Culture Corner


“Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 13, 2017 – February 12, 2018)


Bernie Langs


The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently had on view an internationally acclaimed exhibition, “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer”, which closed on February 12th. Of the 600 drawings attributed to the great genius of the Italian Renaissance, the show brought together 133 of them from all over the world, the largest number of such works ever assembled by the Master. In addition, the show offered a handful of sculptures by Michelangelo as well as many rare preparatory “cartoons” and one of his early paintings. Drawings, paintings, and sculptures from the hands of other great artists of the period, including those in Michelangelo’s inner circle, were on hand, along with art from other eras serving to drive home essential ideas about what influenced him and why. One of the larger galleries boasted a brightly lit, small-scale reproduction of the Sistine Chapel’s famous ceiling, which hovered above the large space. Many of the drawings in that room were studies for specific images from the Chapel and each of the placards highlighted exactly where you could locate them above on the ceiling. These included a preliminary sketch of God’s reaching arm for the touch that will enliven Adam’s soul, the faces and bodies of the Sybils (including the well-known sheet in the Met’s collection, Studies for the Libyan Sibyl), and a letter written by Michelangelo with a tiny self-portrait illustrating the physical misery of this huge undertaking.


Just days after I had seen the exhibit, the curator, Dr. Carmen C. Bambach, and Research Assistant Jeffrey Fraiman who was deeply involved with many of the logistics of the project, invited me for an afterhours viewing with only about 25 others in attendance. I jumped at the opportunity.


Given this chance of a lifetime, for what end would I use it? One of the first major exhibitions I had ever attended, was in 1980 at the Morgan Library, “Michelangelo and His World”, which brought together 41 of the Master’s drawings. I specifically recall my strategy on studying his drawings at that visit, and this time, I specifically chose to take the exact opposite approach to understand the profound ideas revealed by the drawings. One can demand that the works of art assist with the progression of one’s own personal theories in hope of completing aesthetic, spiritual, or mystical inner dimensions within the soul or psyche. Upon entry to the Michelangelo exhibition, I said to myself: “Rubbish to all that,” and dove in simply to look at the drawings in the hope of experiencing what Kenneth Clark’s aptly calls “Moments of Vision”.


The Michelangelo exhibition gave its audience a chance to discover hints of how a genius of the highest level worked out his ideas. Viewers can see first-hand how his creative process initiated, perhaps as a work on paper in charcoal or in the wonderful textures induced by red chalk, and ended up as the sublime perfection of the frescoes in the Vatican or the perfect sculptures of The David or The Moses. The long-dead Michelangelo can’t go on camera and reveal how he did it so we are left in the uncomfortable situation of having to imply what his thinking process may have been by examining the clues he left behind and mixing them with tales of his personality gleaned from the reports at the time about his life or writings of his friends, such as Girogio Vasari in “The Lives of the Artists”.


The Met’s staff, including Dr. Bambach and Mr. Fraiman, do the tireless groundwork for all of us prior to our visit. They comb through the complicated historical record and centuries of scholarship, subsequently devising and writing up their theories. Dr. Bambach and Mr. Fraiman and their colleagues perform the Herculean task of condensing centuries of study and ideas so that their impressively educated passion sparks the hearts and minds of each one of the more than 600,000 people who viewed show.


A sheet of paper in one of the first galleries held numerous drawn studies of varying images by Michelangelo, some popping into the viewer’s eyes seemingly out of nowhere and retreating as another one emerged in its place. The drawing was crammed tight with idea after idea. On one side, I found of great interest an incomplete profile of a man buried in all the images of faces and bodies, fabulous in solid, confident detail, yet unusually halted in its progression. Other drawings in nearby galleries had isolated sketches on the same page floating in their own spatial realms and aesthetic dimensions, worked out by strokes of chalk, charcoal or pen. Many drawings were fully formed, or at times, there would be a section of a lightly present image next to another in sharp detail, reminiscent of da Vinci’s obsessive sketches in his famous notebooks.


