Our pop-ups were busier every week, then Covid-19 shut our restaurant idea down

James Chant, founder of Wales’ only ramen joint, chats about delivering his business to customers after lockdown halted his restaurant plans

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James Chant assembling ramen bowl at Matsudai popup.
The majority of cooking for ramen is done in advance, leaving only reheating and assembly to be done in the restaurant. Photo Credit: Jamie Allen

James Chant founded Matsudai Ramen to resolve a creative itch that needed scratching. 

After turning 40, moving house, and getting married all within a short space of time, James knew he wanted a change of direction in life. 

Speaking about the experience, James said: “I got into a really dark place with it one day. I hit rock bottom. I knew I needed to do something creative, I just wasn’t sure what that was.”

Now, just a year after its anniversary, he has navigated Wales’ only ramen joint successfully through the coronavirus pandemic where much of the hospitality sector has suffered.

Adapting from a sit-down experience to preparing heat-at-home fresh and frozen DIY kits to supply residents of Cardiff and South Wales with noodles, James has been able to deliver his goods without compromising quality, or safety.

Noodling to noodles

Despite working within the creative industries, James’ previous job of managing music artists and venues, such as the now closed Gwdihŵ, had shifted to mostly administrative tasks. 

“I just decided I was going to quit all of my work.” And, without a plan in mind, he set about learning design software; as his first project, he created Matsudai’s logo.

Having previously visited Japan on tour, James found himself fascinated by the nation’s culture and food. Although, he reluctantly admitted to not having eaten a bowl of ramen while there. 

An example of a fresh ramen kit containing noodles, broth, chasu pork, tare, and more.
Each DIY kit comes with instructions and tips on heating at home. Photo Credit: Ed Choo

The pop-ups were going crazy. We had offers of investment. People were really picking up on it and attached themselves to it

Matsudai’s first public venture came through a series of pop-ups at Cardiff venue Blue Honey last September. James had clearly tapped into something unique, as each night sold out within hours of tickets going live. 

“The pop-ups were going crazy. We had offers of investment,” he said, adding: “People were really picking up on it and attached themselves to it.” 

From pop-ups to drop offs

Then, after just a few weeks into a planned six-week takeover, the first national lockdown in March brought Matsudai to a screeching halt.

However, where most restaurants were forced to shut for the foreseeable future, Matsudai already had a contingency in place. 

James had already been supplying DIY kits to his friends before the pop-ups began. From there he simply scaled up the business for public consumption as it was the “obvious thing to do.” 

“We were really lucky,” he noted. As Matsudai was still within its infancy when lockdown began, they were not tied down by restraints of other businesses trying to retrofit existing premises.

The hours are crazy, there’s grease everywhere a lot of the time. It’s just pretty full on

However, while James is thankful for the kits keeping his business alive, it’s far from his ultimate goal.

“The hours are crazy, there’s grease everywhere a lot of the time. I’m interested in a little bit of that, but I’m not interested in that being my life,” he laughed. “You spend some time cooking, but you spend a lot of time putting things in bags and cardboard boxes.” 

Currently, he operates the business out of an industrial unit within Taff’s Well, when all of the preparation for the ramen kits and pop-up nights is done.

He still hopes to open a flagship restaurant, as well as using Matsudai as an education vehicle for Japanese food and culture. 

He believes that ramen remains inaccessible and underrepresented across the UK; something he’d like to change.

“I’m really interested in spreading the word as authentically as I can, and as faithfully as I can,” he said. Although, he noted the difficulties surround appropriation, stating “It’s a little hard to manage, as I’m a white dude in his 40s from Cardiff. That’s why I plan to keep my own spin on things.”

What’s in a kit?

Every ramen kit ordered will come in a cardboard box, complete with ingredients and a short set of instructions on assembly. While each box will vary depending on the type of ramen you have ordered, all of the freezer kits will come with these included: 

  • Broth – the main flavour of the whole dish, to be reheated gently
  • Noodles – to be placed in boiling water for a short period of time
  • Chashu – often pork, sometimes chicken; to be reheated and crisped to one’s liking

However, as ramen flavour profiles are so diverse, many of their fresh kits come with special ingredients that require assembly in a different order. Instructions for putting these together are always released simultaneously via their Instagram page.