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DIY Ramen Philanthropy: How This Laid Off Bartender Stepped Up to Feed His Fellow Laid Off Restaurant Workers

3:54 PM PDT on June 18, 2020

[dropcap size=big]A[/dropcap]rmed with hand-sewn face masks, homemade shoyu broth, and dozens of soft boiled eggs, Ricky Yarnall is reviving his old ramen pop-up in the age of the coronavirus to serve Los Angeles restaurant workers who have lost their jobs. 

“I’ve kind of always wanted to open a shop,” the head barman of Bestia and Bavel restaurants in DTLA said. “I’ve always just had a pretty good job and it was hard to give that up but, now, I have the time.” 

When Los Angeles began sheltering in place in mid-March, Yarnall and other restaurant industry workers quickly lost their income as many eateries reduced staff or closed doors completely. He needed to find a way to keep busy during the day, so Yarnall turned to something he knew had always worked in the past: Making homemade ramen. 

Cooking up big batches several times a week, Yarnall started delivering to friends and restaurant workers he knew were also out of work, but the business quickly expanded to include all of Long Beach and parts of Orange County. He offers a pay-what-you-can structure and donations from his patrons have allowed him to provide free portions to those without income. So far, he has sold and given away more than 200 portions and made donations with the proceeds to Black Lives Matter and two immigrant rights organizations: No Us Without You and Al Otro Lado

Each batch takes two tedious days to create.

“I ran two of the busiest bars in L.A., so now I need an outlet,” Yarnall said. “I always need to be making something and with ramen, it’s always a work in progress.” 

Yarnall has been researching ramen history and tinkering with his recipe for years. He first started running pop-ups in 2012, in the backroom of Harvard & Stone bar on Hollywood Boulevard, selling bowls of hot noodles and broth from a single burner in the corner. Live music and flowing cocktails provided a great backdrop for what general manager Steven Sué eventually dubbed Hakujin Ramen—an affectionate name based on Japanese slang for “white guy ramen.” 

For vegan servings, he emulsifies vegetable shortening to help achieve the broth’s flavor and sears tofu in place of pork.

The moniker stuck and, since then, Yarnall has continued experimenting with his take on shoyu style ramen—a clear, dark copper soy broth, instead of the cloudy pork-based tonkatsu style common in many restaurants. Using his skills as a bartender to adjust the taste, he equates his cooking to a cocktail: an alchemical mixture of sweet, sour, and salty elements perfectly balanced to create harmonious flavors. 

“It feels like I’m cheating, like I’m conjuring something,” Yarnall said. “Seaweed, fish flakes, vegetable ends and bones, and out of that, I create something so delicious and life-giving. It feels good to make something special out of [the latter] things some people think are trash.” 

Each batch takes two tedious days to create, so Yarnall delivers twice a week, with a vegan option available on Wednesdays. The meat portions include his homemade broth and noodles, aromatics, and “a kind of shocking amount of liquid pork fat” with pickled mushrooms and celery, sautéed gailan (Chinese broccoli), pulled pork and scallions on top. For vegan servings, he emulsifies vegetable shortening to help achieve the broth’s flavor and sears tofu in place of pork. Yarnall does the shopping, prepping, cooking, and packaging by himself, with occasional delivery assistance from his eight-year-old son. 

“More than anything, I think [the] connection to people is really important for him,” Paulette Meza, a line cook at Bavel, said of Yarnall. After the restaurant closed its doors, Yarnall drove from Long Beach to Koreatown to deliver a single portion of ramen to her—and declined her offer for payment. She said the ramen was delicious and it was especially heartwarming that Yarnall brought his son along on the delivery. “It's just that humanity behind that, just wanting to help someone else during this time. I think that's probably the most important thing about everything.”  

When Los Angeles begins to formally open up again, Yarnall said he’s ready to get back to his usual work, but wonders whether now is the time to make ramen his full-time job. With the restaurant industry in flux, he’s unsure how things could possibly return to normal. For now, he’s enjoying spending his time chopping mushrooms and tending to his broth, conjuring new batches of hearty ramen.     

“It’s exciting every single time,” Yarnall said of the process. “It’s magic every time.” 

Follow Ricky Yarnall at his pop-up's Instagram account, Hakujin Ramen.

This story was written by a student at USC under the guidance of Amara Aguilar and Laura Castañeda as part of L.A. Taco’s longstanding commitment to being a platform available to first-time writers. Expect more engaging stories from new voices in journalism on a regular basis.

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