Southwest Michigan chefs joined by chance and ramen

A chance meeting at a retail shop in Albion led to a partnership that pairs two different styles of cuisine – Rust Belt Ramen cooking West Michigan Pasta and Provisions' specialty pasta, a combination that showcases two culinary talents.

First, the background

Chef Michael Murray, owner of West Michigan Pasta and Provisions, grew up in Ann Arbor and attended Kalamazoo College where he prepared for a medical career. Murray says K College offered him the opportunity to travel abroad; after an extensive trip to Italy, he became enthralled with the cuisine.

Chef Michael MurrayFollowing college, Murray worked for a while in the medical field, then decided to change career paths and follow his love of cooking. He enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America. Following graduation, he went on to teach at several New York community colleges and work in prestigious restaurants and country clubs. His wife, Cyndy, a biotech specialist, began yearning to return to their home state, and that brought the couple back to Southwest Michigan where Murray launched his shop in Mattawan and began teaching at Kalamazoo Valley Community College's Culinary Arts program. 

At West Michigan Pasta and Provisions, Murray began to reproduce old-world style pasta with a passion. On Murray's permaculture farm in Mattawan (that Cyndy planted with help from their young daughter Isabella “Bella"), the basement boasts a well-appointed pasta shop, where Murray uses bronze dyes to extrude various styles of Italian pasta – and surprisingly, Japanese noodles, like ramen and udon. 

Chef Anthony Cox enters the picture 

Unlike Murray who was drawn to the culinary world after following a different career path, Cox says he drew his inspiration from an early age from an unlikely source – the Swedish Chef's joy for cooking on an episode of The Muppets

Raised in Oakland County, Michigan, Cox worked around food from the age of 14 – including, as a young man at a job processing meat, he says. He decided to become a chef at 21, earning his classical culinary degree. After working in several high-end kitchens, Cox says he became disillusioned with restaurant hierarchy and politics. Like Murray, he changed career paths, but out of the food industry. He enrolled in a dual degree in leadership and outdoor education, while also studying Chinese linguistics. 

Cox's goal, he says, was to move to China and become a tour guide. But fate intervened. Cox met Emily, the woman who was to become his wife, on a church retreat. The couple spent six months in Japan volunteering with a ministry.

Chef Anthony Cox and his wife, Emily.While in Japan, Cox found himself enamored with the cuisine. The couple returned to Michigan to be closer to family. It would be a few years and a few different job positions before Cox rediscovered his passion for food. But soon enough, his love for Japanese cuisine began calling him to experiment and he started considering a re-entry into the restaurant business.

But first, he had to convince Emily, who was familiar with his previous frustrations with working in the food industry.

“I will decide the culture. I will decide how people are treated,” he says he told her. They planned a food event to determine whether or not people even cared about his food. “She saw the response of the people. She also saw my joy. So she got onboard,” says Cox.

He set up shop at First United Methodist Church in Albion as a ghost kitchen, which is a term that refers to a non-dining space shared with users to reduce cost and increase efficiency. 

Cox credits a visit with a friend who was a sous chef at a ramen shop in Las Vegas as the inspiration to open his ghost-kitchen restaurant, Rust Belt Ramen, in Albion, even “with no Swedish Chef in sight,” he quips.

First United Methodist Church in Albion is home to Rust Belt Ramen's 'ghost kitchen.'Using a ghost kitchen was key to the restaurant's success, says Cox. Ghost kitchens are innovative because they allow a restaurant to flourish without having the overhead of a brick and mortar and all of the equipment they have to own at a substantial cost, often sharing the space with other culinary endeavors in underutilized cooking spaces like the kitchens at churches that spend 95% of their time empty. 

“It’s pretty brilliant now that we have to-go online orders and takeout,” says Cox.

East meets west 

Cox laments the days when he had to use inferior noodles. 

“The manufacturer out of Jersey had so much demand they wouldn’t take me on,” he says. One day as he was purchasing sake for his Japanese ponzu sauce at a local liquor store and the two chefs' worlds collided.  

