Celebrate the Ramen Phenomenon Tonight at IKEA

Tonight, IKEA will become much more than a storehouse for chic, inexpensive Swedish home goods.

Tonight, IKEA will be the Iron Chef kitchen.

Well, not the Iron Chef kitchen, but an Iron Chef-style throwdown will be happening in the upstairs kitchen at IKEA, and the theme is ramen.

Foodie PR maven Dutch Small and IKEA have gathered sous chefs from six of Houston's top restaurants to create what they're calling The Great Ramen Challenge 2013. The goal is for chefs to create the perfect bowl of ramen, but in keeping with IKEA's economical and egalitarian ideals, there is a catch.

The chefs have no more than $3 to spend per bowl of ramen, and they have limited tools to use in preparation. Think cooking for college kids. You've got $3, a hot plate, a pot, some knives and a spoon. Now what?

According to the participating chefs, you can still make some mean ramen under those parameters. I caught up with Lyle Bento of Underbelly, Michael Castillo of Uchi, Jordan Economy of Bar Boheme, Jean-Philippe Gaston of Cove, Patrick Hart of Eatsie Boys and Cyrus Caclini of Kata Robata to see what they've got in store for the competition.

The event is more than just an evening of revelry, competition and yummy ramen; it's all for a good cause. Small tells me that in recognition of IKEA's "design for the masses" value set, the mega store is making a $6,000 donation to the Houston Food Bank in honor of the event.

Golden Ramen Trophies will also be given out to the top dishes as chosen by the crowd and the panel of judges. The judges include Katharine Shilcutt of Houstonia Magazine; Eric Sandler of CultureMap; Syd Kearney of the Houston Chronicle; Taylor Byrne-Dodge of MyTable; Carla Valencia of 002; Michelle Avina of PaperCity; Darla Guillen of Eater; food critic (and frequent EOW contributor) Mai Pham; Sarah Pepper with HOT 95-7; Ja'Nel Witt, winner of the most recent season of Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen; and Paula Murphy, who will be representing the Food Bank.

Each chef will have ten minutes to present his ramen to the crowd and judges, after which the dishes will be judged. The chefs' creations will be scored on a set of criteria including taste, ease of preparation, presentation, and excellence in either reinvention or tradition.

Continue reading to see what the chefs have to say about the process of creating ramen recipes and what to expect from the competition.

Lyle Bento Lyle Bento of Underbelly is pretty excited by what he has in store for diners at this evening's event, but he didn't arrive at the recipe immediately.

"I went over a lot of ideas in my head," Bento explains. "I thought of some safe ones, some hard ones and some fun ones. Then I started doing a take on this dish that Chris [Shepherd] had in New York, and it's rock and roll! I really just want to tell the story of this dish."

No word yet on the details of the "rock and roll" meal, but Bento does acknowledge that it's simple and designed to feed poor people, so it fits well within the parameters of the competition. He also notes that it's very representative of both Underbelly and himself as a chef, particularly because he ate ramen often as a child.

"I didn't grow up with a lot of money, and we ate ramen noodles and hot dogs every day," Bento says. "My mom still makes that for me when I go home, and I love it."

The only part of the competition that worries Bento is working with one small pot and a hot plate to feed 250 people. The $3 budget he can deal with, but, as he says, "One pot for 250 people is no joke!"

Michael Castillo Though there might be a few last minute changes to the recipe, Michael Castillo of Uchi thinks his recipe is ready to shine. He admits to testing several recipes at home, but, he says, "It's pretty filling and not very healthy so the testing didn't go very far."

Castillo thinks the idea behind the challenge is interesting, because so many college students (and even off-duty chefs) eat simple ramen at home because it's cheap and easy to make. He's sticking with instant ramen for the competition rather than making or buying fresh noodles because he wants his dish to be as true to the college ramen experience as possible. Thankfully, though, he threw away the included flavor packets.

