Zen Box chef's sketches are a beautiful peek into the art of ramen

John Ng may be a ramen chef now, but he hasn't left his architectural sketching practice behind.

John Ng may be a ramen chef now, but he hasn't left his architectural sketching practice behind. John Ng

We’ve written previously about what goes into a bowl of Zen Box ramen.

To review: Chef John Ng begins by checking the four-day weather forecast, because he starts prepping for a Friday ramen on Monday, and the weather will make all the difference in what will work, and what will not.

Then, he seeks out the most pristine ingredients he can, starting a four day process of scouting and prepping, scouting and prepping. And then he goes into a crazy-intensive multiple-step process of building the bowl from those raw and prepped ingredients. 

But we forgot to mention one step. The sketching.

Ng got his start in his career life as an architect. Actually, he worked as an architect by day, and in a ramen restaurant by night, until the inevitable burnout got the better of him. Ramen won the battle of his career attentions, but he hasn’t left all of his architecture skills behind.

“Sketching things you can explore your own brain,” says Ng, a sampling of his sketches splayed out in between us on a table at his popular downtown Minneapolis restaurant Zen Box. In other words, to sketch out an idea slows the brainstorming process down enough to reach the outer recesses of the mind, and to make sure you’ve gotten to all of it.

Ng says in architecture school, his teachers called sketching “architectural masturbation.”

“You might draw 1,000 pictures, and keep very few of them. But that’s a very powerful kind of exercise.”

He says it’s very common for him to scrap an idea after seeing it on paper, understanding that the form, color, or flavor elements simply wouldn’t work after all. "I can save myself a lot of trouble and time gathering ingredients." 

And if this all sounds a little niche or high-minded, Ng reminds us that drawing is just a very primitive kind of language. Every chef makes prep lists, Ng just happens to do his in picture form. 

In fact, Ng says the process is actually a very grounding one for him, because he tends to lean more towards the artistic side of making things (making a bowl of ramen is just another way of building something) while other people might be better with the scientific or the logistical.

“I might think about taking a bag and how you can make it into a house, for instance. But while your art is important, pragmatics are important too.”

Sketching helps him see the pragmatics. Will this work with that? Do these colors compliment or contrast? Is it even possible to get some of the items he’s dreaming up? If the answers don’t satisfy after gazing at the page, he goes back to basics and starts building back up.

This weekend’s ramen special is going to be a duck shoyu ramen, not unlike the one pictured above, because the weather is supposed to be rainy, but not too cold.

A really thick broth wouldn’t work because of the relatively warm temps, but the richness of the duck will still be warming. He'll add thin egg noodles to aid in digestion, and pea shoots to celebrate the season. The duck will be brined in seafood dashi (a broth that uses flavoring agents like seaweed and fish flakes) overnight, then he'll sous vide (a slow and low cooking method) the bird, and air dry it. Then, he'll sear it in a pan to release the oil. Then, the rendering oil will go back over the top of the ramen as one of the garnishes.

And that’s just for the meat.

“I think there’s a misconception of how much time it really takes to create a great bowl of ramen. There’s a craft behind each creation,” he says.

And while he’s happy to have die-hard ramen fans and the Instagram set, he hopes there will be more of an emphasis on the time and the spirit behind those pretty, delicious bowls.

“Ramen is a bowl of soul to me. There’s nothing more special than when someone does something that takes that much time, just for pleasure.”

It’s an art that's as delicious to gaze upon as it is to eat.  

This weekend's special ramen goes on sale at at 5 p.m. today and you can count on it selling out sometime Saturday.

When it's gone, it's gone. 

Zen Box Izakaya 
602 S. Washington Ave., Minneapolis