Two of the rare works in the exhibition were large planning “cartoons”, one a section of a preparatory drawing for Michelangelo’s Vatican frescoes, depicting a detail of Roman soldiers for The Crucifixion of Saint Peter in the Pauline Chapel. The second was a design attributed to the Master and his workshop for Michele di Jacopo Cosini’s painting, Venus Kissing Cupid (the finished painting was also on view). The Vatican fragment left me engulfed in pure amazement and overwhelming awe. The Pauline paintings in the Vatican are of a completely different nature than the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling and Last Judgement wall. They seem to present an intense inner contemplative expression of Michelangelo’s suffering and spiritual conflicts. The frescoes have a tightness and harsher spatial reality of personal tortured reality than the grand images in the Sistine. Yet the cartoon at the Met had aspects of softness and clarity not apparent in the completed project.


Other highlights of the exhibition included a powerful sculpted bust depicting Brutus, displayed alongside an ancient Roman sculpture of a similarly posed emperor. There was also a sublime unfinished sculpture  ambiguously titled, Apollo-David, similar in its chiseled texture to the unfinished Deposition in Florence in which a self-portrait of Michelangelo appears as Nicodemus. These sculptures are fabulously rough as opposed to the polish of Pietà in Saint Peters in Rome.


A room with red chalk drawings of unparalleled genius had depictions of emotional subjects such as Study for a Descent from the Cross and the dynamic display of Archers Shooting at a Herm. I found myself incapable of thinking about anything besides their exceptional power and beauty. I also found myself returning a number of times to gaze at the Unfinished Cartoon of the Virgin and Child. The face of the Madonna is similar in its features to many of the faces in the frescoed Sistine Chapel. The delicacy of the figure is ethereal, almost beyond physical reality, and well past thoughts of flesh and blood, perhaps created in the Master’s mind from his vision of the Platonic form of feminine beauty itself. His ideal became the blueprint for artists of the time in representing the divine in the guise of paint.


Michelangelo was a captive of the times in which he lived, as we all are. He had to create within the confines of the ideas, society, culture, and territorial realities of Italy during his lifespan of 1475-1564. Michelangelo guided art into a new paradigm reaching untold heights and revealing realms of ideas and thoughts on all manners of subjects, both human and spiritual in nature. We can all thank him for his efforts as well as those who continue to study the works of all of the greats and present them to us for the betterment of Mankind.


View of the Met Museum’s recreated Sistine Chapel with related drawings on display.



Michelangelo Buonarroti Roman Soldiers, Cartoon Fragment for the Lower Left Part of the Crucifixion of Saint Peter in the Pauline Chapel. Charcoal, with some black chalk, on approximately nineteen sheets of paper, outlines pricked for transfer. Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, Naples (and detail).


Michelangelo Buonarroti Sketches of the Virgin, the Christ Child Reclining on a Cushion, and Other Sketches of Infants. Pen and brown ink. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett.


LEFT: Mural Fragment of a Male Nude in Three-Quarter Length (Triton or Satyr). Charcoal on rough porous plaster. Sernesi Family, Villa Michelangiolo, Settignano;

CENTER: Bastiano (Aristotile) da Sangallo (Italian, 1481–1551). Copy after the Central Episode of the Bathers in Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina.


Michelangelo Buonarroti (with slight retouching by a later hand in pen and ink). Unfinished Cartoon of the Virgin and Child. Black chalk, red chalk, traces of brush and brown wash, with lead-white gouache highlights. Casa Buonarroti, Florence.


Michelangelo Buonarroti  with some assistance by Tiberio Calcagni Bust of Brutus (unfinished). Carrara marble. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.


View of the two galleries of the Met Museum’s exhibition “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer”.


Nessa Noms: Flip Sigi


Vanessa J. Wu


Flip Sigi has been a long time coming. This Filipino taqueria is headed by Chef Jordan Andino who was born in Canada, grew up in California. He takes inspiration from his Filipino grandmother and draws on skills from the time he spent working in fine dining.


Jordan’s first restaurant in the West Village was originally named 2nd City, but has now joined the second restaurant located on the Upper East Side (UES) in sharing the name Flip Sigi.


With two locations, limited edition menu specials every month, and collaborations with other businesses, there’s always something new to experience, but always with a hint of familiarity, maybe even nostalgia. And don’t forget the distinctive hot sauces! There’s 1st Base, 2nd Base, 3rd Base, and Jordan’s very own recipe: Home Run. Put it on your burritos, bowls, burgers, and even Bloody Marys for an extra kick!


Like his hot sauce, Jordan is anything but bland. I had the pleasure of meeting him, and his energy is always so high that you’ll probably feel it leaping off the page!


