Interview with an Innovator

Tonkotsu’s Ken Yamada: ‘I tried to ignore the vegan trend – now our vegan ramen is as good as our traditional meat broth’

The founder of the growing Japanese chain on creating new vegan dishes, expansion plans and making the perfect ramen broth.

13 December 2019
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Ken Yamada on paper:

  • Embarked on his first London project, Tsuru Sushi, in 2007. While a second and third site followed, the chain shut down its last outlet in 2017
  • Launched Tonkotsu with business partner Emma Reynolds in 2012, relying on his old family recipes and knowledge for the noodles and broth
  • Has opened 12 Tonkotsu restaurants around London, with plans for up to three more in 2020

Ken Yamada grew up an hour away from Tokyo in rural Japan, heavily influenced by his family’s seasonal cookery. After a stint working in design, he combined his personal love of cooking with his design experience to open Tonkotsu – and help introduce ramen to London.

Eight years later, competitors have come (and gone) while Tonkotsu’s reach is expanding. The latest location has just opened in Shoreditch and “two, maybe three” are planned for next year.

The secret to the chain's signature dish is fairly simple, if labour intensive: pig bones, fat and trotters are boiled for an exact period of time to thicken and flavour the noodle soup. In keeping with the times, however, the company recently launched its first-ever vegan ramen broth.

“It’s as good as our traditional ramen,” Yamada says excitedly. “I ignored the vegan trend for as long as possible – but now I’m very happy to be inclusive.”

Here, he looks back on his life in food so far, reveals more about Tonkotsu’s centralised ramen-making process and goes into detail about how the vegan option came to fruition.

My father ran a traditional ryokan [Japanese guest house], so I grew up within the food scene. It was in a small fishing town south of Tokyo. These days everywhere in Japan is offering a similar type of offering, which is why Japanese outlets are all struggling. But back then, seasonal food and fresh seafood were just part of everybody’s lives in the area I grew up in. All the women in the household used to cook. My food was all about my grandma’s food and my mother’s food, and I cooked with them after school. Food for me is all about family and home life, so that’s the bit that I missed most when I first came over to the UK when I was 12.

In a way the Japanese are similar to Italians. They’re very focussed on seasonal vegetables and ingredients. They clock onto the seasonal changes in food. It’s not trendy, it’s just a matter of life. That has always been with me and is still a slight frustration here because – blame it on globalisation, I don’t know – you go to the supermarket and you see the same thing all year round. It’s getting better, but not at the level I’d like to see.

Do we produce enough in the UK? Probably not. So if we just relied on what we produced and what’s in season then your dinner table would look quite boring. Because seasonal changes in Japan are so huge, from snowing to tropical environments, the variety of food season to season differs a lot. You can’t compare the UK with Japan in that sense.

We try not to buy anything from too far away. It’s going into your subsconscious more, just like the plastic thing. But overeducating people creates a reaction. Everyone’s talking about the topic positively and that accelerates quickly through social media, so that’s a good thing.

Good food has to be a given, then you’re creating an enjoyable space for customers to want to be. You’re inevitably fighting with Deliveroo these days, so you have to give [customers] the reason to be out and possibly pay a premium. It costs to come out.

With the brands we hear failing, the common thing is that their food isn’t up to scratch. And they aren’t as good as the newcomers that are specialising these days.

To sustain a successful restaurant business the food has to be on trend but not chasing the next big thing. It has to be good, it has to be honest, and then a fun environment with the restaurant design. We’re lucky to have a brilliant head office team now, leaving me to focus on the two things I happen to enjoy: design and food.

Our sushi restaurant [Tsuru] didn’t make money, but it didn’t lose money. We learned a lot from it. The combination of being on the high street and grab-and-go limits how much you can sell the sushi for, but then we were trying to offer something premium by hiring proper sushi chefs, so it just wasn’t a proper business model. However, I think without that we wouldn’t have had such a successful Tonkotsu, so I don’t think that was a failure even though it’s now closed.

The problem with restaurant businesses is…. a restaurant site has a finite size, and you can’t expand further because that’s your cap, so to grow your business you have to open a new restaurant site. Inevitably, when you raise money or get funding from shareholders or externally, you have to grow. And that forces you to carry on expanding. No one’s going to invest in you to sit at that level because they can’t get their money back.

Luckily, we’ve partnered with a fund that doesn’t force you to do five sites a year. Our plan is two this year and two or three next year, so it’s an organic slow growth which works well for us. At the moment, I’m not worried about too many. I’m more focused on finding more good properties.

It’s awkward trying to produce the ramen stocks. You’ve got to let it boil, but make sure you don’t burn it. It’s a long process, but by producing in a bigger, more sustainable induction system, it allows us to be more consistent and better quality than trying to produce smaller batches. It hasn’t been at all difficult to convince our board to invest heavily in the development side.

