Following a few years of highly anticipated pop-ups, a small operation known as "Union Ramen" will be evolving into a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the Lower Garden District.
Nhat "Chef Nate" Nguyen and entrepreneur Jeff Gapultos had been friends for years before they decided to develop the restaurant together.
"Our wives were childhood friends who grew up together. My wife Hong and Jeff's wife Cat used to go to elementary school together back when they were kids. Jeff's wife, who is also from the Westbank, and my wife and I used to go to church together. Eventually I met Jeff, and we clicked," Chef Nate said.
Nate got his start in cooking working in his family's restaurant in New Orleans. Shortly after, he moved to California to get his culinary degree, while at the same time operating a Cajun restaurant there called Gumbolaya. From there, he moved to Las Vegas, where he became a restaurant kitchen manager for Emeril Lagasse's Stadium. Eventually, he moved home to New Orleans, where he worked as a line cook at Meaux Bar, as well as Susan Spicer's Bayona Restaurant. After those stints, he became one of the original chefs at Kin, before deciding to take time off from the cooking scene to raise his newborn children.
Jeff has a background in marketing, event production, and catering. After graduating from Loyola University as an undergraduate and getting his MBA, Jeff gained experience in marketing and entertainment, working for a local record label and as marketing assistant and gameday entertainment coordinator for the New Orleans Saints. He then went on his own to specialize in event production and promotion under his start-up, Think Tank Productions. In 2010, he helped found and operate the special event and catering venue Eiffel Society.
Jeff had been looking for a new project, and when Nate made ramen for a group of their friends after a late night out, he realized he'd found it.
They started out by sharing their ramen with their close friends and family to get feedback before going public with it. They then hosted their first public pop-up at Urban South Brewery.
"Imagine bringing a make-shift kitchen into a warehouse-burners, pots, and we have to create a dish that hopefully people will like. It was hard, but we had so much fun. We had five burners going behind us, boiling noodles and soup, and we're cutting meat, and there's a never-ending line, with an hour wait for the food, and we had no idea if this was gonna work. We're just running around like chickens without heads," Nate said.
"Looking back at that first pop-up, it was one of those unexpected pleasant things. The turnout was overwhelming, and the operation was chaos, but the feedback was positive. It showed us that there was an interest," Jeff said.
From there, the idea for the restaurant developed over time while they hosted other pop-ups around the city, including Seven-Three Distillery, Eiffel Society, and the NOLA Nite Market.
"Each time a pop-up sold out, we gained some confidence, and refined our operation. An opportunity arose, and I found a location, and the timing seemed right. Chef Nate had been away from the commercial kitchen for a while, and then we were just hanging out, and we had a conversation. I said, 'I think it's time we pulled your talents back into the restaurant world,' and he agreed," Jeff said.
While developing their menu, Jeff and Nate took a trip to Japan to attend the Tokyo Ramen Show, the largest ramen festival in the world. They were inspired by the experimentation they saw. Because ramen is relatively new, it's not bound by tradition in the way that other foods like sushi can be. The definition of a ramen dish is just a dish that has ramen in it, and that leaves a lot of room for innovation.
Tonkotsu, or pork broth, is most common in U.S. restaurants. Chef Nate is aiming for a cleaner taste and more health-conscious dishes, with a menu that centers on chicken broths and plant-based miso broths.
It's been a couple of years since Nate and Jeff first announced their plan to open the restaurant, and they still field calls most days from customers asking when they will be open.
It hasn't been an easy process, and there have been some delays while they work with the city and their contractors and take care of their personal lives, but Nate and Jeff feel like those delays have given them time to fully develop something that they are proud of and excited to share.
The location they chose was important to them. "I've lived in the Lower Garden District for years now, and one of the things that I'm personally happy about is investing in the community that I'm raising my children in. This area is booming in both the residential and commercial sectors, especially in the food, bar, and hospitality scene. Blue Giant, Gris-Gris, and Claret recently opened, plus neighborhood staples like Hi-Volt Coffee, Surrey's, Barrel Proof, District Donuts, and Turkey and the Wolf, to name a few, are all great establishments nearby, and we're excited to be part of that number," Jeff said.
The restaurant will be
fast-casual dining experience, with counter-service and a bar, and will be open
until midnight on the weekends. Look for Union Ramen Bar to open in the next
few months, located at 1837 Magazine St.