Mike is a Marketing Researcher by trade that fell in love with ramen while living in Japan. You may know him better as “Ramen_Lord”, which started off as a tongue-in-cheek name, but has become synonymous with his extremely popular ramen popup, Akahoshi. His popup is based in Chicago, but has made appearances in Atlanta, Nashville and NYC as well.
Mike’s passion for ramen started when he was studying abroad in Japan. Ramen became the ultimate comfort food during those cold and snowy days in Hokkaido. It was satisfying, delicious and affordable. Landing in Sapporo may have been by luck, but it’s a major ramen city and is known for being the city where miso ramen was born. After moving back to the United States, making ramen became something out of necessity. He went from eating high quality ramen every day with so many options to not eating it at all. As he learned and sought more about ramen, he just kept going and perfecting each bowl.
Akahoshi Ramen is a name that pays homage to the two cities that have shaped who Mike is. Akahoshi means “Red Star” in Japanese. In Sapporo, you can find red stars throughout the city. The old government is decorated with them as well as the Clock Tower, which is one of the oldest buildings in the city. Being a Chicagoan, the flag is truly a symbol of the city along with its famous red stars.
There’s this misconception that you have to give it all up in order to chase your passions. It’s all or nothing. But the truth is that we all have the same twenty-four hours in each day and how you choose to spend your time is entirely up to you. Not only is Mike extremely talented, he is the perfect example of how one can work a nine to five and continue to pursue what you love.
- Favorite ramen restaurants in Chicago? High Five and Ramen Takeya. There are some admirable places in the city, but we have a long way to go compared to other cities like LA or NYC. I think Chicago has the ability to get there, we are an incredible food city, and some of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten have come from here. But ramen is not our strong suit yet.
- What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned in your pop-ups? Favorite parts about it? Popups have taught me that cooking ramen from scratch professionally is really, really hard. And to do ramen well takes not only skill and finesse, but endurance for long hours and hard work. Ramen is not intuitive to western cooks, and I think, like other shokunin practices like sushi or tempura, a level of specialization is required to really understand it. Keizo Shimamoto, a wildly talented ramen chef and a friend, told me once that you need to make 10,000 bowls of ramen to start to understand ramen. I think he’s right, and I’m still on that path, each new event giving me new exposure to ways of working with this dish. But cooking ramen at scale also taught me that I love serving ramen to people. Service is my favorite part of every popup, where I get to assemble the final dish and hand it off to guests. I love to engage with guests and speak the good word on ramen, to see their faces light up when they take the first sip. It makes my day every time. I also just love the way a bowl of ramen looks, the neat bundle of noodles gently sitting beneath the propped toppings, the little droplets of oil that shimmer on the surface. Ramen is an expression of the self when it’s done right.
- Anything interesting about yourself that most people wouldn’t know? I DO have other interests, shocking, I know. General cookery, photography, cycling, getting obliterated in casual chess games. There’s sort of a misinterpretation that the obsessed do nothing but their passions. I think that behavior is unhealthy, you can be passionate about one thing and also interested in other things too. I try to be a multi-dimensional person, who also eats way too many bowls of noodles (last trip I took in early October, I ate 20 bowls of ramen in 6 days. That’s too much ramen for anyone, even for me. I am a ramen idiot).
- Biggest influences or inspirations for doing what you do? Japan is obviously a big influence. I think a lot about the Japanese perspective when making a ramen bowl. As a non-Japanese person this is sort of nonsensical, as I’m not culturally Japanese and there will always be a disconnect between how I feel and how a Japanese person will feel, but I think respect is required when making this dish. This dish means a lot to a lot of people, it represents times of struggle in poverty, and times of joy after a night out, and many other memories in between. So I am inherently a student of the history of the food, and how it has evolved over time. Those bits of knowledge help me understand what does and doesn’t make the dish work.
- Advice to other people that are trying to find their passion or they already have their passion and how to pursue it? I don’t think it’s hard to find an interest, passion is easy. But passion and skill are not the same thing. While it’s true that sometimes you simply don’t have the talent to execute on the things you dream about doing, the truth is, most people who do accomplish their passions do so because they got really, REALLY at it good through hard, unadulterated, intense work, and a burning love for that work. I think this is often overlooked; the reason my ramen is any good is because I royally screwed it up for a solid 6 years first, learning, researching, developing, and it’s been 10 years now of constant work. I do not see myself as a good ramen chef, I just will work on ramen more than any other chef, constantly tweaking, manipulating, and thinking about how to make my ramen better. The best chefs I know are workhorses, who burn the midnight oil thinking about their businesses, their dishes, their employees, their customers, and their marketing. So when someone comes to me and says “Oh, I really want to follow my passion,” my initial question always is “have you put in the time and effort to study this thing you’re interested in.” If you’re still into it after years of doing it, THAT is passion. If you want to pursue passion, do it, relentlessly, for a long time, and outwork everyone else who does it. There is always more to learn.