VOICE -144 Greg Masuda, founder,
@ Nikkei Ramen-ya
“Nikkei Ramen-ya is about striving for excellence, while getting fed. I wanted to bring something unique and world class to the Comox Valley, and continuously work to make it better.”
Ramen is Japanese soul food. In Japan, ramen restaurants, or ramen-ya, can be found in virtually every corner of the country and produce countless regional variations of this common noodle dish. Ramen has become more than a dish over the decades. It is a way of life. Especially for ramen chefs, it is a form of self-expression through perfecting their version of the soup, choice of noodles, and toppings. It has helped ramen to evolve into the artisanal gourmet dish that it is today.
Nikkei Ramen-ya, which opened in the heart of downtown Courtney on Vancouver Island in 2016, has the same kind of approach to the way of ramen. Greg is a third-generation Japanese Canadian from Alberta. He completed a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Alberta and worked as an engineer in the high-tech industry for over a decade. He then pursued his career as an accountant and also a documentary filmmaker. He never dreamed of entering the world of ramen until he moved to the Comox Valley with his family in 2015. Not to mention he never had ramen until well into his adult life. "Ever since I had my first ramen in Vancouver, my favorite noodles have been ramen. When we moved to the valley, we really missed the food that we could get in Vancouver. There was no ramen here nor the authentic Asian food."
One of his Nikkei friends had planted a seed that he open a ramen shop. Though he thought it was a silly idea at the time, the seed sprouted in his head as he was looking to do something fun and creative in the valley.
He is mostly self-taught when it comes to ramen making just like " a lot of ramen shop owners in Japan. Most of them are not trained in the culinary arts. In Japan, a lot of salarymen turn into ramen shop owners, and I was a salaryman, too!"
He set a high bar upon himself that he would make as good ramen as he ever had in Vancouver, LA, and in Tokyo, and that he would make his noodles from scratch. With that philosophy, Nikkei Ramen-ya has been very successful in feeding happy souls in the Comox Valley. Not only do people appreciate his good ramen, but ramen seems to play a significant part in his self-discovery and cultural journey for Greg.
He is also keen on doing good deeds for others by making his business a Certified Living Wage Employer. Instead of a typical tipping model, a small surcharge is added to the bill specifically to pay the staff a fair wage.
If you are a lover of ramen noodles or interested in them, Nikkei Ramen-ya will do you justice by serving authentic Japanese ramen with their local touch. Take a seat inside or on the patio, and take your time to slurp the noodles. There is a lot of care, love, and soul in that bowl of ramen.
VOICE(V): What was your first-ever ramen experience?
Greg(G): "Growing up in Alberta, I didn't know about ramen before coming to Vancouver. My first experience was Kintaro Ramen on Denman Street in Vancouver. I was a bit disappointed actually. A lot of people love the style of ramen that Kintaro makes but it turns out is not really my favorite. I preferred Motomachi Shokudo which was a more upscale ramen shop, and I might be mistaken, was owned by the same people as Kintaro. But it wasn’t until I had Marutama that I realized how good ramen could be. Marutama’s noodles made me fall in love with ramen."
V: Being a Japanese Canadian, it is surprising that you didn't get to eat ramen until later in life?!
G: "My father is a second-generation Japanese Canadian, born on Vancouver Island in 1941. During World War II, the family decided to move to Alberta to labour in the sugar beet fields so that the family could stay together. The internment of Japanese Canadians at the time intentionally spread us out all over Canada so that our culture and language could be bred out of us. As a result, the intermarriage of Japanese Canadians is over 90%. I am a third-generation Japanese Canadian and married to a Caucasian woman. My mother is also Caucasian. In the prairies, I didn't know any other Asian kids when growing up except for one Chinese family and my cousins. I never had ramen during my childhood. I self-identified as Caucasian all my life until I moved to Vancouver. I didn't know there were so many Japanese people in Canada! As I became involved with the Japanese community I learned a lot about myself through art and film-projects that were Nikkei-related. Then, started to self-identify as a Japanese Canadian."
