Everyone seems to have at least a passing fancy with the food culture of Japan, a love of sushi or a favorite piece within the tempura melange (we like the sweet potato). But when it comes to ramen, the West may not have developed as deep an appreciation or understanding for those unassuming shops spread throughout the country as we should have. The new documentary Ramen Heads from newbie director Koki Shigeno aims to fix this, or at least give us a little more information than we may have had before. Foodies, rejoice.
For the bulk of the film, we follow Osamu Tomita, one of Japan's most beloved and laser-focused chefs, a multiple-award winner who rose from a shiftless youth to that of ramen master. Tomita's shop is tiny, a mere 10 seats, but between his prep kitchen and army of apprentices—whom we learn he doesn't teach so much as he allows them to steal his methods—we learn why customers line up as early as 6 am for lunch: Tomita is a genius. Part of the allure comes from the more democratic accessibility of ramen. As Tomita says, any $100 meal is bound to be pretty good, but how can you present the same quality for merely $8? The answer lies someplace between his expertly cooked meats, delicious-looking marinated eggs, his unorthodox broths and his house-made noodles, which change flour types based on the seasons and come a little longer than usual to, as Tomita puts it, up the "slurpability."
Elsewhere, we get brief glimpses into a bustling night market with a chef who estimates nearly 1,600 bowls served on peak days, a miso-loving lady chef (apparently a rarity in the ramen world) who has developed her own personal broth over a decade, and the titular ramen head customers ever in search of the best bowls. Not since Jiro Dreams of Sushi has a documentary about Japanese food—or food in general—so lovingly and tantalizingly invited outsiders into the closely-guarded secrets of master chefs, nor have we ever been so hungry watching a movie.
If nothing else, a particular respect for ramen emerges from the fray, forever changing our idea of the painstaking work involved and its importance in the culinary world.
+Fascinating and exhilarating
-Vegans may feel left out … but don't they always?
Directed by Koki Shigeno
Center for Contemporary Arts, NR, 93 min.