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What makes the perfect noodle soup? Not even Ramen Lord can tell you

Entering Ramen Lord’s one-bedroom apartment is like venturing into a quasi-Japanese land. You wouldn’t expect this to be the home of a white dude who works in consulting. 

“Shoes off?” I asked as I waited in the entryway. 

“This is an Asian household,” he joked.

Mike Satinover, aka Ramen Lord, is an amateur ramen chef based in Chicago. He has been fine-tuning his craft for more than a decade, devouring and dissecting bowl upon bowl of noodles. With 22.6k followers on Instagram, Satinover chronicles his cooking highs and lows. By day, the 32-year-old works as a marketing research consultant at Kantar. At night, his kitchen comes to life.

On the surface, it’s easy to view Satinover as Ramen Lord: a home chef dogged in his chase of the perfect soup. But Satinover’s dedication is much more complex. In his hyper-awareness of success, he embraces his fear of failure through a devotion to the art of ramen.

“I know this is part of the game, but messing up can be really depressing and incredibly demotivating,” he wrote in an Instagram post about making wontons in October. “I know that the creative process is inherently iterative, because new territory warrants mistakes. But I can’t help myself, sometimes after bowl 10 still not being good, thoughts like ‘why am I even DOING this’ are super common.”

Though typically associated with Japanese food, ramen first came to Japan from China in the 19th century. It has since boomed in popularity, leading to a wider embrace — and conversely, appropriation — of Japanese cuisine and culture in the U.S. According to Tastewise, a company that analyzes food and restaurant data to predict consumer behavior, U.S. consumption of ramen grew nearly 17% over the past year. 

Still, really good ramen is hard to come by, Satinover told me.

“It’s such a new food historically that it doesn’t have the same weight or cultural rigidity that many other Japanese foods have,” he said. This means there are countless variations of ramen. 

Technically, alkaline salts called kansui compose ramen noodles. To be legally deemed ramen, as per the guidelines put forth by the Japanese government, the dish must have those alkaline ingredients. 

To Satinover, that’s a “garbage” description. He said ramen consists of five components ranging in complexity: noodles, soup, seasoning (tare), toppings (from braised pork to sous vide chicken) and aroma oil (or fat on top of the bowl), which is what Satinover described as the soup’s unsung hero.

“The hardest part is balancing all those things together. Even if you go through the gauntlet of making five different components, which take up all the room in your refrigerator and are time-consuming, you have to make sure they all work together,” he said. “Can you imagine any other dish in the U.S. that fits that same style of cooking? Not really.”

Following a study-abroad trip to Japan, Satinover recognized a lack of authentic ramen in his college town of Madison, Wisconsin. To curb the nostalgia of his days slurping soup around Sapporo, he began cooking his own noodles in 2010. Three years later, Satinover started  posting his attempts on the subreddit r/ramen, an online community with nearly 300,000 members, under the username Ramen_Lord.

“I wanted to be Ramen_God,” he told me, “but that username was taken.” 

In r/ramen, Satinover finds acceptance in the form of flattery. “He has touched us with his noodley appendage. We are blessed,” one anonymous commenter wrote on a post announcing Satinover’s free ramen e-book, which was created in the midst of the pandemic. Another user wrote, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!!! *kneels and bows down deep kowtowing with outstretched arms.*”  

When I visited Satinover in November, I anticipated a kitchen worthy of deep kowtowing. Instead, it was unassuming, no frills: a shelf housing a pasta maker, teamed with a classic four-burner stove. I wondered how he could possibly concoct ramen dishes in such a small space. 

Still, this was his oasis. 

As he cooked his latest rendition, Satinover floated knowingly from pot to pan, from sink to refrigerator. It was a self-choreographed, at times awkward, dance of searing the chicken, blanching the vegetables and stirring the broth. He had the process down to a science, frequently glancing at the timer as it counted down. When it reached 0:00, he pulled baskets of handmade noodles from a pot of water, the steam rising onto his face.

While his cooking may appear as second nature — and despite his Ramen Lord moniker — Satinover is quick to dispel any notion that the process has been easy. “I don’t feel like I really made good ramen for like six years,” he said. “I’m not like an actual lord of ramen, whatever that means.” 

In typical Ramen Lord fashion, Satinover often defuses compliments, deeming himself to be far unworthy of exaggerated praise and deep kowtowing. “Ramen is an unforgiving dish,” he repeatedly told me. In the same vein, Satinover seemed to be unforgiving of himself. 

When he spoke of his work to me, he was wholly aware of his failures, acknowledging the innate anxiety one feels when susceptible to criticism. He pointed out flaws he saw in his cooking, which I, for one, was not trained enough to notice. As if expecting to fall short even before I tried his dish, Satinover remarked on his possible errors: “The broth might be too salty,” he prefaced before serving me a steaming cup of soup. 

Though his perfectionism may seem debilitating, Satinover’s obsession with improvement propels his work. Before the pandemic, he organized several pop-ups in Chicago, with tickets to buy his ramen often selling out in just minutes on Instagram. In the COVID-19 era, he teams up with local restaurants, like Flat and Point in Logan Square, to sell $20 kits online with all the necessary ingredients to make his ramen at home. The host restaurants receive all the profits.

“My kits always sell so quickly, and I’m always surprised,” he said. “I hit that launch button and right before I do, I think, ‘This is going to fail. The jig is up.’ But in seconds, the kits are all tied up.” 

Satinover knows he’ll likely never reach the ramen noodle Mecca. “What it means for a dish to be perfect is superfluous,” he said. But the impossibility of a flawless product encourages him to keep building on his mistakes — noodle after noodle, soup after soup. 

“Failure is much more about the attempt and less about the success. I’m able to push through because I’m confident enough that I can get there,” Satinover said. “I really enjoy the learning process of it, which is why I’ve stuck it out for an astounding ten years — that’s a ridiculous amount of time to make one dish. I think you have to be a little addicted to the learning process in order to get through that, and failure is how you learn.”