Ivan Orkin went against Japanese tradition in 2007: he opened a ramen restaurant in Tokyo as a white guy from Long Island. To the surprise of many, he quickly became a local celebrity, and was named “Rookie of the Year” by a ramen magazine. Now he makes his mark in America as the owner of two popular ramen joints in Manhattan.

In Japan, Orkin made a dish that stayed true to traditional ramen, but with a Western touch, like adding a roasted tomato topping. His cooking was so delicious that some people even started rumors that Orkin was actually just Japanese, according to a Japanese magazine.

And in some ways, he was. With a Japanese wife and biracial kids, Orkin assimilated into the culture as a permanent resident. He speaks the language almost perfectly, and graduated from the University of Colorado with a degree in Japanese.

Orkin opened his two restaurants in New York in 2014, and is now considered one of the pioneers of ramen here. He hopes to spread his love for Japan to other Americans through his cooking, and it is clearly off to a good start.

How did you get interested in Japanese cuisine?

I was in Japan and my wife worked, and I was taking care of the kids. I was hanging out and helping her out. I’ve always loved ramen since I lived in Japan in the ‘80s, and so when we came back to Japan in 2003, the ramen boom was starting to pick up some speed. We were eating ramen all the time. Ultimately, we decided to have a business.

How did the Japanese people react to a foreigner opening a ramen shop?

Initially, a lot of Japanese people came in, expecting it to be terrible. A lot of people told me that. They thought it would be ketchup flavored, or whatever. When I opened Ivan Ramen in Tokyo, I was already an experienced cook, and I was actually quite confident that the ramen was good.

It was cool being an American guy because people came because they were curious. But a lot of people stayed because they liked it.

What was it like to be a white American chef making ramen in Tokyo?

I was in a very unique position. I had permanent residency, I spoke Japanese well, I was very comfortable there, and I was a cook, so I think it worked out well. I also thought ramen was a very good choice because I think ramen is a very trendy thing. And ramen shops love a story. They love gimmicks. Some of the best ramen shops in Japan, while the ramen is always delicious, a lot of times there’s something. The owner’s really funny, or really handsome, or the shop is really funky, or there’s something that makes people talk about it.

What obstacles did you face in opening a shop in Japan?

You know, it’s funny, I didn’t really have that many. I think custom-wise, opening the ramen shop in Japan was easy for me, as it was in New York, because I am culturally fluent in both places. So I knew to present a gift to my neighbors, and I knew how to talk to the people at the Kuyaku-sho [City Hall].

Did you change the ramen you were serving in Japan to fit the American taste?

I brought the shio and the shoyu ramen here and I made them faithfully the way they were there. And I also invented new ramen that I thought people would like here. I made a spicy ramen, and a very garlicy pork ramen.

What made you want to open a shop in New York?

 I certainly think that Ivan Ramen has put the word ramen out into the universe in a very strong way, and part of my personal goal with this business is to get more people to know about Japan. Because at the end of the day, this is more about my love affair with Japan, not even my love affair with ramen. I’ve been in love with Japan since I was 15 years old. I still am.