Most freshmen complain about the food in college. David Forster, whose academic life centered on finding solutions as an applied mathematics major at Johns Hopkins University, soon worked out a solution to the substandard food issue. “Let’s open a ramen shop!” said Forster to roommate Andrew Townson and their friends. They all agreed it was a great idea and then forgot about it.
Forster didn’t. “They kind of just humored me. They weren’t as passionate about it as I was,” Forster remembers. “I really did think there was an opportunity for a ramen shop [in Charles Village].”
Homesick for Japan
Forster graduated from Hopkins without applying for a single job or post-grad program in his degree field. Instead, he got serious about the restaurant business in general — and ramen in particular. If a recent applied math graduate makes an unlikely restauranteur, a blond-haired, blue-eyed American might make an unlikelier ramen chef.
But Forster was no ramen novice. Born in New Jersey, Forster spent most of his school years — sixth grade through high school — in Tokyo. When he was 6, his mother, a psychologist, and father, a financier, were both offered jobs in Japan. “The stint was supposed to be a short-term thing,” Forster says. “Everyone in the family really enjoyed it, so they both extended their positions two years, then two more, then two more … we were there for 12 years in the end.”
Forster loved the food culture in Japan — even the vending machines. “You can get anything in a vending machine in Japan,” he says. “And the convenience stores are absolutely outstanding. The hot food options are healthier and fresher. Even with the packaged food and drinks, there are so many fun, delicious options.”
Japan excels at “taking other parts of foreign culture and adopting them and making them their own,” he says. “Growing up in Tokyo, you get spoiled with the quality of food that’s so easily accessible and also affordable.”
Although soba, a buckwheat noodle that’s often eaten cold or in soups, is his favorite food, his happiest Tokyo memories centered on his time spent in ramen shops. “Ramen shops are open late in Tokyo. Going out with friends late at night or on the way home, we stopped at a ramen shop. I just have loads and loads of memories sitting around a table eating ramen,” he says.
Then Forster enrolled in Hopkins (where his parents met) with amorphous career aspirations of “doing something science or math related.” A massive case of culture shock awaited him in Baltimore. “I was immediately upset with the food options,” he says.
The biggest difference between American and Japanese culture, Forster found, is Japan’s “craft culture.” By this, Forster says he means “there’s a deliberate, diligent culture around everything. If you’re a potter, that’s your craft. If you’re a chef, that’s your craft.” It’s possible to find pockets of craft culture in America, he explains, “but in Japan it’s incredibly deep and ingrained: the attention to detail, the philosophy and thought process behind making certain decisions and focusing on why you’re making those decisions.”
Forster was not finding his craft in solving differential equations. And although Galileo once said, “Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe,” Forster’s first language was food. Even Galileo had to eat.
He spent a winter in San Francisco, interning at a family friend’s restaurant. There he learned he wanted “something hands-on, something creative” and something that centered on food. After graduation, when the rest of his friends took off to “pursue really fun, exciting things,” he doggedly pursued his dream. He had to “figure out how to open a ramen shop.”
Practically, this meant “eating a lot of ramen and networking in that community,” he says. “I met the team from a noodle manufacturing company called Sun Noodle. They provide noodles for pretty much the whole country. They have a great product.” Forster was offered a job.
While at Sun Noodle, he landed an internship to train under executive chef, Shigetoshi Nakamura, at one of their restaurants called Ramen Lab. Nakamura not only taught him the art of making noodles, but also the logistics of restaurant operations. There is cooking leisurely for your friends, Forster learned, and then there is cooking for patrons who want their meals quickly. Nakamura taught him how to create recipes that “make sense” in a busy restaurant. The most important recipe Forster created was his simplest: chicken shoyu ramen. “It’s basic in a lot of ways,” Forster says, “but I like to think we do an exceptional version.”
Forster then went on to work at MomoFuku Noodle Bar, owned and founded by David Chang, and just three years after graduating from Hopkins, he found the right opportunity at the right time to open his own shop. And he convinced his college roommate Townson to join him in opening PekoPeko Ramen in Charles Village.
Old neighborhood, new tricks
If Forster wanted to bring traditional Japanese ideas about food to Baltimore, Townson brought a modern twist from his time living in Los Angeles. After graduation, Townson, an English and film major, set out to L.A. to work in marketing in the film industry.
“I originally came on to just open the shop, but it turned out to be really fun. I liked the work,” Townson says. “I liked being back in Baltimore.”
Townson read an article about the nationwide salad restaurant Sweetgreen going cashless. He was intrigued and showed the article to Forster. They reasoned that with their restaurant’s proximity to the Hopkins campus, the idea would make sense to their customers, Townsend says. “When we were students, we didn’t carry cash. Everyone pays with their card anyway. It just made sense.”
It was practical for the two of them, too. “In the very beginning it would have been me or Andrew counting the cash,” Forster says. “Opening a restaurant is really tough, so we figured saving ourselves that extra hour of work in the evening was a huge factor in the decision as well.”
“It was still sort of a revolutionary concept in Baltimore. We weren’t even sure if it was legal,” Townson says.
This wouldn’t be their only unconventional decision. Forster envisioned his ramen shop to be Japanese in cuisine and custom.
“Growing up in Japan there’s no concept of tipping,” Forster says. “If you leave money on the table, they’ll run after you, telling you that you forgot your money. I think that in the U.S. tipping is deceptive in a lot of ways. It’s a way for an employer to pay lower than minimum wage, which is a way of deceiving their guest into thinking their food is less expensive than it really is.”
Forster also dislikes tipping because “it discredits serving as a legitimate profession. Anyone who’s served before knows it’s a challenging job that should be treated as such. A lot of people like to use the analogy that you don’t tip your lawyer, you don’t tip your flight attendant or the pilot on your plane. Good service is something inherent in the experience of going to a restaurant, so you shouldn’t be paying extra for it.”
In PekoPeko Ramen, customers pay when they order. Forster says this setup allows customers to “get up and go at your own leisure. It’s really liberating. I hate the feeling of wanting to leave a restaurant, especially if you’re in a time crunch, and it takes 10 minutes to get the tab. That experience really bothers me. So, we wanted to eliminate that.”
A hungry stomach
In Japanese, the name PekoPeko refers to the sound of a rumbling, empty stomach. Over the past two years, Forster’s hunger to re-create the ramen shop of his memories has been fulfilled — mostly.
They are still muddling through Baltimore’s liquor license process but are closing in on attaining one this spring. Like the ramen shops that slaked his hunger in Tokyo, PekoPeko Ramen is casual, open late and busy. Forster loves the “creative energy” involved in “providing an valuable experience to the neighborhood and Hopkins community.”
Townson agrees. Unlike his earlier work in film marketing, PekoPeko Ramen feels “tangible.” And it’s good, they agree, to be established. “You have to be in the community for some time to develop that rapport, that relationship with the community,” Forster says. “I think that’s the direction it’s heading.”
PekoPeko Ramen is at 7. E 33rd Street, pekopekoramen.com
Photos by David Stuck