It’s just after 9 a.m. on a sullen spring morning and Shinsuke Hirao is stepping into his daily kingdom. Well, one of the three kingdoms he occupies Monday through Saturday. The other two are his modest, nearby apartment and the fluorescent aisles of a neighboring 7-Eleven.
With a hoary towel already wrapped tightly around his forehead, he unlocks two glass-paned doors and struts into his steamy sanctuary, briskly gliding to the culinary control room in the back of the house. Cultural knick-knacks from an island nation almost 6,000 miles away adorn diffident walls that hug his fierce, efficient wake.
It’s time to make broth. The foundation of ramen that has made this Aurora specialty cafe rise to the top of the list of must-metro-go-to’s for foodies.
A pair of colossal, bubbling cauldrons greet the short wizard as he steps into the clustered, food-filled room where he’ll spend the better part of the next 15 hours. He reaches for a petite, suspicious-looking case that contains a coveted refractometer and dips it into one of the rumbling pots for the first of what will be dozens of times throughout the day. Jokingly, he holds the pen-sized device up to one bulging eye and shuts the other, imitating the action of peering through a tiny, salty telescope. It’s a brief, measured moment of levity, but one that matches the hypnotically thoughtful cadence of everything he does.
For the next hour, he follows that intoxicating pattern of preparation — one he’s memorized and internalized for the past 17 years: crack eggs, dice vegetables, mix stocks, glance at a bank of digital and judgmental kitchen timers. It’s a rote routine only interrupted by fist bumps and modest greetings to the other kitchen staff who slowly trickle in for their day’s work.
The workers are friendly, but respectful as they filter in. They should be. The closest person with Hirao’s credentials making what he’s making is a very long plane ride away.
As the head, and only, ramen chef at Katsu Ramen on South Havana Street in east-central Aurora, Hirao has rapidly and rightfully earned the admiration not only of co-workers, but of a faithful army of crackerjack ramenites from across the metro area. Hirao became the restaurant’s culinary decision-maker upon its opening in January, making Katsu the 22nd ramen shop he’s worked at in nearly as many years — he has just under two decades of experience cutting his teeth and steaming his pores in the increasingly cult world of alluring noodles.
“Ramen is my life,” he says in weighted, clunky English at the start of an interview on a recent afternoon during Katsu’s daily lunch break. Granted, “break” is a kind term for the one-hour pause the restaurant takes each day to regroup as Hirao spends much, if not all, of the block continuing to monitor his coveted bone broth. He doesn’t speak much at all outside of pleasantries, and it’s the only non-Japanese statement he makes all morning. The consonants are warped and they seem to run away from his tongue instead of being gently guided along.
The native of Osaka, Japan is what appears to be the last of a dying breed — at least here in the U.S. With a populous increasingly obsessed with fast casual dining, his work harkens back to an epoch of cooking that started centuries before the concept of foil-coated burritos entered the American zeitgeist. As an apprentice, he came into the kitchen each day at 6 a.m. to clean the next day’s broth bones. Before starting on Havana Street, he taught over a dozen other chefs his trade through much the same baptismal process he was forced to endure when first starting out.
So how, after spooning thousands upon thousands of the same few bowls of noodles does one of Aurora’s most celebrated chefs stay motivated to keep striving for salty divinity? The answer is one that is fundamentally counterintuitive to a forum steeped in culinary precedent: variety.
“He’s always talking to chefs back in Japan and in Los Angeles,” says translator and Katsu employee Ayako Nakayama. “He’s always changing things slightly or adding something subtle, so he never really gets bored.”
Hirao said that apart from the slightly more acidic tap water, his short time in the U.S. has been enjoyable thus far, albeit almost entirely restricted to a minute microcosm in Aurora consisting of a humid kitchen, 7-Eleven and bed. But despite the rosy initial review, he said he’s not looking forward to standing over his perma-boiling kettles all day during the brain-meltingly hot days of July and August.
When asked about what he’s heard about Colorado’s summer weather, he pauses, and turns to directly face Nakayama. Even those who don’t know a lick of Japanese outside of a few quick lessons from Styx, would know exactly what he’s saying.
“It’s going to be hell in here come summertime,” Nakayama confirms.
Hirao nods matter-of-factly and proceeds to wipe down the rest of his prep station in anticipation of the forthcoming wave of ravenous bowl-slurpers.
For him, the crowds, the bowls and boiling vats of bones never stop. But it seems he wouldn’t have it any other way.