By Emily Kemme
It is somewhat counterintuitive that road biking, hand-piped sausages, and a Korean co-worker’s mom’s recipe for homemade kimchi would play a part in a ramen pop-up enterprise called RamaMama. Add feeding Barack Obama bento boxes for lunch into the mix, and you’ll probably think this is the start of a limerick.
Most likely, it would be a rollicking one. In actuality, it describes the years of work behind John Lawyer’s efforts to establish his dream of a ramen noodle shop in Old Town Fort Collins.
That dream coalesced on a bike ride up Left Hand Canyon above Boulder where Lawyer happened upon a street sign lying in the bushes by the roadside. The street’s name, “Lickskillet,” was a hook for a guy who’d spent his entire life cooking.
Having no formal culinary degree has not stopped Lawyer, who partners with equally untrained Jake Arnold — unless you consider time spent by the pair in restaurant kitchens and around friends’ tables not worth counting.
After tasting the spicy chicken ramen at a pop-up event hosted by Pinball Jones near the CSU campus in early January, their lack of professional training isn’t evident. Rather, the pair serves up the refined Asian food often found in establishments helmed by renowned chefs.
Lawyer learned his art the hard way, working up through the ranks of dishwasher at a Longmont Italian restaurant where his mom worked, continuing to hone his culinary skills at a small bento box spot in Illinois. But it was at family dinners hosted by his co-worker where he learned Korean food culture. Even with the big language barrier, Lawyer pulled tidbits of information from his friend’s mom, becoming familiar with the flavors and spices.
“Those memories still captivate me, the sauces and little things like the spice and texture. She taught me how to create the subtle heat that defines Korean cooking,” he said. “I took her concepts and created my own adaptations from it — for example, the gochujang base she used to create a ssäm sauce I serve with a pork belly bun. I thought it was a pretty simple sauce but it turns out it’s very traditional. I didn’t pull two and two together about how traditional it was until I tasted other chef’s sauces.”
Arnold’s story aligns with Lawyer’s, having learned much about cooking at his mother’s side, Lisa Arnold said. “Jake began cooking and tasting at age 5 when we gave him an Emeril Lagasse children’s cookbook.”
Through hard work, planning and other fortuitous finds, Lawyer’s vision slowly developed into reality. One such find was a mustard yellow RV, now home to Corndoggies’ artisan sausages, a popular FoCo food truck. Lickskillet became a catering company headed by Rachel Hunt, another of Lawyer’s finds. Hunt has a drive, passion and work ethic to match his and Arnold’s, Lawyer said. All combined created the possibility for RamaMama to become reality.
The pop up concept fits the timing for the entire Lickskillet enterprise. It’s a slow time of year for food trucks, and Hunt is working to create custom menus for clients that are theme or event-based.
Pinball Jones was the perfect spot for a pop-up. RamaMama has held several there to date, with plans for monthly ramen dinners on Sunday nights while details are ironed out on the brick-and-mortar that will open within nine months in Old Town.
“It had to be the right space, a sort of back-alley noodle shop, the esoteric kind of restaurant that epitomizes the genre,” Lawyer said.
Until then, look for the typically sold out ticketed pop up dinners on RamaMama’s Facebook page.
Plan on an evening of authentic Korean ramen. The January dinner started with a kale salad with slivered carrots and cucumber, marinated mustard seeds, and soy vinaigrette, followed by a dumpling course. Light and silky, yet having a hint of spice, the spicy chicken bone broth was layered with shredded chicken, homemade kimchi fermented for two days, and a sous vide onsen egg. And ramen noodles, of course. Drizzled with aromatic Szechuan pepper oil, the result is a creamy bowl of ramen with just enough spice to make your nose run.
And while you’re slurping up ramen, thank all the moms who had a hand in helping get this gem off the ground.