NS: What is the meaning behind the name Flip Sigi?

JA: Flip Sigi basically means “Go Filipino” coming from a play on the words ‘Flip’ – Filipino and ‘Sigi’ – which basically means go!


NS: Why do you think Filipino food is gaining momentum?

JA: Filipino food is gaining momentum because, as a whole cuisine, it speaks to the 3 major cuisines that are popular and understood in the United States: Chinese, Spanish, and American. The fact that Filipino food has all these small elements people are familiar with will make them more keen to try something new.


NS: I know you take inspiration from your grandmother’s Filipino recipes. Why do you choose to remake other known foods with a Filipino take rather than traditional Filipino dishes?

JA: I like to remake the classic dishes because it helps introduce my culture and cuisine to a wider range of palates. The more that try it, the more people get introduced to my culture via my cuisine.


NS: What are your hopes for the future of your restaurants? Any specific goals?

JA: I hope my future restaurants will be great in number and widely respected among my cohorts and peers. Ideally, we create a culture, company, and restaurant that all people from the US can feel comfortable going to and eating at!


NS: How has your Californian identity influenced your food? As a Californian myself, I actually do get quite a bit of a Californian vibe from your food, your personality, and, to some extent, your restaurant decor!

JA: I would say that California influences my restaurants in two different ways: in my use of avocado and my vibe!  I can’t help but love that laid-back feeling while trying to eat because it’s just how I was raised!


NS: Why did you choose New York to open your restaurants in?

JA: I opened in NYC because as cliché as it sounds, when it comes to food, if you can prove yourself successful here, you’re now universally respected.


NS: Why the UES and West Village neighborhoods specifically?

JA: Luckily for me, both the West Village and UES locations came from great contacts in the real estate business. We initially searched [in the West Village] because the reputation that restaurants have in this neighborhood is that of class and quality. We just had to be here to establish our brand as food-serious. We initially searched [on the UES] because with the opening of the 2nd Avenue Q train, this area will eventually be a hotbed of youth and an area that will attract guests in our price range.


NS: Is there anything that sets apart your UES location and your West Village location other than what’s explicitly on the menu and what’s on the “secret menu?”

JA: The locations are the same but have different fingerprints, so to speak. We want each place to have their own identity for the neighborhood that they’re part of.


NS: Of all your monthly specials and collabs thus far, which would you say is your personal favorite? I was a fan of the December longanisa poutine. You should definitely make that a regular item!

JA: I’ve done so many of the specials and collabs that it’s hard to remember. I’d say my two favorites are the Flip N Out Burger and the Sinigang Flip Bowl. Both are regular menu items now, but started as specials!  Although I do agree: the longanisa poutine was insane!


NS: What about your favorite non-rotating menu item?

JA: Favorite non-rotating menu item – Cali Burrito.


NS: I saw that you’re going to be a part of the Food Show at the Javits Center in March. What are you planning on demo-ing? Anything from Flip Sigi?

JA: For the food show in March, I’m going to be on center stage demo-ing the highlights of Flip Sigi as well as some fun hacks for the general cook.


NS: Bonus Question: In-N-Out or Shake Shack?

JA: In-N-Out for life!!!!


The author with Flip Sigi’s chef, Jordan Andino.


From left to right 1) Flip Bowl: one of Jordan’s favorite limited-edition item, now here to stay; 2) Longanisa Poutine: Natural Selection’s Vanessa’s favorite limited-edition item; 3) Cali Burrito: Jordan’s favorite regular menu item.


Flip Ramen: The first limited edition item of 2018 – a ramen with both chicken and pork adobo!


L.A.E. Me: a collab with black seed bagels now on the official Flip Sigi menu – longanisa, American cheese, and a fried egg on an everything bagel.


Poke Me: a twist on the classic tuna poke bowl served with sweet miso coconut steamed rice.


For my review of this restaurant and others:


For more photos from this restaurant and others:


Black Magic Juice


Johannes Buheitel

I’m confused, disoriented. The ringing from my alarm still in my ear, I’m performing the absolute minimum necessary number of tasks that prepare me to go out and join the herd of zombies slowly moving through the streets. Phasing in and out of consciousness, me and my fellow undead finally manage to stumble into the same type of place, as if we had all been drawn there by an invisible force. It is here, where I get what I crave: A black magic juice whose ingestion will allow me to start feeling like a human being for the first time that day. What I crave, of course, is coffee.

