Francesca Hong on ramen, thriving in the kitchen

Francesca Hong on ramen, thriving in the kitchen
Photo courtesy of Morris Ramen
Francesca Hong, chef and co-owner of Morris Ramen on King Street.

Morris Ramen, open since December 2016, is steering into its first spring in Madison. There’s a triad of talent at the helm of this noodle-focused restaurant: spouses Matt Morris and Francesca Hong are chefs and co-owners along with business partner and one of Madison’s most notable restaurateurs, Shinji Muramoto.

The three are accomplished cooks, well seasoned in the restaurant industry. Both Morris and Hong have worked in Muramoto’s kitchens before opening the ramen shop on King Street. All three are tough and disciplined–leaders and role models to their staff. One of them, however, is not like the others.

Hong is a woman in a male-dominated industry who has followed a path of brambles to the back of the house.

But let’s not make a big deal of it for a moment. And please, let’s not refer to Hong in every day conversation as a “female chef.”

If it’s all the same to you, Hong says, “It would be cool if we could just be chefs or just be cooks.”

She and other lady cooks don’t want to be looked at as abrasive–they want only to contribute to the culinary industry, and they want respect. Not in a jumping-up-and-down, flailing-arms, stomping-feet display but by quietly supporting each other and listening to each other’s stories built on both frustrations and successes.

By virtue of hard work and the kind of grit that comes from feeling like you don’t fit into a 9-5 world, they’ve earned the right to call themselves leaders in feeding people good food. According to Hong, male cooks and kitchen managers and chefs don’t think about that as much. Therefore, she says, “I think we have to work a little extra to be respected.”

She takes responsibility, “We as female leaders need to foster that.”

Hong is a great cook and business owner. She and Morris consumed noodles for 10 days straight on a recent trip to Japan, and it was then that she “fell in love with ramen” and realized it could be done well here in Madison.

And ever since, she and Morris–past sous chef at downtown’s Restaurant Muramoto, of whom Hong says has more ramen knowledge then she–have taken a disciplined approach to making broth. Without getting the broth right–the essence of every bowl–the concept falls apart, and it’s her job to “push consistency and simplicity” in the restaurant.

“There’s a lot of love and work that goes into that broth,” she says.

From preparation to assemblage to serving, the broth takes a journey of 48 hours. It’s a lot of boiling and simmering. Vegetables, bonito flakes and kombu steep and are strained. Staff breaks pork bones by hand–big femur bones crack open, offering a salty, buttery marrow.

“Did I think that when I first started cooking I’d end up in a ramen shop? No. Does it feel like home? Absolutely,” Hong says.

Her 14-year kitchen career included an executive chef stint at 43 North (at that time and only five years or so ago, she was counted among few if any female executive chefs in Madison). Before taking on a leadership role, she worked at this downtown restaurant with close friend Justin Carlisle, current chef of Ardent in Milwaukee. While they worked together Hong says Carlisle took her under his wing.

Of both Francesca and Matt, Carlisle says, “[They] give our industry respect, and I know they will be great role models for their staff and outstanding business owners. Serving delicious food and bringing hospitality to all that come eat at their establishment.”

Although Hong hasn’t worked with a lot of female chefs, she knows they are out there and was elated to have add another talented female cook to the Morris Ramen team.

“Our work ethic is strong, we have a nurturing and caring presence that so many successful female chefs are able to balance that with discipline and toughness without having to come across as a bitch,” Hong says.

Speaking of balance, she and Matt recently welcomed their first son just months before opening the doors of Morris Ramen. “Being a mom is the hardest thing I’ve done,” she says. “No one really prepares you for the guilt you constantly feel in parenthood.”

She affectionately refers to the restaurant and her son as her twins, and says, “It’s a constant struggle taking care of everyone, but it’s also incredibly fulfilling.”

“If I can nourish someone with a bowl of ramen, and I can feed staff … I’m contributing to the community,” she says. Hong finds that notion incredibly empowering and enriching.

Like any chef, especially in this town, Hong is looking forward to the tender vegetables of spring including locally grown green onions, new potatoes and over-wintered spinach.

She is part of a team who is pushing to do ramen well, committed to creating the best version of their broth. There is a time-honored art to perfecting a bowl of ramen, rich with texture and umami haloed in rising steam. She saw the art in the decades-old, family-owned ramen shops in Japan.

And whether you’re a man or a woman in this business, Hong says, “There’s something really simple and wonderful about that.”