Slurp Sesh: A conversation with the team behind Guchi's Midnight Ramen

It's baaack....

Those who didn't land a coveted invite to the much-anticipated arrival of ramen pop-up Guchi's Midnight Ramen last month can breathe easy. The elusive bowls are returning on February 13 (!), according to the team's Twitter. The location is still hush hush, of course (can't give away all the good bits at once!), which gives us all one more reason to stay glued to our Twitter and Facebook feeds all day watching for movement.

The masterminds behind the midnight noodles are considerably less elusive in real life, though. I recently caught up with Mark Leary, Yukihiro Kawaguchi (Guchi himself) and Tracy Chang for an afternoon downtown.

So, I hear you guys are playing around with some new stuff. Is the menu going to be changing every time?

Mark Leary: Our first pop-up, we started out with Guchi's "house broth," which is like, pork, chicken, seafood. We'd like to do pop-ups where ramen is the focus-you sit down, maybe have a beer or a drink, get a little bite of something, and then get your bowl of ramen. Last time we did steamed pork buns, with braised pork, peanuts, cilantro.  Afterwards, we'd like to have a little dessert or something sweet. Last time it was a matcha green-tea and chocolate cookie, just to provide an overall experience. We figure if people are coming, we may as well give them the whole thing. As far as future plans go, we might be changing up the menu a little bit, but ramen will always be the centerpiece. There's different kinds of ramen and broths, and Guchi has been experimenting with all these different versions.

Tracy Chang: The idea is to always keep things interesting. For us, it's a great way to see how people receive the things we plate up. The first pop-up, we wanted to see if they would even want something sweet afterwards. So we started with a simple warm cookie, and not a whole plated dessert spectacle. After a big soupy bowl of ramen at midnight, you're pretty much done.

M: We should have done warm soy milk and cookies! Next time.

T: I think they would have fallen asleep at Bondir.

M: It's possible.

T: It's really a great platform to do some recipe testing and get feedback. The first two events were definitely industry heavy, so we could see how our chef friends liked it.

Are you planning on this being a one-seating kind of structure?

M: It's sort of venue dependent. We've been talking to some of our chef friends who have been super supportive and super interested. Boston's a great community, they all want to help out. It was just convenient for everyone at Bondir, since it dies down around 11 or so. We swoop in, like ninjas, and set up the place, and it just seems to work out that it's a late-night thing for now. If we ever found a venue that died down a little earlier, we could do an 8pm-12am kind of thing, and that's something down the road that we could do. Right now, it's limited seating, and small batches. Production-wise it helps, because we can keep it consistent and high-quality.

Why Bondir?

T: Guchi has known Chef Jason for a really long time.

Yukihiro Kawaguchi (aka Guchi): I've known him a long time, like ten years. He was the first one to invite us, so that's why we chose Bondir.

T: He was very excited about the project. We did a staff meal for them about two weeks before and it worked out.

M: He's the epitomy of the Boston food culture. He's so warm and welcoming. When you walk into Bondir, it's like walking into a house. That was an awesome atmosphere for us, just really friendly faces.

T: And similar philosophy, because Jason likes to make everything in-house. He makes his bread in-house, he does homemade ingredients and natural products. We're also on that same train. If we wanted to open a ramen shop and outsource our noodles, then that kind of compromises the integrity of our food and our base principles. Jason has that similar belief.

M: And he's like the nicest guy in the world, possibly. (laughs)

Mark Leary (left) and Yukihiro "Guchi" Kawaguchi on the line at Bondir

So are you thinking about staying with Bondir, or more focused on finding other venues?

M: Definitely in the future. He's super supportive, so we could totally go back. We probably wouldn't want to put him out again like that...

T: Two nights in a row. He has a full day's prep and service, and then he stays through our thing. He can relax and hang out, but we don't want to infringe too much.

M: It's a long day. So maybe in the future. Right now, we're looking at other locations with that similar feel and similar quality. Seating is important too, because we don't want to have too much going on.

What was this whole pop-up service like, in comparison with a regular service or prep at somewhere like O Ya?

G: It was really exciting, actually. It was fun!

T: The service was so awesome. I think having been there, and having done the staff meal there, we already felt comfortable with Jason and his crew. Everything was ready when we got there, and they were so helpful.

