Ramen Noodles' Gourmet Makeover, From College Dorm Staple to Fine Dining

PHOTO: Noodles and Companys Bangkok Curry noodle dish. CEO Kevin Reddy sees his "fast casual" restaurant chain as the future of American cuisine.
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Ramen noodles, once maligned as a super cheap, freeze-dried staple of college dorm life, eaten out of a Styrofoam cup, have gone gourmet and mainstream.

As the CEO of Noodles and Company, Kevin Reddy's mission is to bring the noodle to the masses. He knows these noodles are big business, no matter what the economy is doing. In fact, the Colorado-based chain has almost doubled in size since the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis, growing to more than 300 outlets nationwide.

Reddy said he thinks noodles may be on track to replace fast food -- could a noodle dish be the new Big Mac?

"We hope so," Reddy told "Nightline" a few months ago. "I used to work for McDonalds and I'm very proud of the time I spent there. I feel good that we are competing exceptionally well against such an aspirational chain."

After 20 years under the Golden Arches, Reddy sees Noodles and Company as the future of American cuisine. It's not fine dining, but it's not fast food either. It's part of the fastest growing segment of restaurant chains called "fast casual."

"It's very efficient," Reddy said.

With an emphasis on healthy, wallet-friendly price points, Noodles and Company features family dining areas and a cross-section of global, exotic flavors -- from Japanese Pan Noodles to Bangkok Curry to an Italian style Pasta Fresca -- while maintaining the beloved Mac and Cheese.

But in the age of artisanal donuts and designer pizza, even a humble college food staple has an artiste.

Ivan Orkin is hands down the world's most renowned ramen guru. He spent a decade learning from the master in Japan, where he reached the rarified rank of Ramen Diva and launched his own line of ramen products.

"I'm just really into ramen," he said. "And there weren't any Americans making ramen, so it was a great shtick."

Fluent in Japanese and classically trained, the Brooklyn-born Orkin has worked in some of New York's finest restaurants, but ramen is his life. Dipping his hands into and mixing several different kind of flour, Orkin says making ramen noodles is not just science. It's an art.

"I've probably made 100,000 noodles," he said. "This process just blows my mind every single time."

And when ramen is done with exquisite attention to detail, the crowds -- even jaded hipster New Yorkers -- flock to it, he said.

"Ramen is the only cuisine, if you will, that doesn't have a rule book," Orkin said. "There is no rule book. As a matter of fact, people pride themselves on keeping everything they do a secret. ... Ramen is the uber comfort food."

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