From Cello to Soup Ladle: Marumen’s Paul Lee Takes the Noodle Road.
By Corbo Eng
Paul Lee—tall, thin, with a nascent beard—is at his stock pot, where the golden-beige contents glisten at a dull simmer.
With a quick motion of his wrist, he dips a ladle in and takes the broth—breaching and subduing layers of umami and unctuousness—and fills a bowl with creamy, milky liquid, a paitan broth known for its cloudy look. The broth washes into a dollop of shio tare, a salt seasoning. Four months have passed since opening night. The kitchen hums with routine. “I really like where we’re at now,” Lee says.
But where he is now is also a moment in time. Ramen—the national dish of Japan—has, in the past decade, become a global phenomenon. In the United States, it’s become a fixture within the trendiest food scenes.
Just this year, there’s been a slew of new openings: Kizuna in Tysons Corner, Gaijin in Arlington and Ramen Temple, a stand inside the Whole Foods Market in Fair Lakes. Last month, the New York Times No. 1-ranked ramen, Mu Ramen, ran a pop-up at Burke’s H Pho and is currently looking to open a shop in the region. Yona, a joint project from “Top Chef” local restaurateur Mike Isabella and up-and-comer chef Jonah Kim, is set to open this fall in Ballston.
Then, there’s Marumen (an amalgam of Korean words translating as “communal noodles”) housed in a former Pizza Hut in Fairfax that, for decades, was home to a sushi restaurant. Here, Lee, 23, chef and co-owner, presides over a shop whose popularity seems to be increasing.
The broth that Lee spends so much time on undoubtedly has something to do with it. It takes him 14 hours to make, “but sometimes, it takes longer … every pork bone is different,” says Lee, employing necks, shanks and trotters with various aromatics like ginger, garlic and green onions, as well as more esoteric ingredients like bonito flakes and katsuobushi (shaved, dried skipjack tuna).
The noodles—egg-based and curly—are customized to the restaurant’s specifications by Sun Noodle, a supplier to Momofuku Noodle Bar and Ivan Ramen, two top-tier ramen shops in New York City. Four ramen flavors are featured on the menu: shio, shoyu, miso and spicy miso. It’s a classic repertoire that has enabled Lee to lay a foundation.
“There are all kinds of crazy stuff that chefs in Japan are coming out with,” Lee says. Despite the unending possibilities of variation, Lee keeps things simple. “I want to gain the public’s trust,” he says. “I want to have that trust before I do too much.”
From Music to Cooking
Cooking had been a nonexistent consideration.
“I thought I was going to be an engineer,” Lee says. “I was really into math and music.” He ended up dropping out of Purdue University after half a year to pursue music.
Growing up, Lee played the cello but felt it was more his parents’ decision. As he entered high school—and as his dad’s job with the Korean embassy had his family moving from Texas, England, Korea and, finally, Northern Virginia—Lee, wanting more freedom, gravitated toward the guitar and away from classical music.
In early 2011, he joined Rooftop Pursuit, a local pop/rock trio, as lead guitarist. They toured mostly in the Northeast playing to small audiences at college campuses, coffeehouses, bars and festivals, including KORUS, the D.C. area’s premier celebration of Korean music and culture. Without a recording contract, Rooftop Pursuit released an EP independently but broke up in 2012 when the drummer moved to Korea.
It was a disappointment for Lee. “We weren’t even around long enough to define ourselves. We were still trying to figure out musically what we were going for,” he says. Ironically, Lee’s time in the band was noteworthy not for sparking his music career, but for introducing him to cooking. “Before rehearsals or before heading off on the road, we’d usually be at my house,” Lee says. “I’d be the one who cooked: steaks, scallops, pasta. I even baked bread.”
Cooking was something he grew to love. “But I didn’t know why,” Lee says. Now he’s certain cooking tapped into his lifelong passion to create. “Music and cooking are basically the same. You learn the scales; you learn the theory. And then you write the songs,” says Lee. “It’s the same thing with cooking. You learn your techniques and the different ingredients. Then, you cook.”
Lee enrolled at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and through the program began an externship at the popular D.C. ramen spot Daikaya with co-owner Katsuya Fukushima, who also teaches at the school.
“He was just the best example to have,” Lee says of the chef, who cooked under José Andrés as well as at El Bulli in Spain, previously named the best restaurant in the world. It was Fukushima’s belief to have a small menu in order to focus on quality. “It’s kind of engraved in my mind,” Lee says. “Chef Katsuya would always say at the end: ‘Less is more. Less is more.’”
Lee hadn’t gone to Daikaya with an interest in ramen and instead worked at the izakaya, the Japanese gastropub upstairs. But when someone didn’t show up for work, Lee was recruited to work the ramen counter, calling his time with noodles and broth “one of the most fun experiences that I had anywhere in any kitchen.”
Lee’s next stop was Dooby’s, a coffee shop and restaurant in Baltimore owned by Phil Han, a friend of Lee’s. When the head chef quit, Lee took over the kitchen, preparing Asian-inspired fare, including ramen. The feedback was mixed: The broth was too bland, too salty, too heavy, too thick, too thin. He almost gave up but instead dove deeper into the pot. “I found an identity in it,” Lee says. “I began to really believe in myself.”
Eventually, seven days a week at Dooby’s became too much. He left to help out former classmates from culinary school who were now heading their own restaurants.
It wasn’t until late last year when Michael Lee, 25, (no relation) co-owner and manager of Marumen who at the time was working for the Boy Scouts, called. Michael Lee’s parents bought Kawata, the sushi restaurant that is now Marumen, and after a few unattractive offers asked their son if he wanted the space.
He thought of his friend Paul. Michael Lee remembers thinking: “He does ramen. That would work. It’s what’s up and coming right now.”
Both struggled with opening a restaurant: the time commitment was too daunting, and they felt too young.
“We’d never been in managerial roles before,” Michael Lee says. “It felt ridiculous.” They decided on a string of opening dates after problems cropped up and caused delay after delay. Says Michael Lee, “We just kept setting dates—that’s how we opened.”
As 5 p.m. nears, Lee and his team of about seven men move deliberately, completing last-minute preparations. He stands at the wok station stir-frying bean sprouts, sizzle sounds audible above the incessant exhaust fans.
Lee drops a serving of dry noodles into a mesh strainer, dunks it into steaming hot water and pulls it out instinctually two minutes later, without the aid of a timer, shaking off excess water with a jerking motion before ladling the noodles into a bowl.
Walking into the dining room, Lee surveys the scene. The tables, partitioned off by pristine cedar woodwork in the center of the room, are mostly empty, but the tall walnut-colored booths, wedged in to accommodate the trapezoidal windows, are beginning to fill with guests.
“It takes a lifetime,” he says, thinking about his broth, his noodles, his ramen. “I’m still learning.”