It's no accident that Chef Takashi Yagihashi's latest restaurant, the Slurping Turtle in Ann Arbor, Michigan, brings to mind images of a slow-moving reptile that loudly sips broth.
"A lot of people ask me [where the name came from]," says Chef Yagihashi. "If you go to Japan and go to a noodle shop, you can hear a lot of people eat ramen by slurping. And there's a bit of a difference here [in the U.S.] and there, and I think the way they eat the food is very unusual."
The turtle, meanwhile, symbolizes good luck, long life, longevity, and moving slow, he explains. "We make everything pretty much from scratch. So, we do the slow-food movement." He adds, "My wife actually named it. I think she did a great job."
Humble and affable, Chef Yagihashi has proven a success at running and operating his own brand of restaurants, starting with Tribute, the Detroit restaurant that earned him the esteemed Best Chef: Midwest award from the James Beard Foundation in 2003, to Takashi, opened in Chicago in 2007.
He worked in multiple other kitchens around the U.S., and most recently opened Slurping Turtle in 2011 in Chicago. The success led him to develop a second outpost, and just last week he celebrated the one-year anniversary of Slurping Turtle's second location in Ann Arbor.
Slurping Turtle serves two types of ramen: the authentic version, akin to what customers could find at a ramen shop in Japan, and a contemporary, fusion style of ramen, as well. Chicagoans immediately took to the restaurant, but Chef Yagahashi waited until he saw how well his managers and staff were performing before thinking about expansion. "Our team was getting solid in Chicago. I think we started to feel comfortable, especially the employees who work for the manager, and we thought, we should give them a chance to be more grown-up."
When thinking of where a second unit would be appropriate, Chef Yagihashi reflected on his time spent at Tribute in Michigan, and in particular of the beautiful campus at the University of Michigan. "We wanted a more international town," he explains. "We do have a lot of students from China, Asia, and Japan, and we do have a pretty good Asian community and Asian population in Ann Arbor. It always helps to have people who are familiar with the cuisine."
In its first year, the 110-seat restaurant averaged two table turns most nights, and sometimes three on the weekends. The menu is quite similar to the Chicago location, Chef Yagahashi says, except for the daily specials. "We have a different chef at each location, and I want to let them create anything they may want," he says.
Chef Yagahashi's personal favorite on the menu is the Tan Tan Men Ramen, a homemade noodle served with broth and a pork meatball. The dish, which comes out spicy, also is the most popular on the menu.
Chef Yagahashi splits his time between Chicago and Ann Arbor now, and the aspect he's most enjoyed in the first year in Ann Arbor has been being back in Michigan and seeing his customers and friends. "I find so many of our customers come to see me, like, 'Hey, Takashi, how are you?' That makes me feel so good, and I love to see old friends."
It doesn't hurt that he's a big University of Michigan football fan, and has high hopes for new coach Jim Harbaugh—but don't tell his son, who attends rival Michigan State.
By Sonya Chudgar