V: Why did you grow to love ramen so much?
G: "It was the noodles. But not just any noodles. All ramen noodles, from instant to frozen generic type to the finest scratch-made ones, have that distinct bounciness and chewy texture. But fresh noodles are on another level; besides being superior in taste, texture and aroma, there is a wide spectrum that range from extremely thin and snappy, all the way up to fat and chewy. Each needs to be married to the right broth to truly appreciate their characteristics."
V: Have you been to Japan on ramen tours?
G: "I have been to Japan twice. The first time I had ramen there was in Tokyo, but that was before Nikkei Ramen-ya. The second time, I ate more than 12 bowls of ramen in 10 days! My family got off Shinkansen in Hiroshima, and I stayed on and went all the way to Hakata, which is another hour's ride. I ate two bowls of ramen there, got back on the train, and met my family back in Hiroshima in time for dinner. I just needed to have Hakata ramen in Hakata!"
V: You offer many varieties of ramen flavours. Where is your inspiration from when creating a new flavour?
G: "What I love about ramen is creativity. We have created over 30 flavours. Some of our regular bowls are Shio(salt), Shoyu(soy sauce), Miso (most popular!), Yasai (vegan), Miso-yasai, Ebi (shrimp), and Tonkotsu Shoyu(pork bone and soy sauce). There are also unique flavours like Tori Paitan (creamy chicken broth), and Gekikara Karaage Miso Paitan (Spicy miso fried chicken ramen).
Creating new flavours is always fun. The ideas come from cravings from seeing pictures in books, reading exciting recipes online, or thinking of ramen I ate in the past. I have an aptitude for cooking."
V: What makes Nikkei Ramen-ya different from other ramen restaurants?
G: "We make everything from scratch, including noodles. I love noodles more than broth, and it was important for me to make my noodles when I opened my shop. There are no other ramen shops on the Island that makes their noodles from scratch.
We source our ingredients locally as much as we can. Our noodles are made from premium Canadian wheat. All our shellfish, clams, oysters, and crabs are from the waters of the Salish Sea. We use ethically raised pork from a local farm near Courtenay.
V: How did the Comox Valley community respond when your first opened in 2016?
G: "Everyone was excited to have a ramen shop here. They also realized that it wasn't just generic ramen but authentic, scratch-made ramen. The community has been very supportive, and they bring their friends when they come to town. Two thirds of our business is repeat business. We have been here for 6 years, and some kids, including my daughter, have been eat our ramen for 6 years. We just hired someone who has been waiting two years to turn 14, just so they could apply for a job with us!
V: How did you navigate your business through the Covid pandemic?
G: "At the beginning of the pandemic, we were in the middle of building our production kitchen space. Another part of the plan was to open four more restaurants around the North Island. We were ready to expand, but then the pandemic hit. We had to drop the expansion plan but continued our work on the new production kitchen. I tried to stay ahead of the curve all the time and we managed to remain open without any interruptions despite always being short of staff. The current patio is also the result of Covid-19. We successfully petitioned the City to change the rules around patio design when indoor dining wasn’t allowed. But nobody took the advantage of the new rules except us."
V: Also, how are the current world affairs affecting your business?
G: "The labour crisis is something I never anticipated. Working in a restaurant can be quite stressful for some people, and a lot of people got out of the industry and went on to do something else. People often don’t even show up for interviews anymore. Also, inflation is affecting food costs. I had to raise my prices twice in the last year and to be competitive in the labour market I had to increase the labour surcharge we apply to all sales."
V: How do you like living in Courtney?
G: "We miss the city but we love nature. There is nothing like here being surrounded by nature. It is the primary thing."
V: What does ramen mean to you?
G: "When I think of ramen, I think of my kids nowadays. When we moved here we were having our second child, so for her entire life, ramen has been a part of her identity. Ramen is not only her favorite food, but it carries a big influence in her Asian identity.
I named our production kitchen EMIKO for my three children; Elliot, MIyo, and KOura. Koura is my Japanese grandmother`s name."