otaku adventures

How Otaku Ramen came to be

Who am I?

I am Sarah Gavigan. I was raised in Columbia, Tennessee, an hour south of Nashville, and spent nearly 20 years in Los Angeles before my husband and I relocated to Nashville with our daughter in 2010. That’s where this story begins. But first, a bit about how I got here.

One day, I realized I am Ramen Otaku.

The word otaku has many meanings. To the older generation in Japan, otaku isn’t a compliment—it refers to someone obsessed (usually with anime or ramen), with no outside life. A serious geek. In the US the term has crossed over to become a badge of honor, referring to a geek or nerd who embraces their obsession with intense verve. For me, it’s ramen. But what does it really mean to be otaku? It means I will go to great lengths for a great bowl of ramen. Why? Let me explain.

In Japan, you’ll find groups of otaku kids (and adults) hanging around ramen shops, chattering about every last detail of the bowls within. There are magazines the size of a Sears catalog to describe only some of the shops in Japan. Some otaku even go so far as to create costumes that represent their favorite anime characters, who often eat ramen. I, however, am not your typical otaku. I’m an Italian-American wife and a mom, raised in rural Tennessee, who spent 17 years in Los Angeles working in the film and music industries. I discovered ramen in my twenties, and professional cooking relatively recently, just after I said a bittersweet goodbye to my career and life in California and moved back to Nashville. I had no idea I was ramen otaku until I found myself boiling 50 pounds of pork bones in my backyard at 2am. But perhaps it shouldn’t have been such a surprise, after all … 

All through my 20s and 30s, while living in the City of Angels, I became increasingly obsessed with food. I trawled the famed Santa Monica Farmers Market on Wednesdays with an extra coffee in my hand, peeking over the shoulder of the city’s great chefs—people like Ludo Lefebvre, Neal Fraser, Suzanne Goin and Joaquin Splichal, with naive curiosity. I had a move: “Hey Chef, want a coffee?” I would ask. When they said yes, I’d hand over the extra cup and ask, “So what are you going to do with that?,” gesturing toward whatever produce they were holding. 

I was always in search of new ingredients to cook in the wood-fired oven that my husband built in our backyard in Venice Beach. I hosted 20-person-plus dinner parties with my best friend, Jennifer, who supplied specialty foods to restaurants all along the West Coast. We’d spend a week planning our menu and several days cooking. No ingredient was out of our reach. Jennifer was the kind of friend who would call me and say, “Would you be offended if I gave you a 20 pound tuna loin for your birthday?” No, I most certainly would not be!

If I wasn’t working, I was traveling to all corners of the city in search of my next great meal, with Jonathan Gold’s book Counter Intelligence (the veritable guide to ethnic food in LA) in my car at all times. This was the late 1990s, when ramen was not even a discussion at this point, except in college dorms—there was no trend to speak of. I was often the only white person in any shop I visited. Yet Jonathan directed my attention toward Santouka, a Japanese chain that has a stall in the food court of a Japanese grocery store called Mitsuwa, just up the street from my house in Venice. It quickly became my own personal wonderland. 

By otaku standards, Santouka’s ramen is not the bowl to beat, yet to this day it’s the version against which I measure all other ramen. My favorite there was shio, or salt-flavored ramen, with a silky tonkotsu broth, clouded with pork fat that coated my lips as I slurped. The noodles were always perfectly cooked—not too soft—and the toppings were simple slices of roast pork chashu and thinly sliced scallions. One bowl in and I was hooked—Santouka quickly became my local go-to.

I was grateful for it. My non-stop career as a music and film agent often left me stressed out, hungover, or beat down, and ramen was my cure. At night I would wine-and-dine clients at the hippest new restaurants in New York and LA, all the while thinking about the bowl of ramen I would inhale the next morning. Ramen became my refuge. I would show up in the morning at Santouka in LA, or Ippudo in New York, full of eager questions for my servers, who seemed perplexed by my disheveled appearance and slightly annoying curiosity for what is essentially considered highly revered fast food in Japan. Now I say fast, only for the speed at which the food is being consumed. Nothing is “slower food” than Ramen, as you will soon discover. At home, I began dragging my friends and family further and further afield in search of my next great bowl. My husband and I often set out on weekend food crawls through the Asian enclaves around greater Los Angeles with our young daughter in tow.  

I began to acquaint myself with different styles of ramen: rich, milky pork-based tonkotsu broth, creamy white chicken paitan, light and clean shio ramen. I learned how important it is to begin eating ramen immediately, as it degrades the longer it sits; and I watched and learned how to properly “crush” a bowl; take in the aroma first, a sip second, and then slurp your noodles loudly. The sound of slurping in a shop became the real indicator that I was in the right shop. I was, in short, beginning my journey as a ramen otaku, and I didn’t yet know how far it would take me. 