One thing that Castillo found challenging was the budget. He quickly realized how much even simple things like a bottle of Sriracha could cost (about $3).

"First you have to figure out what you want," he says. "Then you figure out what you can afford."

Jordan Economy With a last name like "Economy," you'd expect the chef of Bar Boheme to have a few ideas about making good food on the cheap.

"When I was in school, I was always broke," Economy explains, "so not having a lot to cook with is something I'm used to. I can definitely make it work."

Economy describes his cooking style as traditional with a southern flare, and that's reflected in the ramen he'll be showcasing tonight. He didn't want to give too much away, but he was able to tell me that it involves ground pork, because he feels it's fairly easy for a college student to buy inexpensive, good quality ground pork. And though he attempted to use instant ramen in his recipe, he found that it just wan't up to par.

"My only complaint with the Instant Ramen is that it wasn't long enough," he says. "Fresh noodles are the only way to go."

When I asked Economy if he had any smack talk for his fellow competitors, he laughed and brushed the question aside.

"I'm a really laid-back guy," he says. "Not being cliché, but just being associated with the ramen challenge...I'm more excited to be included with these chefs than to win or anything."

Jean-Philippe Gaston "From the beginning I went with the idea that it would need to be simplified as much as possible," explains Gaston, chef at Cove Cold Bar.

His goal with his ramen was to make it as clean, healthy and inexpensive as possible. Gaston acknowledges that this might not make for a traditional ramen, but he wants to show people that they don't need meat to make a mean bowl of soup.

"Everything is very clean and very healthy, because that's the way I eat," he says. "I'm using a really good quality fresh noodle that's readily available to anyone." Gaston was sure to add that the type of noodles he's using are from a local grocery store, to emphasize that people on a budget don't have to stick with instant ramen.

Gaston also brings a unique perspective to the throwdown in that he got used to working with limited tools in college. He recalls working with IKEA pots, pans and boards to make food for himself, and he thinks the tools that the chefs have been given for the competition are more than enough.

When asked what he'd say to his fellow competitors, Gaston replies diplomatically, noting that they're all friends. Then he adds: "I guess I would tell them thanks for the trophy tomorrow!"

Patrick Hart As one of the young guns in Houston's culinary scene, Patrick Hart of Eatsie Boys vividly remembers eating ramen while he was in school. It wasn't that long ago.

"I've just gotten out of college," Hart says, "so I was like 'Ramen? That's my meal!' In culinary school, we worked with a lot of really good ingredients, and it's easy to make a good meal with that. It's more challenging without the great ingredients and kitchen."

Still, Hart feels up to the challenge, and he's excited to show off ramen to Houstonians, who seem to have only recently discovered ramen and have gone kind of crazy for it.

"I love ramen, I think it's only going to get better. I'm a huge fan of Tatsu-Ya in Austin. We go there once a month. The ramen craze needs to catch up to that level here, so I'm hoping that these recipes will open people's minds."

When asked what he'd do if he won, he said that he thinks everyone wins in a situation where there's good food and where IKEA is donating $6,000 to the Food Bank. But, he says, it would be nice to have bragging rights.

Cyrus Caclini Chef Cyrus Caclini of Kata Robata approached the challenge with a clear goal in mind: create something that "will help warm up the body during the cold season but is also easy enough for everyone to make."

Caclini says he imagines college students staying up late at night studying and getting hungry. They're cold and tired and don't have enough time to go out and get food somewhere. He thinks his dish will be the perfect solution to that problem.

As for the budget and utensil limitations?

"We all have the same things to work with," he says, "so if anything, it's fair game."

Caclini thinks that the most difficult part of the challenge will be only having one pot to serve 250 people. "It's not even that big of a pot!" he says. "You'll see it. It's not that big."

When I asked him if he had anything he'd like to say to his fellow competitors, Caclini laughed. "There are some things I'd like to say," he admits, "but I don't want to sound arrogant."


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