headquarters in Japan to trial the machine. And it's a marvel to watch—performing many of the same functions as a traditional in-home pasta roller, except on a grander scale and with extreme precision. By now the machine has been supplying the restaurant, as well as Yagihashi's ramen shop in the Macy's food court, for roughly three months. And he just may need to buy another one; Yagihashi is in the early stages of planning another ramen shop in his old stomping grounds of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The team at Slurping Turtle spent a long time perfecting a new ramen recipe to use with the machine, one that captured the right balance of lightness, gluten-driven elasticity, and bite. What's more, Yagihashi wanted diners to experience the noodles' freshness and inherent floury flavor. They ultimately landed on a blend of cake and all-purpose flours, powdered egg white, salt, gluten powder ("This is like insurance," Yagihashi says) kansui, and soft water. And the ramen's texture is best described by Yagihashi as existing between al dente spaghetti and chewy Japanese mochi.
For an in-depth look at how Slurping Turtle makes its in-house ramen noodles, check out the slideshow.