In 2010, my husband and I made the difficult decision to leave our lives in LA and move to my hometown, Nashville. I wasn’t particularly happy about it, but we were facing the realities of the economic downturn, and there simply wasn’t the work opportunity there once was for us in California. Plus, we wanted a smaller city to raise our then-six-year-old daughter in, so, Music City it was. The move was harder on the three of us then I had imagined it would be—life in a small city in the South was worlds apart from the international world of Los Angeles. I didn’t have much work, or many friends, but the worst was the absence of ramen, which had become my security blanket. Suffice it to say, I was not at my emotional best. 

I spent two years preaching the gospel of ramen to my fellow Nashvillians, who met me largely with blank stares. Eventually, my restlessness and ramen cravings turned into threats to start to make it myself. “Well, when are you going to stop talking about it, and start making it?” asked Miranda Whitcomb, a local restaurateur in Nashville.

That was all I needed to hear. It was time to stop feeling sorry for myself, and start getting to work.

The very next day, I drove straight to Porter Road Butcher, looked the guy dead in the eye, and asked for 50 pounds of pork bones, proudly announcing that I was about to make tonkotsu ramen. Again, a blank stare. No matter, I thought. How hard can it be? It’s just boiling bones. Little did I know just how much I had to learn.

In those early days, the only source of instruction available to me were YouTube videos of Japanese ramen shops and DVDs friends had given me of televised ramen competitions, along with a few articles I found here and there that didn’t tell me anything about how to make the broths or create the tare (liquid seasoning). Lack of information plus lack of any real culinary training in a city that has little-to-no Japanese restaurants made my goal a daunting one. In Japan, ramen chefs apprentice for years with a master and are notoriously tight-lipped with their recipes, and no one knew anything about ramen for hundreds of miles in any direction from Nashville. So, my first few attempts at broth were pretty simple: dump bones in pot, fill with water, and boil until the marrow started to leach out, which took about 14 hours. The result? About 10 quarts of murky, dirty broth that smelled not unlike the inside of a gym sock. I refused to give up, though, and in fact, I loved every minute of those early days.

My Pop-Up … and the Tweet that Changed the Game

Soon, I began to make plans to host a pop-up ramen dinner of my own. Sure, I’d never worked in a restaurant; no, I didn’t go to culinary school, and it’s true that I had never cooked for more than 40 people at once. But none of that fazed me. I started to refine my broth technique, and invest in better equipment to get the job done. That involved buying not only a heavy-bottomed 50-gallon stock pot (to keep the bones from burning), but also a propane turkey burner upon which to heat said pot in my backyard, and a massive second freezer (that lived in my newly renovated dining room) to house my finished broth.

I’d start cooking my broth in the morning, and keep it cooking until the wee hours of the next morning, tending to the giant vats while the rest of my house slept. I remember one very early morning, around 2AM, I went to bail my stock from the backyard in my vinyl gloves and rubber apron, looking like a mortician. I tried to move 150 pounds of liquefied pork fat and boiling water off the stove to strain it. As I worked, I felt the pot handles begin to slip out of my hands, and visions of melting the lower half of my body flashed before me. With adrenalized strength I recovered my stance and secured the pot. My heart was beating so fast I could hear it, but all that mattered was saving the stock. Things were getting weird, but I had a pop-up to prepare for, and I couldn’t stop now. 

While I was gearing up for the pop-up, I began hosting an informal series of ramen tastings at my house for friends and family, where I worked out the kinks of the rest of my bowl: the tare, or seasoning that gives the broth its flavor; the toppings, like roasted pork and soft-boiled eggs stained in soy sauce, and even a few of my own inventions, like cast-iron chicken and shredded pork confit, aka pulled pork. This was when I began to develop my own style of ramen, one that’s firmly rooted in my Southern surroundings. The other important event during this period was the arrival of Erik Anderson, the chef at the then-newly trending The Catbird Seat, to my house to taste my ramen—before I’d ever even served a bowl of it to the public. 

“Hey, this is pretty good,” he said. I was shaking too hard underneath the table to really do anything other than pelt him with questions about how to make a fatty stock broth. His response was simple, “I don’t know much about ramen stock but I would think you would want to use a pressure cooker.” I brushed off his suggestion, as I had never seen anyone do that before. “Do you mind if I tweet a picture of this from the Catbird Seat account?” he asked. Mind? I most certainly did not! I was floored that an award-winning chef was in my house, eating my ramen, and telling me he thought it was good enough to publicly endorse. 

“COMING SOON: The best bowl of ramen Nashville has ever seen!”

The moment that tweet went out, my life was changed forever. Erik’s tweet had pushed me out of the nest. I went from underground to above-ground in a matter of moments. Soon after his post was up, it was re-tweeted by tons of local press—word travels fast in a town like Nashville, especially about something that had basically never been seen before. I was excited and slightly nauseous all at the same time.  I was now fully committed, and there was no backing out—it was time to serve my ramen to the public. 

I set the official date for my first pop-up, and 225 tickets sold in less than a week. Erik Anderson continued to be a giant support, helping me find cooks, and Kevin Ramquist, another local chef, was kind enough to let me cook broth in his kitchen. 225 pre-sold bowls meant 84 quarts of broth, requiring roughly 200 pounds of bones. This was no small operation, and apart from Kevin’s borrowed stove for extra broth, I was running the whole thing out of my house. 