For bigger operators, one way I think it’s possible to improve quality is by having a central kitchen. By nature, it doesn’t have a good name, but I stand by it strongly for its consistency and quality. We’re relocating to a bigger site in east London, but our original central kitchen is the back of the Haggerston restaurant site. There’s a noodle room which we still use for all our sites, and the central kitchen was there. We ran out of space and rented a railway arch, and now we’re moving into a bigger railway arch right next door to the Haggerston site.

We centralise things that are better that way. So, noodle production and the broth. And the repetitive food prep like slicing the spring onions. You might not think so but it’s such a specialised machine you need to slice spring onions without damaging the fibre. You can’t maintain that level at restaurant level, so we mass prep. Guests can visit for our noodle-making classes, and our new central site is due to open in March: better equipment, better space, better flow.

This is how we make the Tonkotsu ramen broth: firstly, our main Tonkotsu ramen stock is rested overnight – so, the day before’s stock goes out the next morning. Then the cooking process starts at 4am, with pig trotters, backbone and back fat. They all go into pressured and non-pressured pots to get the right balance out of the bones and trotters. Trotters are tricky to get stuff out of because if they don’t cook long enough they don’t break apart for the goodness to come out of them, but if you cook them for too long the stock becomes brown.

We want our stock to be as white as you see in the restaurant. It’s really important visually; people think it has cream in it. You can make this amazing depth of flavour in the stock, but if it comes out brown you’ve cooked it in the wrong way. You have to keep churning it so it doesn’t get burnt at the bottom. You need to be skilled to deliver that on a mass scale. Each pot delivers 200 litres of stock so you can imagine the loss.

Weirdly, flour for the noodles is a unique composition. The main difference is the protein level, and we’ve finally found one that suits ramen noodles, but it’s a lot more expensive than a normal flour you can buy from an ordinary mill. Ours come from one in Oxford. But the alkaline salts that react with protein to give the ramen noodles elasticity is like table salt; it can be chemically produced but nowhere in the UK can ever produce that at food grade, so we import alkaline salts from Japan to react with the protein in the flour to give the yellow hue and also the elasticity. That’s the main difference between pasta and ramen noodles.

We purposefully try not to import. Typically, in Japanese ramen places they would use dried fish for niboshi – usually sardine-type fish but dried with guts still in it. They’re plentiful in Japan, but we don't have them here. Some Japanese people may say our version isn’t exactly like the Japanese version, but I think we have our own London version of ramen here. Plus, if we imported more from Japan we couldn’t possibly offer what we do at these prices.

We’re worried about where we’ll find spring onions after Brexit. We use a lot of them and we can’t serve ramen without them, but oddly we don’t produce them in the UK, or not enough of them. Our supplier asks us what we can substitute them with, but there isn’t anything. There are ways we try to prepare ourselves for a hard Brexit, but sometimes you just can’t. If we do have a hard Brexit, I have no idea. We don’t have many items on the menu and the core ramen section relies on spring onions.

We have a 13-week tasting programme to get new dishes through. We have a panel of tasters internally and externally to get feedback before items go on the menu. Because our menu is small, the changes are small, so we get to focus on two or three changes, properly delivered.

Probably every chef has come through this, but I’ve tried to ignore the vegan trend. That said, I’ve fully embraced it now. Our executive chef and I spent many, many hours developing our vegan ramens, and we’re really proud of them. It always used to be a second thought process: we’ve got the core menu, so we have to develop a vegetarian and vegan. But this one is as good, if not better, than our existing ramens. We’re really, really proud of that. It looks great, tastes great. From the start we said we’ve got to produce the best vegan ramen we’ve ever produced. Then we said, let’s drop the vegan and just produce the best ramen and it happens to be vegan. And we got there in the end.

We have a vegan ramen with a curry base and one with a miso mushroom broth. For the curry base, we fry onion with salt and black pepper; when soft, we add tomato paste, cook down on low heat, then blend to a smooth paste. We loosen with our veg stock, then balance the acidity with some mango chutney. This is then reduced to enhance the flavour. On a separate pan, a mixture of spices is heated under dry heat to extract the full flavour and added to the onion/tomato reduction. This is further reduced, chilled and rested to further develop the flavour. At service, this curry base is heated and mixed with our vegetable stock below and served with homemade noodles and vegetable toppings.

For the miso mushroom broth… we blend different types of miso and add sea salt, mirin, sake, konbu, shiitake mushrooms and soy sauce, and reduce to a smooth base. At service, this miso base is heated and mixed with our vegetable stock below and served with our homemade noodles, a variety of Japanese mushrooms and other vegetable toppings.

It’s our natural company ethos to be inclusive, so you’ve got to have that same ethos with food. I have to admit I wasn’t being inclusive with some of the choices. Vegan food is challenging for us as you have limited ingredients to produce a banging dish. It’s hard. But the challenge has been fun, so I’ve got renewed energy behind it to be able to add more and make sure it’s a fully inclusive menu. The new vegan dishes really surprised me. The fun of it is the challenge.

The key thing is locally sourcing ingredients, as it’ll allow ramen to be put on the menu at an affordable price that ramen should be. Customers don't care about the hidden costs. It’s noodles in a broth so it can’t be £20.

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