Everyone knows what ramen is, I grew up eating it. The crunchy packages of dried noodles in thinly wrapped plastic that cost about a quarter a pack. Boil some water and add the season packet then you're good to go. I had friends that would eat it dry from the bag, sprinkling the overly salted seasoning pouch on it like sprinkles on an ice cream cone. That style of ramen was introduced to the world in the 1950's but it derived from the popular Japanese working-class shina soba. In 2000 the Japanese voted their beloved instant noodles as the best invention of the 20th Century. The history behind ramen's introduction to Japanese culture are mixed but in the United States it is served anywhere from carts to haute cuisine.
In Hampton Roads there are several places you can get real ramen served and dressed in the traditional fashion. I'll be honest and say I don't know a whole lot about it other that the aforementioned packaged ramen. When our daughter returned from a visit to California she told us about a ramen shop her aunt took her to and she loved it. I asked around and the one place that kept being mentioned was Alkaline.
Alkaline was working as a pop-up at The Cutting Edge cafe in Chesapeake, VA. It would also operate at other locations in the area, like Norfolk's Field Guide but eventually chef/owner Kevin Ordonez decided he wanted his own brick-and-mortar to house his work. To raise funds to get this project off the ground Kevin turned to Kickstarter to drum up support. This could have been a risky move on his part because Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing arrangement. This meant if the $20,000 goal was not met by deadline then Alkaline would not see a single cent from backers. The clicking clock is a huge motivator for the target campaign and the backers who have become invested to support the shop. There were 45 days to raise the money and it went right up to the last day before Alkaline met--and passed--their goal. Kevin promised to be dunked in iced ramen if they made the goal, here he is keeping up his end of the deal.
The food at Alkaline is unique and delicious. The style of noodle and broth is different from the freeze dried stuff you get the grocery store. They make the noodles fresh, in fact, the the name Alkaline is a nod to the type of noodles used to make their ramen. The broth is rich with some weight to it. The bowls we've had included egg, green onion, shredded pork and pork belly. Additional sauces and oils are added for flavor. We also had the Tater Tot Okonomiyaki which was amazing. Click the image below to watch the bonito flakes (dried and delicately shaved tuna flakes) dance on the dish. They have a rotating menu with their version of chicken and waffles, chicken wings and an spectacular Kettle Corn Ice Cream with Miso Caramel (seriously, you guys need to make this again!)
I emailed Kevin to get to know him and his operation a little bit better.
GC: Congrats on the Kickstarter! Can't wait to hit the pig roast! (Everyone that chipped in on Kickstarter are going to be treated to a pig roast due to surpassing their $20,000 goal.)
KO: Hey George. Thank you! We haven't started planning the pig roast yet but I already know it'll be awesome.
GC: Could we get a little background information on you?
KO: Well, I grew up in a Navy family. My dad spent 24 years in the Navy. Over the course of his career we moved all over the world from San Diego to Guam to Washington to Japan then finally settling here in Virginia. It's difficult for me to call anywhere my hometown but if there is one I consider Virginia to be it. I went to both Brandon and Kempsville middle school. Graduated from Tallwood high school in 2006. My senior year of high school I competed in culinary competitions called Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP). I ended up doing very well and was able to win myself a full scholarship to go to The Culinary Institute of America in New York.
GC: Your experience in the industry?