M: They had water boiling for us! He was beyond helpful.

T: I think we were more worried going into it and thinking about where we might have issues. When we got there, it was so much easier to prep!

M: And the service is the fun part. Feeding everyone , you know. Getting ready and prep all takes a long time, but it's sort of like play-time.

What were you most stressed about beforehand?

T: We wanted the food to be perfect, so timing was a big thing. With ramen, you can't just have a bowl sitting there for five minutes. Obviously, we want things to be more restaurant-like in the future. In the sense that maybe not everyone is going to stay and hang out until 3:30 in the morning.

M: It was a late one. Everybody was a trooper.

T: They were kind of there to hang out, though.

I remember hearing that this would primarily be intended for industry people, who are just getting off of a late shift. What is it about ramen that works as a late-night comfort food?

M:  Well, a brief history is that Guchi and I have worked together at O Ya for a while, and we started to pick each other's brain about different cuisines and techniques. He would ask how to make something Italian and I would ask how to make something Japanese. I don't want to say a friendship formed...

G: No, no, no, no. (laughs)

M: I'm just kidding. But we ended up at Drink a couple of times, and one day out of the blue, Guchi was like, "I'm hungry."

G: I was so hungry.

Guchi and Tracy Chang

And bar bites don't usually cut it...

M: No. He wanted a bowl of something, and that's sort of how the idea happened. There's no great place that serves late. Guchi just looked at me and said, "Why don't we do a pop-up? Let's make ramen late-night." It snowballed from there. After that he started making broths nightly.

G: (laughs) Yeah, and at staff meal.

M: He would make a broth and bring it in for me to try, and I would make some noodles and he would tell me it was no good. It was a lot of fine tuning, and so in our free time we would just make a bunch of different demo versions and decided on the "house broth." It's right in the middle of a thick broth and a thin broth.

T: The everybody kind of broth.

How many versions did you go through?

G: I don't know...last January I started making them. I don't know how many times I've made it at home. A hundred times maybe?

That's a lot of broth.

G: Yeah, and every time was something a little different.

M: Every other day he would bring in a little sample of broth and say, "Take this home, and make noodles!" It was sort of a piecemeal sort of development. It was fun.

How long does it usually take for the broth to come together?

G: Depends on the kind of broth you want to make.  The one I made last time, the original, was ten hours. Boiling, boiling, boiling, cooking...steaming.

What is the secret to a great noodle?

M: You want a noodle that has a little bite to it, a little bit of flavor, but not enough to overpower a broth. The hardest part is having the noodles sit in the broth, and not become mushy. To me the secret would be higher protein, more gluten. After about ten minutes of eating it, you're still going to have a nice firm noodle.

T: It's all about the flour, too. There's so much to it! The flour, the technique...

M: A lot of kneading-

T: And love.

M: Yes, you have to treat it right. There's a certain way you have to roll them and thickness is a very important thing.  He [he gestures to Guchi] was very specific about the kind of noodle he wanted, so it was a lot of late nights covered in flour.

What are the components of a truly great bowl of ramen?

T: Broth with layers of flavor, I think. With complexity. It's not always apparent while you're eating it, but maybe at the end you'll get more seafood notes, whereas you get more pork in the beginning.

M: His base broth is not seasoned. It's just chicken, pork and some vegetables. And then, if he wants another layer of flavor, he makes a separate kombu or a dashi broth.  It's like three separate preparations which all have many, many ingredients that come together in one complex broth.

G: Then the pork, the runny egg, bamboo shoots, scallion and seaweed. I can put anything in there, but that's the traditional way.

T: Plus it needs to look good. It's nice if it's colorful and inviting. Also when you get different textures from the toppings.

M: It's a lot goin' on.

Why does Boston need ramen? Does Boston have good ramen?

M: Boston has good ramen, I think it just needs more places. There's a deep culture here that loves noodles and loves ramen, and I think people just need more options. Sapporo Ramen, Ken's Ramen in the Super 88 are both great bowls, but we just want to put our version out there and see how people respond to it. Guchi's version is very different, and that's the cool thing about ramen. It's unique to different regions, to people, to the chef, and it could be anything.

