Ross Shonhan, former head chef at Zuma and Nobu talks to us about misconceptions of Japanese food, his love affair with ramen, and what to expect from his first solo venture – Soho ramen bar, Bone Daddies
Ross Shonhan is a head taller than most of the lunchtime crowd at Soho’s Berwick Street market. So it’s easy to spot the Australian chef weaving through the stalls. “Only three minutes late” he grins, collapsing into a chair in the coffee shop across the street from his first solo venture – Bone Daddies ramen bar.
It’s a well-timed launch. Not only will the steaming bowls of broth arrive in time to warm up wintery Londoners, but the ramen craze has just washed up this side of The Atlantic, and is set to take the city by storm.
Ramen is a dish that inspires a cult-following. The ‘souped-up super noodle’ swept through New York – with Grub Street New York referring to the city’s ‘never-ending fascination with ramen spots’. The manga comic Oishinbo dedicated a strip to the tales of a ramen bar, Tokyo set up an entire ramen museum, and noodle-based paraphernalia ranges from t-shirts to bowls to ramen-themed jewellery.
The ramen craze has washed up this side of The Atlantic, and is set to take the city by storm.
Now Shonhan is fronting the movement as it hits London: “It’s not unusual for me to stay up until two or three in the morning, reading about ramen” he admits.
“It is magical stuff. I decided to call my ramen bar ‘Bone Daddies’ as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the wizardry that happens with a handful of bones.” Shonhan says, referring to the process of making ramen broth. “Also, I didn’t want to use a traditional name, because that’s not what we’re about – I’m not a traditional Japanese chef.”
It’s true – the tall, blonde Australian isn’t your average Japanese cook. Which is perhaps why ramen – a relatively new and maverick noodle – is such a good avenue to go down. “Udon and soba noodles have been in Japan for centuries. So they’re standardised and steeped in tradition. And tradition means rules.” Shonhan explains.
But if udon and soba are the respectful elder brothers of the noodle family, then ramen is the unruly third child. Born in the twentieth century, ramen noodles emigrated from China to Japan around the time of the First World War, and have been hard to pin down ever since. Unlike most Japanese dishes, there has never been a standardised form of ramen –the dish differs from region to region, and is constantly evolving.
If udon and soba are the respectful elder brothers of the noodle family, then ramen is the unruly third child.
“There are 26 different recognised types of ramen noodles in Japan” Shonhan explains. “Some of them are wavy, some are straight and flat. My favourite variety is from Hakata where the noodle is thin, round and straight.”
It is normal for ramen shop owners form an allegiance to a single type of noodle, as well as cultivating their own stock recipe. The most common base ingredients are pork, chicken and fish bones, but Shonhan explains that even this rule is loosely applied: “Most ramen-makers have their own secret ingredient. One might add a handful of iwashi (dried sardines) to a chicken broth, while another might chuck a chicken carcass into a pork broth to get a deeper, richer flavour.”
I ask Shonhan what recipes he’s using for his broth – but there’s no way the canny Australian will divulge his recipe, cementing his place amongst the ranks of secretive ramen shop owners, who won’t entrust their recipes to anyone outside a direct lineage.
One of my jobs when I was a kid was to crack the head of the cows open with an axe, take their brains out and help cook them for dinner
Shonhan’s journey from Australian farm boy to ramen mogul wasn’t an obvious one. He grew up on a cattle farm in central Queensland with his two brothers. “There was no romance in the lifestyle” he laughs. “One of my jobs when I was a kid was to crack the head of the cows open with an axe, take their brains out and help cook them for dinner.”
Although he grew up surrounded by animals and home cooking, becoming a chef was never a clear-cut career path. “There wasn’t a restaurant in my town, just a few women cooking in pubs for the single miners stationed out there” Shonhan laughs. “The only place I remember going to as a kid was a Chinese buffet on our visit to the coast every year – God perish the thought.”
So it was quite a leap to move from rural Queensland to opening the Dallas branch of Nobu in 2006, having made the decision to specialise in Japanese cuisine a few years into his career. “Nobu himself trained me to cook every dish on the menu.” Shonhan explains. “He’s very creative and his food is amazing. His approach to presentation is very traditional – if something doesn’t belong on the plate because that’s what convention dictates, or because it’s not the correct season, then you don’t put it there.”
Shonhan was then snapped up to fill the position of head chef at Zuma in Knightsbridge, where the mentality was less traditional. “There was a strict adherence to tradition in Nobu, but in Zuma lot of things went on the plate purely for the sake of deliciousness or attractiveness.” He says.
When you mention Japanese food, a common response is “I don’t eat sushi”.” But that’s the equivalent of thinking that Spanish cuisine is just about tapas
With a decade of training and experience in such prestigious restaurants, Shonhan decided that to take the leap into opening his own place: “I’m old enough to have the experience” he says. “But I’m still young enough to have the energy.”
The lack of tradition surrounding ramen gives him the flexibility to push boundaries. “I want to change people’s perceptions about Japanese food” he says. “When you mention Japanese food, a common response is “I don’t eat sushi”.” He sighs, rolling his eyes. “But that’s the equivalent of thinking that Spanish cuisine is just about tapas.
“Japanese food can be grilled and fried – it uses all the techniques in the west, and more. It’s everything from breakfast through to end of night drinking – and that’s what I want Bone Daddies to be. A place for people to come and get a reasonably-priced bowl of good food at any hour of the day. To feel relaxed in a fun environment, and to broaden their understanding of what Japan’s cuisine has to offer.”
Click here for Ross' Top 5 Tips for making a great ramen Bone Daddies' Ramen Bar (opened November 2012)30-31 Peter Street,