KO: My first job ever was at The Founders Inn. Then my senior year, I worked as a line cook at Mahi Mah's. I worked there for about a summer until it was time for me to move up to New York and go to school. It took me a while to finish school. I went through a lot of ups and downs trying to figure out if cooking was what I wanted to do in life. Over the years I worked a lot of great jobs. I worked at The Williamsburg Inn in Colonial Williamsburg then a huuuuuuuge catering company in Arlington, VA called Design Cuisine. After graduating school, I moved to Northern Virginia and started looking for places to work. I did a stage at a place called Birch and Barley. That is an incredible restaurant and I regret not accepting the job offer there. Instead, I took a job at Michel Richard's new restaurant, Michel. This was one of the toughest jobs I've ever worked. I didn't last long and it turns out, Michel didn't either. After leaving there, I think it closed down the following year. Then, my girlfriend got pregnant and we decided to move back down here to be closer to family. I quickly got a job as a line cook at Todd Jurich's Bistro. I felt very comfortable there and was able to move up the line very quickly. When I got to the point where I felt I couldn't move any further up, I left. After leaving Todd's I got myself a job at Terrapin as a line cook. When the current Sous Chef put in his notice, I quickly gave my request to replace him as the new Sous Chef of Terrapin. Unfortunately, I was passed up on the opportunity. Shortly after, I decided my time at Terrapin was up. At this point in my career, I had been spend the last 8-9 years in the industry, was formally trained by the best culinary school in the country, and worked under some of the most famous chefs yet I still hadn't been able to secure a sous chef position. Either there were none available or nobody thought I had what it took to manage the kitchen. I found myself in a dark place. I was ready to quit the industry thinking this was not for me. Then the opportunity to start Alkaline came up. I figured, if no one wants to make me their sous chef, fine, I'll start my own restaurant.
GC: The idea behind Alkaline, name, origin.
KO: I named my restaurant Alkaline because they are the type of noodles that we were making in house. Alkaline refers to the pH level of the noodles. These types of noodles were ideal for ramen because the alkalinity helps the noodle stay strong and bouncy and hold up while sitting in a extremely hot broth.
GC: Are the recipes a joint venture or do you come up with them all?
KO: I cannot take credit for all the recipes we use at Alkaline. At the same time, there isn't one recipe that we simply just rip from somewhere whether its online or from books. What I'm saying is, I didn't invent ramen. I didn't invent this technique of boiling the pork bones to get a creamy white color. I didn't invent the noodles. But at the same time, I don't get our recipes from anywhere either. It might sound confusing but over the years, I've learned how to cook. I learned how flavors work together to create new flavors. I've learned how to visualize food and how it tastes before I even physically make the dish. The recipes and techniques we use at Alkaline were created centuries ago but we just adapt them to our style and what we think tastes good. A lot of times, some recipes don't turn out the same at Alkaline because usually, its just me making things without recipes. I usually just eyeball things without measuring it or reading it from somewhere. Like I said, I've been cooking for many years and I understand how to develop flavor. However, we're in the process of standardizing all our recipes now so my cooks can do it the same every time even when Im not around. I've found that writing things down is a very hard thing for me to do.
GC: Where is the new space going to be located and why?
KO: I am considering a couple different options for Alkaline's home. I really like Ghent and I'm warming up to Park Place. I think Ghent already has a great look and feel. There are a lot of people who enjoy walking up and down Colley to frequent all the local restaurants in the area. Ghent has a lot of character and I feel that Alkaline could really help add to it. I like the idea of setting up in Park Place because of timing. Right now, Park Place is on the brink of coming up. With Handsome Biscuit heading the charge, and other restaurant/bars soon to follow, Park Place will be a great, safe place to enjoy the eats that Norfolk has to offer. That's a few years down the line but I have the opportunity to change a neighborhood for the better. What better motivation is that?! I get to do what I love and also help develop an area of the city that some may consider "ghetto".
GC: Will the pop-ups continue or will the the brick-and-mortar be the place to be.
KO: When Alkaline is finally ready it will definitely be the place to be. In the mean time, we're gonna keep bringing ramen as a pop-up. Currently, we are hosted by Pendulum Fine Meats off of Shirley Ave. Its a really great butcher shop/retail market/ restaurant. They have fantastic product and really go to great lengths to know where the product is coming from. I feel very lucky to be in this position. We get to use all this great product as part of our deal for doing a long-term pop up at Pendulum. We will be there every Friday-Monday night for at least 3 months.
