Escoffier Questionnaire: Moishe Hahn-Schuman and Matthew Williams
RESTAURANT: RAMEN GAIJIN, SEBASTOPOL
Ramen, the broth-based noodle soup hailing from Japan, has enjoyed a spectacular renaissance in the last few years. The seemingly simple dish incites a cult following, much like punk rock, obsessed with what ramen-lovers call “authenticity.”
When I ask Moishe Hahn-Schuman and Matthew Williams, the chef owners of Sebastopol’s Ramen Gaijin, how they respond to this fevered following, they shrug. “We’re not trying to be authentic,” Moishe says. “We’re a restaurant for this community,” adds Matthew.
Actually, ramen is traditionally prepared using ingredient and technique variables that are specific to different regions and traditions in Japan, so Moishe and Matthew’s philosophy seems to be just fine on the authenticity scale. And they are not trying to fool anyone into thinking this is “business as usual” ramen, either: The name the two chose for their restaurant, gaijin, is the Japanese term for a non-Japanese person. Ramen Gaijin is, affectionately, a couple of non-traditionalists adapting ramen to their own values, the seasons and the Sonoma County foodshed.
In between service, Ramen Gaijin feels a bit like a laboratory. The day I visit, the two chef owners have been working on perfecting paitan, an opaque white bone broth, for weeks, and their eyes light up as they begin to delve into the nuances of broth, the steaming soul of ramen. “French stock is about clarity, while ramen is about emulsification,” the fats becoming one with the broth, rather than being extracted. They dream of yakitori, labor over handmade noodles and obsess over pickles.
Ramen is both simple and complicated. A bowl of noodle soup is one version of an ancient comfort food, and yet each component of the bowl is a work of precision. There’s an imperfect metaphor for the partnership of Matthew and Moishe in those bowls, the mix of technique and beauty, ease and perfection. Matthew came up through heads-down kitchens like The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa and has a bent for modernist cuisine. Moishe was co-creator of a culinary speakeasy called The Blind Pig and was recently a chef at the Casino Bar & Grill in Bodega, a sort of permanent pop-up in the town’s watering hole.
Ramen Gaijin itself is nestled in the dining room half of Forchetta/Bastoni. When I ask Moishe if he has a philosophy around impermanent spaces, he tilts his head and asks “Is that my thing?” The two chefs met in the kitchen at Woodfour Brewing, where ramen staff meals birthed a popular pop-up and eventually Ramen Gaijin. Moishe considers his past in unlikely locations and says, “It’s a way to get out there and explore without stress. Not having fun affects my food.”
Edible Marin & Wine Country: What was the first meal you made that you were proud of ?
Moishe: Scrambled eggs and toast
Matthew: Coq au Vin, a very traditional dish that reminded me of my grandma’s cooking
EMWC: What was your favorite food as a kid?
Moishe: Kung pao chicken and wonton soup
Matthew: Peanut butter and honey sandwiches, sometimes with banana, sometimes without
EMWC: What food do you wish you loved?
Matthew: Triple cream cheeses, in general. There are some that I can eat but many of them make my stomach turn.
EMWC: What food do you love unreasonably much?
Matthew: Eggs are all I need to be happy.
EMWC: What is the most difficult cooking technique to do well?
Matthew: Butchery. So many cooks think that they are competent butchers, but I see so many mistakes when it comes to cutting meat and seafood. It really is an art when done properly.
EMWC: What are you exploring in your kitchen now?
Moishe: Making ramen, pickling and fermentation
Matthew: I know that everyone is doing it, but we’re really working on our fermentation program. We are geeking out on lactic ferments right now, exploring our own misos using different sprouted grains and legumes.
EMWC: What nonculinary influence inspires you?
Moishe: Down-tempo electronica, nature, friends and culture. My wife is an incredible inspiration to me. All things beautiful!
Matthew: Photography. I love the idea of capturing really pristine or authentic moments.
EMWC: What is your idea of a very healthy meal?
Matthew: Eggs from our chickens scrambled with kale or chard, a couple pieces of whatever fruit is in season, a piece of whole-grain toast and a glass of juice. I’m simple and I am a breakfast guy.
EMWC: What is your favorite ingredient?
Moishe: Either Ovaltine or alcohol
Matthew: Eggs, without a doubt
EMWC: What is your favorite hangover meal?