“I was talking to the store manager about ordering a case (of sake) when Mike (Chef Michael Murray of West Michigan Pasta and Provisions) was dropping off noodles. I commented on having difficulty getting ramen noodles and Michael overheard me. 'I make ramen noodles,' he said."

Ramen Chef Anthony Cox stands in his ghost kitchen in Albion.Cox was skeptical at first. He knew he needed a licensed supplier. “And (Mike) was like, “Yeah, I’m a CIA grad, lived in New York, and hooked up with the ACF (American Culinary Federation),'" says Cox.

“Oh, you actually are a chef! This is a business! This dude is legitimate. And we spent like an hour and a half, two hours talking and he hands me a sample of ramen noodles. As a chef we love samples. And so I cooked up a bowl (of ramen). These are authentic.They don’t fall apart, they don’t just soak up all the broth and become a sponge." 

Murray’s pasta has such a “unique, very distinct impression and flavor to it,” Cox says.

Cox recalls how he was able to pick out Chef Michael's pasta at Firekeepers Casino. “We’re eating and I”m like, this is really good. And there is something familiar about it, I’ve had this flavor before. This is Mike's pasta.” He later learned that West Michigan Pasta and Provisions provides pasta to many local purveyors, including Firekeepers Casino. 

The high-quality flour and slower drying process that Chef Murray uses impart a unique, almost sourdough-like process whereby natural native yeast may be playing a part in the flavor profile. It is uniquely West Michigan. 

“He’s making pasta in a very specific environment,” says Cox, “and his control of the variables affects the flavor and it is so cool and unique.”

From the compostable containers to the consciously-chosen ramen, Cox presents an amazingly crafted Miso Ramen Bowl (see this Taste Testers' Review below). He avoids using the terms “traditional or authentic” to describe his bowl because as he puts it, those terms “lock you in a box and now you have to fit into what someone else’s definition of tradition is.”

A classically-trained chef, Chef Anthony admits that everything he knows about Japanese food is self-taught. “It was my desire to learn it, my obsession with it that inspired me," he says. And it shows. Crediting the humble weekly stone soup style Sunday dinners held after services while in Japan as inspiration, Cox combines his classic training with gut instinct and dishes up. Watch him dish up in this VIDEO.

Crafting ramen noodles in Mattawan

Chef Michael Murray opens the door and invites Second Wave into a world of pasta that lies hidden in a neatly-kept, gleaming workshop below his modest ranch-style home in Mattawan, Michigan. One room boasts stacked sacks of high-quality flour; another is a temperature and humidity-controlled drying room; and the largest room is dominated by a large industrial machine where he handcrafts heritage pasta including the Japanese-style ramen used by Chef Anthony Cox. 

Chef Murray prepares pasta in home pasta shop for his business,West Michigan Pasta & Provisions.“We have an enormous basement,” he points out as he leads me through the tidy maze of boxes and labels used in his custom pasta business into the pristine workshop where he has agreed to demonstrate how he makes pasta.

Before setting up his home pasta-creating workshop, Murray looked to his classical training and experience in food. “I knew a little bit about pasta making, the extrusion technology. So I used what I knew from being in New York and knowing the quality standards of working on Arthur Avenue and at an Irish and Italian Country Club. And I knew what great food was, and so I started by engineering, sourcing to create from nothing what we’ve slowly built at this point.”

Making ramen as right as rain

Murray acknowledges that although his ramen is not rolled or pulled as is a traditional technique in Japan, the recipe he’s perfected to make it is. He shares how traditional ramen uses an alkaline mineral solution (calcium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate) called kansui (kan-water) historically found in the water of Lake Kan (for which it is named). Kan-water causes the wheat in the ramen to have more substance. The dough becomes stronger, and as a result, the noodle is better. Although Japanese ramen noodle makers don’t source the water from Lake Kan any longer, using Kansui water is key to making good ramen. 

