From Wine Director to Ramen Greatness
When most people think of NYC's best slurp shops, Ippudo, Totto, and Ivan Ramen initially come to mind. However, a quick trip out to Long Island City's Mu Ramen will transport your taste buds directly to the streets of Tokyo. A Korean adopted into a Jewish household, Joshua Smookler first fell in love with this noodle dish during a visit to Ippudo. Rather than aspiring towards "authentic" Japanese food, Joshua uses extensive experimentation to create dishes that reflect New York's melting pot nature. From Foie Gras-Stuffed Wings to Oxtail and Bone Marrow Ramen, these "New York-style" dishes are packed with depth and flavor, pushing Mu Ramen past its fellow nascent noodle joints. In this episode of LUCKYINSIDER, we delve into the mind of a former wine director who is reaching ramen greatness one slurp-worthy bowl at a time:
LUCKYRICE: You're a Korean adopted by Jewish American parents and raised on Long Island - how has your multicultural background affected your perspective on food? Did you grow up eating Korean food?
Josh Smookler: I don’t know if my multicultural background has had any affect on my perspective on food, but I do know that even though I did not eat any Korean food growing up with my adoptive family, I gravitate towards it. I guess it is in my DNA. I think the biggest influence has been living in NY. When I was a child, I loved Chinese food, but we never got to eat it because it was not kosher. The food I grew up eating was never something that spoke to me and my mother cooked so rarely for us. The first time I had kimchi in the U.S. was around age 11 or 12 when a family friend made some and brought it over to our house (kosher, of course!). The first time I had it, even though it was not “real” kimchi, I just LOVED it. It immediately flooded me with memories of Korea and the foods I ate as a toddler. It struck such a chord in me that I had to have it. But my family hated it because they could not stand the smell of it. They thought it was the most horrific thing and it was banished from our home because of the smell.
LUCKYRICE: What attracted you to Japanese cuisine, specifically ramen?
Josh: Japanese food was never an attraction for me as a kid as the mere thought of eating anything raw would make my stomach do weird things. It was not until I started traveling a lot did I start to appreciate food. When I lived in Los Angeles, I became friends with a gentleman named Jeff who introduced me to ramen. He took me to all the ramen places in and around Los Angeles and I just didn’t get the hype.
When I moved back to NYC in 2011, I heard Ippudo was all the rage and I had to find out what all the fascination was about. When I finally sat down after an hour wait, I asked the waitress what their defining dish was and they brought me the Akamaru Modern. It was the light bulb moment. I finally got it. I must have eaten at Ippudo at least 30-40 times during the first two months back in NYC. I just had to get a better understanding of this phenomenon.
LUCKYRICE: Ramen has been all the craze lately - what do you think sets Mu Ramen apart from its counterparts?
Josh: When I started my pop up, I wanted to make the best ramen possible, period. I was never shown how to make ramen, never worked in a ramen shop, never been to Japan and the only benchmark I had was Ippudo’s Akamaru Modern. I knew I wanted layers of flavor. I knew I didn’t want any fat in my ramen and I knew I wanted my ramen to have body and viscosity. I think what separates my ramen from others is that I come from an outside perspective and don't look at ramen from a traditional point of view. I do think I found a good balance in my ramen and I am forever seeking a better way to make ramen. It will always be my goal. I am sure there will be a Tonkotsu 3.0 sometime in the future as I am constantly trying to improve the food at Mu Ramen.
LUCKYRICE: The food scene in Long Island City is still very much growing – what interested you in opening in Queens as opposed to Manhattan or Brooklyn?
Josh: We decided to open in LIC because we live in LIC. We saw there weren’t many options for diverse dining and there was a large Asian population here. Originally, we wanted it to be a neighborhood joint. We didn’t think we would get any notice nor were we anticipating it. I really wanted something that was not just about the food but an experience. Have we succeeded? We try. We try everyday. I hope people can see and feel the care and love we put into what we do.
LUCKYRICE: You started your hospitality career as a wine director and wine is typically not paired with ramen – are you hoping to change that?
Josh: I started in the wine business because, when I was a teenager, I thought wine was for affluent, educated, and sophisticated people. I wanted to impress women. It felt like it had more cache. Silly, right? Another reason was because the pay I was offered as a cook was humiliating. I wondered how anyone could live off $5/hour and choose to slave behind a hot stove, get abused by everyone (especially a chef with terrible tantrums), get burns everywhere, and work crazy long hours. I guess the joke is on me. Now I am that person. Funny how life is like that. I am not trying to change the way people look at wine and ramen. I just want people to enjoy life and all the beauty it has to offer, may it be a great bowl of ramen or a great bottle of wine. I know I am very blessed to have both.