I tackled my prep with the vigor I had been taught in the film industry. I made lists upon lists, complete with timelines and schedules. Once my broth was strained and ready to go, it had to be stored. No one restaurant had enough room in their walk-in refrigerator for all my broth, so I put one container here, one there. I had a map to tell me where it all was, that looked like a game of Twister.

The day before the event, the cooks showed up at my house looking ready for war with their knives and whetstones. I set them to work, and had prep running smoothly, when the doorbell rang. It was a photographer from Food & Wine, asking to shoot my ramen on behalf of Erik, who had apparently selected me as one of his top 5 picks for the best food in Nashville. Was I really being featured in Food & Wine before I had even sold my first bowl? Apparently, yes.

The event came and went in a blur, and it was a massive success. Looking back a few days later, I realized that I had loved every second of this crazy thing.  And I was moved by it, too: I’ll never forget the look on the face of one guest as he ate my ramen, because I knew what it meant to him. You see, a few weeks before the dinner, an older gentleman contacted me about tickets, asking if this was indeed the “Japanese style ramen” that he had eaten some 50 years ago while stationed in Japan, post-WWII. I served him and his wife personally, quickly running to watch him from behind the kitchen door as he reached for his spoon and chopsticks. First he took a moment to close his eyes and take in the aroma, next a sip of broth, and then finally a giant slurp of noodles. He set both his hands back on the table straddling the bowl, closed his eyes and let his head tilt back a little, then smiled. I literally began to weep. I had actually done it. I had rung the memory bell for this man, 50 years after his last bowl of ramen.  At that moment I knew—not only was I doing this, but I was made to do this. 

After that first night, I started hosting ramen pop-ups at restaurants and markets all over town, sometimes serving up to 450 bowls of Tonkotsu in one night. Meanwhile, I was prepping everything in my house, creeping around the backyard propane burner to tend to my broth while my family slept, unaware. I’d already bought a giant second freezer that had nowhere to live but the middle of the house, but it soon became clear that I couldn’t go on prepping ramen in my home forever.

Eventually I found a commercial kitchen in a nondescript strip mall in East Nashville and started working there, much to the relief of my family. Now I could really get serious about my production and the consistency of my pop-ups.

Around this time, I took the opportunity to enroll in an intensive ramen education course at Sun Noodle (the noodle company that supplies me and most top ramen shops in America) Ramen Lab in New Jersey. I had decided to wait a year to learn as much as I could on my own—I wanted to make my own mistakes before taking the leap. I believed that because of my general lack of culinary training, I had to rely on the skills I did have; which were research and knowing how to talk to people. The chefs I befriended along the way were all French-trained, and now I can say with certainty that making ramen stock is the complete converse to making a French stock.  I can recall more than a few times when I had the chance to chat with very accomplished and chefs about ramen, who usually met me with the same blank stare that I had grown used to from all my friends. But a few came back with the same suggestion  that Erik Anderson had made: use a pressure cooker to make the stock. Again, I refused this idea at first as it challenged 50+ years of ramen culture. But when I attended “ramen school” at Sun Noodle, the ideas all crystallized.

At the Sun Noodle factory—really a warehouse outfitted with a small kitchen—I met Master Chef Shige “Jack” Nakamura, who taught me the traditional methods for making broth. Not just tonkotsu, but also the golden chintan chicken stock and the rich, creamy chicken broth called paitan that I’d never even heard of before, let alone made. When I got back to Nashville, I started incorporating what I’d learned at Ramen Lab into my menu, playing around with new bowls that reflected my background and Southern surroundings—a roasted lemon chicken paitan, for example, that nods to my Sicilian heritage while staying true to the traditional Japanese techniques for broth and seasoning.

Meanwhile, the building that housed my kitchen sold to a new owner and he approached me about putting a restaurant in the space. I came up with the idea of turning the entire place into a sort of culinary incubator for new and emerging chefs, called POP.  This concept tapped into a crossroads of my skills and my needs. POP allowed me to keep my commissary kitchen for ramen, and use my networking and marketing skills to invite chefs and restaurants to do pop-ups in the space. The first theme the new owner desired? A ramen restaurant. My ramen restaurant. Which was awfully convenient, given that I was prepping everything right there in the kitchen.

Otaku South opened at POP in May of 2014 for a one-year residency. Subsequently, Otaku found a permanent home in the Gulch area of Nashville, opening as a standalone restaurant in December of 2015. When I began this journey, Nashville was on its way to becoming nationally recognized as a killer food city, but there was little ramen to be had. I reveled in bringing my obsession to my hometown. I wanted to help introduce my friends and neighbors to the “traditional” ramens you’d see in Japan, but I quickly realized that there’s no such thing—ramen is always shaped by its surroundings. So I started making bowls that reflected what Nashville knows and loves: smoked pork, pickled vegetables, hot chicken and more. I developed my own personal style; one that’s rooted in Japanese technique, but distinctly tied to my own terroir.