When Chef Noah Woods opened Mystic Ramen in the Hamilton Farmer’s Market in October 2019, he knew that great things lay ahead. The stall – formerly Slurp Ramen, owned by Brandon and Clare Jackson – came with a pre-existing loyal customer base and relatively-low overhead costs, thanks to its location on the lower level of the Hamilton Farmer’s Market, all of which allowed Woods and his wife Heather to indulge a years-long love affair with Japanese cuisine.
Today, as many vendors in the Hamilton Farmer’s Market face financial losses due to COVID-19, and with the City Council asking for a repayment on rent relief, Mystic Ramen – along with dozens of other vendors – are struggling to survive in one of the city’s great centres for local culture and commerce.
Woods, a former chef de cuisine at Salt Lick Smokehouse under Chef Shane McCartney, cites the great advantages that the Hamilton Farmer’s Market provides new entrepreneurs. “Because the overhead is so low compared to other locations, with flexible lease terms, it’s the ideal place to test new concepts. We didn’t have a lot of capital at the time so it was an attractive option for us. The Farmer’s Market is wonderful for start-ups.”
After purchasing the business, Woods reworked the recipes from the ground up and rebranded to offer his interpretation of ramen. The formula brought early success, with Mystic Ramen remaining popular with the existing customer base and growing so quickly that they were set to open a second, larger location. “We were three weeks to opening when the pandemic hit,” says Woods, who not only lost the new restaurant space, but had to dramatically retool the existing Market stall.
Woods, a self-described Japanophile, traces his cultural fascination with all things Japanese to his martial arts training. “I was deeply into Goju-Ryu Karate and jujitsu,” says Woods, “and I was introduced to Japanese culture and Zen Buddhism through those disciplines. When I went into the culinary arts, I was fascinated by the traditional cuisines of Japan, especially kaiseki. It’s a natural expression of most Japanese disciplines and philosophies.”
Central to this philosophy, says Woods, is the idea of the shokunin, this pursuit of perfection and the development of character and personal growth. “It becomes your discipline. I love the attitude of the artisan, it’s not only about perfecting one’s craft, but perfecting oneself. It’s a holistic practice, married with the artistic expression of cooking, especially Japanese cuisine. I love to nurture people with food. It’s edible art.”
For those new to ramen, there are five components in every bowl: the broth, noodles, tare, aroma oil, and the toppings, which can include pork belly slices, egg, and tofu to name a few. Woods sees Mystic Ramen as being on trend with current foodie trends in Japan. “People are moving away from the thicker, more gelatinous soups and moving toward lighter, more refined broths,” says Woods. “We’re seeing many ramen places focusing on clear, consommé-like broths based on clams or sardines (niboshi). I offer a style of chicken broth, the base of the Tokyo Shoyu, which is something you can eat everyday without the heaviness.”
Woods suggests that first-time customers order a Tokyo Shoyu, to sample a lighter style, or the customer favourite Tantanmen, a spicy broth made of fermented chilli and sesame paste that originated in Taiwan. There are vegetarian and vegan options as well.
As for the future of Mystic Ramen, Woods is cautiously optimistic, but mindful of the difficulties now confronting Farmer’s Market vendors. “We got the (repayment) letter from the city just a week before Christmas,” says Woods. “It could have been handled better.”
He notes that while Mystic Ramen is fairing better than some, many other vendors cannot weather the storm of owing thousands of dollars in repayment. “The rent at the market is determined by square footage, and some of the other vendors have 2-3 times the space we do. I sympathize with them and it’s really unfortunate. It would be nice for the city to cut us a break. Most other businesses have been viewed with sympathy and compassion, so it’s difficult to see why the Market wouldn’t be viewed in the same way.”