Moishe: Steamed rice and barbecue chicken
EMWC: What restaurant in the world are you most dying to try?
Matthew: Faviken Magisinet in Sweden. I’m just really interested in how you close the loop on sourcing and locality, so what Magnus Nilsson is doing gets me excited.
EMWC: What kitchen utensil is most indispensable to you?
Moishe: Tasting spoon
Matthew: My Hatori or Masamoto Tsukiji Wa-gyuto knives. Nothing is as useful in a kitchen as a sharp knife. Nothing.
EMWC: Who do you most like to cook for?
Moishe: My kids
Matthew: My grandma, who passed before I really became an accomplished chef. I think she would be really proud.
EMWC: If you could do one other job, what would it be?
Moishe: Something that uses my brain, helps people and makes some money, probably a surgeon.
Matthew: I wanted to be a foreign affairs correspondent before I ever became a professional chef.
EMWC: What is your favorite midnight snack?
Moishe: Luke’s White Cheddar Clouds
Matthew: Cereal, usually Special K or granola with fruit
EMWC: What most satisfies your sweet tooth?
Moishe: Snickers, coconut granola or chocolate
Matthew: I’m a sucker for doughnuts.
EMWC: What would you eat at your last meal, if you could plan such a thing?
Moishe: Pork satay, sticky rice and green papaya salad
Matthew: Very softly scrambled eggs with white truffles
EMWC: What’s your favorite place to go for (and what is your favorite thing to order) for … … a splurge meal?
Matthew: Benu was a game changer for me. Corey’s food is just so wonderfully refined and grounded in his experiences.
Moishe: Biscuits and gravy at Wishbone in Petaluma
Matthew: I find myself at Wishbone in Petaluma and Dierk’s in Santa Rosa most of the time. I always get something different.
Moishe: Bear claw at Della Fattoria
Matthew: I have always loved William Leaman’s spot in Seattle, Bakery Nouveau. If I had to choose a local spot it would be Della Fattoria in Petaluma.
… a late night/after work meal?
Moishe: Tacos on Sebastopol Road in Roseland or an In-N-Out cheeseburger
Matthew: We have restaurants that are open that late in Sonoma County? I find myself eating Adam’s menu at Lucky Star in Sebastopol more often than not.
… a cup of coffee?
Moishe: Taylor Maid
Matthew: I support Douglas at Melody/Ninja Star. Gelena Abaya, all the way.
… a greasy spoon meal?
Moishe: A cheeseburger at Casino Bar & Grill in Bodega, Lay’s potato chips and a Coke
Matthew: Hole in the Wall in Sebastopol. My kid loves the biscuits, and I do too.
Moishe: Oliver’s in Cotati is the best market in Sonoma County!
Matthew: Fircrest Market in Sebastopol and the local farmers’ markets.
… kitchen equipment?
Moishe: Myers Restaurant Supply in Santa Rosa. They have quality stuff at fair prices and they serve the public, too.
… ice cream?
Moishe: Pralines and Cream from Screamin’ Mimi’s in Sebastopol. Th ree Twins’ Dad’s Cardamom and West Petaluma’s Double 8 Dairy’s Black Sesame gelato, made with water buffalo milk, is the best.
Matthew: Andrew’s Double 8 Dairy gelato. So I guess I prefer to just go to our freezer.
Moishe: Woodhouse Chocolates in St. Helena
EMWC: And lastly, but not leastly … what is your favorite local wine or beer for the season?
Moishe: I’ve been enjoying the Lagunitas DayTime IPA.
Matthew: I love the wines from Wind Gap. Pax is doing really great stuff. I also can always drink sparkling wines from Iron Horse and Pinot from CIRQ. (when I can get my hands on it).
CHECK OUT MOISHE AND MATTHEW’S LOCAL FAVORITES
Benu, San Francisco
Della Fattoria, Petaluma
Lucky Star, Sebastopol
Taylor Maid Farms Organic Coffee
Melody Coffee Roasting Co.
Casino Bar & Grill, Bodega Bay
Hole in the Wall, Sebastopol
Myers Restaurant Supply, Santa Rosa
Screamin’ Mimi’s, Sebastopol
Three Twins Organic Ice Cream
Double 8 Dairy
Woodhouse Chocolates, St. Helena
Lagunitas Brewing Company
Iron Horse Vineyards
CIRQ. Russian River Valley Pinot Noir by Kosta Brown winemaker Michael Browne