“The hardest part was learning how to make ramen remotely”: How to open a restaurant over Zoom from halfway around the world
When Aoi Yoshida reconnected with a long-lost friend and restaurateur in Japan, they hatched a plan to open a ramen restaurant together in Toronto, using the friend’s signature ramen—all he had to do was travel here to teach Yoshida the secret recipe. Then, Covid hit, travel shut down, and everything had to happen virtually. Here’s what it’s like to launch a restaurant, and perfect a recipe, over Zoom.
I left my home near Kyoto in 2003. I came to Canada on a working holiday visa because I wanted to explore the other side of the world. I promised my parents I would return in a year, but then I met my husband. I moved with him to Toronto where we started a family, and I never moved back to Japan.
I grew up on a dairy farm and have always loved baking and making traditional Japanese sweets. I started baking again as a hobby that I could do with three small children at home, and friends started ordering cakes from me. It slowly turned into a small business, Hollyhock Japanese Sweets, with customers finding me through word of mouth and on Instagram. But I had no idea it would eventually lead to me running my own restaurant during a global pandemic.
In 2016, a friend of mine from junior high, Shin Inaba, saw on Facebook what I was doing and messaged me. I hadn’t seen or talked to him in more than 20 years. He had also started a large family, and opened a chain of three popular ramen restaurants in Kyoto and Osaka, called Musoshin. His restaurants are known for using light, vegetable-based ramen broth, instead of heavy, oily pork broth. They also have a Noodle Room where visitors can learn to hand-make their own noodles and then eat what they made.
Shin wanted to open another Musoshin. He first tried to open one in Bangkok, but it didn’t work out. Then, in 2017, he visited me in Toronto, and really liked the city. He decided to open the fourth Musoshin here, and asked if I wanted to help. The plan was that I would help run the Toronto restaurant and take care of the dessert menu, and Shin would come over, set up the kitchen, and train the staff how to make the broth and the noodles.
I worked briefly at one of Shin’s restaurants when I went back to Japan to visit my parents in 2018, and I learned some very basic ramen techniques. But I had never run a restaurant before, so there was a lot to learn, from how to lay out the kitchen to what equipment to buy and how to use it. But I knew how to handle my end of the menu, like the Japanese milk bread that I would bake on site, and the yogurt cheesecakes based on my mother’s recipe.
I found a space in my neighbourhood, on Boustead Avenue just off of Roncesvalles, that used to be an Internet café. We hired some local architects, Megan Cassidy and Haji Nakamura, to design the space. Their son is the same age as one of my kids. We got to know each other at the neighborhood library during story time with the children, and became friends. In March, we were finally finishing the millwork and decorating the dining room when Covid shut everything down.
There was another problem, too. Shin was stuck in Kyoto. He’d been planning to come to Toronto for a long visit to help finish setting everything up and train our chefs, but that was impossible now. Suddenly having to deal with everything by myself was terrible, but I had no choice. For nearly four months, most of our contractors had to stop working, many of our suppliers had to close, and we couldn’t finish construction. We came close to giving up entirely but carried on, hoping that things would improve. We had done so much work, and spent so much money, and so many friends and family had helped us. I decided I would rather burn out trying and be sad at the end, instead of not trying at all.
The hardest part was learning how to make ramen remotely. The broth and noodle recipes were Shin’s specialty, and although I was a little bit familiar with them, it was still very hard to get the aroma and textures right. I called or emailed every time I had a question, although I didn’t even know what to ask sometimes. Online video was the easiest way to correct mistakes. I can’t even begin to count how many calls we did! The 14-hour time difference was also a big problem. It was impossible to get quick answers but Shin was very encouraging, and trusted me when I told him I thought the recipes were ready.
We finally opened on October 10. We have regular, vegan, spicy, and curry ramen, all with home-made noodles and unusual ingredients like okra; classic Japanese appetizers; cube-shaped shokupan bread that I bake on-site; and lots of tea, sweets and my special desserts.
It’s a relief to be open. I’m still figuring out how to operate, and how to manage people. Business has been good, but we can only do takeout and outdoor dining for now. I’m really looking forward to being able to use our beautiful dining room, and Shin is excited to visit in person again when it is safe to do so.
The worst thing now is being away from my husband and three kids so much. I’ve been mostly at home with them for the past 15 years and I really miss them. They are very supportive and happy for me though, and hopefully I can spend more time with them again soon.
—As told to Derek Shapton