GC: Did the Kickstarter give you the warm fuzzies?
KO: Well, honestly, Kickstarter almost gave me a heart attack! The last day was so intense! One of the questions I would get asked all the time during our campaign was why we didn't use other crowd-funding sites instead like Indiegogo where even if I don't reach my goal, I am able to keep whatever donations were pledged. Well the answer is simple, you got to risk it. I feel that the risk factor in not getting anything at all was a huge motivator for me and probably to many of the backers. Its all or nothing. I could've used Indiegogo but I definitely wouldn't have worked as hard. I really really worked hard to have a successful Kickstarter. What a lot of people don't realize, is that "going viral" is hard to do. It seems like a simple concept where maybe a random video of some cats being cute or something just happens to get 1 million views in a matter of hours. Those are the exceptions. I feel that most of the time, you have to force yourself to be successful. We carefully planned all those events for our Kickstarter. I spent 4 months working on the campaign even before we launched. I spent a lot of time working on shooting our video, and pictures, and content to put in the page. In hindsight, I feel our backer incentives could have been reworked. They were okay but could have been better. But anyways, I worked really really hard to make sure our kickstarter was successful. It's really hard to convince strangers to give you money so I knew that I had to really present my restaurant in a great way. I probably sent out 100 emails to my personal network of friends and family to try to get us to 50% funded by the first 2 weeks. That was unsuccessful. I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous during those last couple days. 2 days before our deadline we were at 5k. The last 12 hours we had just barely hit 10k. I woke up that morning and saw our progress and it was like my heart dropped. We needed to raise 10k in 12 hours! At that point, there was nothing I could do but hope that all that planning for the events and emails and facebook shares would work. At some point, I just had to stop thinking about it and have faith in my hard work. We ended up making 15k in 12 hours. I still can't believe it. People are so amazing.
Lastly, I know throughout a lot of these answers I talk about myself and all the hard work that I put into the restaurant and Kickstarter. Honestly, I can't take all the credit. There are many people out there who helped me out tremendously. I would really like to thank them for their support. David Hausmann helped me plan Kickstarter events and pop ups at Field Guide. Ross Riddle from Hashi let me take over his food truck while at an O'Connors event. Matt and Melanie Hayes from the Cutting Edge have supported me from day one. Without them, Alkaline would not be around. Paolo Obcemane is my photographer and videographer who does amazing work and is awesome because he works for food! My staff who have stuck with me Melissa Pepino, Juanito Cate, and David Cole. They had it really hard for the month of August. We took a break while I spent the month planning they were left without a job. Most people would've moved on but they stuck it out. When you have a dream, no one will sacrifice as much as you to make your dream successful. However, I'm lucky and found 3 people are still willing to sacrifice a lot for Alkaline. Dylan and Dana Wakefield and the other owners of Pendulum Fine Meats for all their support of Alkaline. I think they are just as excited as we are that we're going to pop up at Pendulum. Of course, my mother, father, brother Mike, and sister Laurie had huge roles to play. Mike and Laurie have gone to every single pop up event. They went to both Field Guide events, Hashi collaboration at O'Connors, they went to the Cutting Edge probably once a week, and they have a lot of friends who they've brought in throughout the year. While my parents don't frequent the restaurant as much, they play a huge role too. I probably worked 90 hours a week for the last 9 months. Most of that time, they would babysit my 2 year old son Maxim. I hope I didn't forget anyone but if I did just know that your help is really appreciated and I am so grateful to have you.
George, if there is any part of this email that I truly believe to be the most important, its that last paragraph. Alkaline would not exist if it weren't for them. I constantly thank them for their support and they're really the reason why I push so hard.
You don't have to wait till they open new shop, head over to Pendulum Fine Meats in Norfolk to try out Alkaline:
Mon: 5:30 pm - 9:00 pm
Fri - Sat: 6:30 pm - 10:00 pm
Sun: 5:30 pm - 9:00 pm