More than a decade before we ever thought to open a ramen restaurant, back in the days when Donald Trump's best-known line was "You're Fired," we were organic chemists. I met Hiroko in the summer of 2002, at the tail end of a miserable July 4 Boston heatwave. She had arrived from Japan for a postdoctoral year over the holiday weekend, and was there in lab getting set up when I came back from a summer trip to my native Akron, Ohio. Unlike today, her English wasn't very good. Much like today, my Japanese was non-existent. Well, in 2002 it was totally non-existent, and now it's only relatively so.
Despite the language barrier, we got to know each other pretty well, with the assistance of two things: chemistry and beer. Hiroko worked with me on my PhD project, the total synthesis of a complex small molecule, Norzoanthamine.
After lab we and our chemist friends excelled, like many graduate students, at drinking. Hiroko had a surprisingly good tolerance, given how skinny she was. And at 24, I not yet accepted what was becoming increasingly clear: that my body was not made for binge drinking. That winter I had ramen for the first time, at a place in the little Japanese mall in Porter Square. At the time I thought that first ramen was so amazing, but Hiroko assures me it was terrible. And man did we drink a lot of Guinness. And Harpoon and Sam Adams. We were in Boston, after all. That Xmas, Hiroko came to Ohio, where she was so very fortunate to witness the Ohio State Buckeyes defeat the Miami Hurricanes for their first national title since 1968. That spring, I made my first trip to Japan.
Fast forward thirteen years, and we're married with two dogchildren and one real child. Norzoanthamine never got made, despite the awesome boron-catalyzed diastereoselective Diels-Alder reaction we developed together to make the molecule's core six-membered ring. I moved on from science as a career in 2005 when I arrived in the Bay Area for law school. Hiroko quit research the next year, when she left her pharma job in Japan to join me in California--where, incidentally and somewhat shockingly, we rented an apartment in downtown Palo Alto for a paltry $1500/month. Hiroko worked in a consulting job for Japanese biotech companies for a few years, and for a brief while I dabbled in chemistry in the context of pharma litigation. But a couple things have not changed in all this time. I still use the Sigma-Aldrich company Periodic Table mousepad I had in graduate school. We still love science. And of course we drink a lot of beer.
The Periodic Table
When the opportunity to develop a taproom in Emeryville Public Market unexpectedly came up this summer, you won't be surprised to learn that we jumped at it. After a series of long post-toddler-bedtime conversations, we came up with a taproom and sake bar concept, appropriately called The Periodic Table.
The Periodic Table will be in the kiosk right next to Shiba Ramen, but because it will have no kitchen, there will be space for a full bar counter and other inside seating. We'll operate 10-15 rotating taps, mostly featuring craft beer from the robust Bay Area scene, alongside selections from Japan and elsewhere. We'll use Shiba Ramen's kitchen to make bar bites: Shiba Wings, of course, along with pickles and other tasty things tbd.
But beer is only half the story. We see The Periodic Table as a forum to bring sake to the American consumer. Sake [pronounced sa-keh, not sa-kee] is still the province of sushi restaurants and boutique shops. Bottles are branded with Japanese names and characters, making it next to impossible for anyone but a true connoisseur to distinguish between one product and the next. When you go to the grocery store, if there's any sake on the shelf, it's probably a mediocre American-made product buried on a bottom shelf, somewhere near the vermouth or the margarita mix.
That's a tragic state of affairs. Sake is delicious and a natural substitute for white wine. If anything, it goes down easier than a glass of chardonnay. But to change consumption patterns, somebody needs to present sake in a familiar domestic context, and make it as easy as possible for people to give it a shot. More than that, somebody needs to figure out how to brand sake to get non-connoisseurs to recognize and remember products. That's the challenge we're undertaking with The Periodic Table.
And now to come back to where we started: chemistry. The Periodic Table will build on the "chemists start a ramen shop" theme we've explored with Ramen Chemistry, in a context--alcohol--readily suited to association with science. We're working with a fabulous team of Oakland-based architects and designers at Arcsine to create an awesome space that blends design inspiration from chemistry and Japan.
We expect to start construction this winter and be open by Summer 2017. In the meantime, we'll be doing sake-tasting pop-ups in The Periodic Table's future space. The first one is this coming Friday, October 14. Of course, you can still get great sake and craft beer seven days a week at Shiba Ramen.
We'll have lots of updates on Ramen Chemistry as The Periodic Table project unfolds. Until then, kanpai!