“You can take a lower protein flour and make it chewier and stretchier by using Kansui water. It imparts a distinctive flavor and yellow coloring to the noodle,” says Murray.
Using old-world style bronze dies, US-sourced, high-quality flour, and a long, careful drying time, are key to West Michigan Pasta and Provisions' success. Similar to a natural sourdough starter culture that imparts flavor, their pasta has a distinct mouthfeel and taste.

“Our process to create the pasta is to slowly dry it. There may be some natural bacteria doing its work.” Chef Murray adds that the bronze dies used to extrude the pasta impart rough edges to the noodle as opposed to the dough being pushed through a Teflon die which produces smooth noodles. 

“The bronze-cut pasta can grab onto your sauces so much better.” 

Bronze Cut Pasta: Not your grocery store noodle

During a pop-up dinner event on February 15, 2023, at Lawton Ridge Winery on Stadium Drive, Chef Michael prepared Tortiglioni al la Vodka (video above). The tang of capsicum peppers lit up the rich and substantial, sweet-tart tomato sauce. Accentuated by the meaty pancetta, salty Parmigiano, and fresh basil and parsley, the star of the show is the house-made West Michigan Pasta and Provisions Tortiglione. 

The tagliotone is bronze-cut, which creates ridges to catch sauce, says Chef Michael Murray.A noodle in the Rigatoni family, tortiglione is tubular, with a twisted “barber pole” as Murray puts it – ridges that run up the sides, coupled with the nature of bronze-cut pasta it provided lots of opportunity for that delicious sauce.

The toothsome nature of this noodle makes it ostensibly one of my all-time favorite noodles. Some people think pasta is all the same, and to that I say, try Chef Michael’s pasta and see the difference that a hand-crafted noodle makes. 

Rust Belt Ramen’s Miso Ramen Bowl

On an overcast winter day, I sat in Chef Anthony’s ghost kitchen and had an opportunity to slip into a bowl of his delicious Miso Ramen. Here’s my take on that simple but not austere soup.

The rich, silky stock evokes the very essence of chicken like someone just distilled a chicken into liquid, pure flavor, a result says Cox, of the long, slow simmering process of his house-made stock. The freshly boiled ramen holds sway with its unique flavor profile and toothiness. Braised oysters and chestnut mushrooms support the perfectly soy-cured egg perched on top. The pungent shichimi togarashi, a custom blend of 7 spices, adds a fragrant bite and depth. 

Hidden among the ramen are slices of a custom ponzu sauce and marinated and braised pork belly, so tender it melts in my mouth, as the miso tonic broth slips through my lips. If you want to kick up the heat, Cox offers his “Melt Your Face Off” capsaicin spice blend that includes ghost chilies (among other secret ingredients), a product he says his customers demand.

No matter how you eat it, this dish just keeps on giving. Every mouthful is so carefully crafted that nothing is left wanting except more. 

How to try these products yourself

When talent and passion like that shared by Chef Anthony Cox and Chef Michael Murray come together, we get to experience the unique synergistic result of deliciously-inspired food. 

West Michigan Pasta and Provisions pasta can be found at numerous retail stores, including the Kalamazoo Farmers' Market from April through November at the Kalamazoo Winter Market at St. Joseph Catholic Church, or you can order online here.

Ramen from Rust Belt Ramen, 600 E. Michigan Ave, Albion, Michigan, can be ordered online or by phone at 269-409-3667 and picked up during selected kitchen hours, Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays, from 5 to 10 p.m.
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Read more articles by Channon Mondoux.

Channon Mondoux is a published author, food historian, and local food chef. Her work reflects decades of experience in private and commercial kitchens, having food adventures that have taken her across the country and places beyond. She is an avid historical re-enactor who puts her culinary skills to work by creating dishes from bygone eras as well as reinventing modern cuisine using time-honored traditions. A native of Windsor, Ontario, Canada she is married to Dan and has three sons.