T: In Japan, the style is very regional. Tokyo ramen is going to be completely different  from Hokkaido ramen, from the toppings to the noodles to the broth. We've been asked before, "Oh, what kind of style is Guchi's ramen?" And, it's his style.

G: Yeah, it's definitely my style.

T: It's a little bit of everything, and a little bit of him. It's what he thinks goes well with this broth, that noodle, these toppings. I don't think it can be characterized by one place.

Can you give us a little background on yourselves?

T: I started staging at O Ya in 2009, during my senior year at Boston College. I still consider myself a student.

M: A student of life.

T: Right, a young grasshopper. So I met Guchi, and later Mark, at O Ya. I was there for about a year, and I had no formal culinary training. I had always wanted to try culinary school or work in a restaurant.

What did you study at BC?

T: Finance.

Both M and G: I didn't know that!

T: Really?

M: Good to know!

T: It might come in handy now. But at that time, I was really interested in pastry, so I went to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and took two intensive courses in pastry. After that, I went to Spain, where I spent a year with a Basque chef. I came back recently and had been talking with Mark and Guchi about this ramen venture, so I jumped on board and have been helping them ever since.

G: Before O Ya, I was at Ginza in Brookline for like five years. And...that's it.

M: He fell out of the sky, into Ginza.

G: (laughs) No, well I grew up in Japan, near Tokyo. When I was young, my parents had a ramen shop, and I grew up with it. I got a job in Tokyo after college, and the restaurant had a sister restaurant in Boston. So I transferred! So I've been hanging around Boston for a long time.

M: So, I don't have a similar story...

Your parents didn't own a ramen shop?

M: Interestingly enough, no! I've been cooking for about 12 years. I sort of fell into it. I was waiting tables at a restaurant, and the garde-manger cook called out and the chef had noticed me checking things out and being attentive, so he's like, "You want to work tonight?" Ever since then I've been cooking in kitchens. I went to Le Cordon Bleu in Cambridge and then  I sort of applied to O Ya and they were nice enough to take me.  Couple years later, here we are. I got to meet Guchi and Tracy, and the ramen dream was born.

What's your schedule like now, now that you're essentially working for two restaurants?

M: Seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

T: This started over a year ago, and I think that it goes to show, if you're making broth every day for a year, and you're not sick of it, and you're still excited for a bowl, then you're in the right place. Everytime we do these tastings, we get excited. I don't think it ever really dwindles.

M: It's always different every time. You can make it consistent, but that's what makes it exciting. Ramen is just never finished. It always sort of evolves. I've had my fill of noodles. I should probably go to the gym a little more. Or at all. (laughs) When we're not working, we're working on ramen, whether it's recipe testing or logistics. I'll get home from work at like 1am and I'll get on Gchat and Tracy's on there.

T: Our mind is always on noodles.

M: It's not a lazy business.

What's your go-to post-shift meal?

T: I guess it depended on where I was. At O Ya, I really wanted either Guchi's fried rice, which he would make sometimes, but if I went home, I would really want something salty and crunchy. Potato chips or charcuterie with a baguette. I'm kind of a potato chip fiend.

M: I think just something comforting. I'm a big comfort eater. I'm notoriously bad for eating late, but it just makes you feel good. A burger, or chips...

T: You had that thing for Craigie burgers for awhile.

M: Back when you could get that late night! I think ramen falls into that. It's very soul-satisfying.

T: It's like alone time. No one can bother you if it's just you and the bowl.

M: Especially when you're slurping.

What was that first moment like when everyone got their bowls?

M: We were in the kitchen, so we don't know what was going on.

T: A lot of people knew each other, and everyone was very chatty and excited. When the food came out, it was almost silent.

M: Yeah, we thought everybody left at one point.

T: It was good silence, though. And then you hear it start up again, as people were discussing it. It was great, because I don't think the whole point of the dining experience, is ‘okay, eat your food and go.' As I went around and chatted with people, most people had lots of feedback.

The most exhilarating moment of the evening?

M: It was nice hearing people comment on the food, just to see what the reaction was. We're not looking for fanfare or high-fives, we just wanted honest feedback. That just made us happy. If a chef came back and said something, that was fantastic. And people who weren't industry, god bless them. They must have had a ton of tea just to stay awake for us!





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