I might be slightly exaggerating for dramatic effect, which doesn’t make it less true that many people all around the globe rely on a good morning cup of joe as an essential part of their daily routine. But recently, those people started to grow increasingly worried as news outlets have begun reporting that the State of California wants to force coffee shops and other places that sell brewed coffee to label it as cancerogenic. So clearly, many are now asking: Have we been drinking poison the whole time?

Let’s back up a moment: Since 1986, California law requires all companies with 10 or more employees to post clear warnings on or around products that could pose a danger to a potential consumer (apparently, if your company has only 9 employees you’re allowed to give people cancer, but let’s not go there). This risk is defined by a product containing certain chemicals that are listed in the law’s documentation, among them, one at the center of this debate: acrylamide. Acrylamide is formed as a byproduct of the Maillard reaction, which occurs pretty much anytime food items (especially starchy ones) are heated over a certain temperature. This reaction is responsible for the crust on a seared steak, the dark rind of a freshly baked loaf of bread, or the crispy exterior of a french fry (you know, all the good stuff). And—you guessed it—coffee beans owe their beautiful brown sheen to this chemical reaction happening during the roasting process.

So how dangerous is acrylamide? Well, it all depends on how you look at it. The results of studies in which mice and rats had been fed with the chemicals have shown a clear dose-dependent correlation between cancer and acrylamide. Taking these results at face value, we could fairly confidently assume that acrylamide will have a cancerogenic effect on humans as long as—and this is important—one ingests enough of it. I’m stressing this fact, because the amount of acrylamide the rodents were exposed to in these laboratory experiments are 1,000 – 100,000 times higher on a per kilogram basis than what can be expected from dietary consumption in humans, which makes it very unlikely that one can take up enough dietary acrylamide to cause immediate harm.

Of course, this fact doesn’t exonerate acrylamide just yet. What about long-term exposure of humans to small amounts of this compound? This is where it gets complicated. You see, long-term dietary studies are usually quite tricky to perform, control, and analyze well. This is due to many reasons, with one of the most problematic being the reliance of many studies on their subject’s self-reporting and our tendency to (willingly or unwillingly) misrepresent the number of things we put into our mouths. Nonetheless, these studies have been scientists’ bread and butter (no pun intended) for decades, allowing them to assess the influence of diet on our health. And up to this day all of these studies have failed to prove a clear correlation between acrylamide in cancer in humans. This means that from all the information we have so far, we can assume that it is unlikely that the concentrations found in a normal human diet (including in coffee) will have any measurable effect on your health. In particular, your cancer risk is way more likely to be influenced by factors such as genetics, certain habits, such as smoking, or whether you are occupationally exposed to higher concentrations of chemicals or radiation. But, as I mentioned, our current studies aren’t perfect, which is why the National Cancer Institute suggests additional epidemiological long-term studies that do a better job tracking certain metabolic markers.

But now let’s get back to coffee. Should you stop drinking it because of acrylamide? Probably not. Should it get a label because of its acrylamide content? Probably not. Even so, you might say to yourself: “Well, let’s just play it safe and cut the coffee”. In this case; however, I want you to consider this: In 2014, the results of a meta-analysis of 21 studies conducted between 1966 and 2013 showed that coffee consumption of 3-4 cups per day was not only not correlated with cancer mortality, but even decreased (!) the likelihood of death from all causes and also specifically from cardiovascular disease. So, the next time you want to reach for this expensive face cream behind your bathroom mirror, think about going into your kitchen instead, because those little brown beans on the counter might hold the actual secret formula for longevity. Black magic juice, indeed.


What to do Indoors When You’ve Already Watched Everything on Netflix


Elisa Lazzari

Winter’s gone, or has it? Even if most of the cold months are behind us, it might be too early to take out our spring trench coats. On February 2, Groundhog Day was celebrated across the United States, but this year’s forecast was dire. Contrasting predictions between Pennsylvania’s famous Punxsutawney Phil and Staten Island’s very own Chuck left the case unsettled, so we might still have a few weeks of biting weather ahead of us. To play it safe, let’s look at some indoor entertainment options:


  • Bake. This is your chance to ask your cute neighbor for a cup of sugar! There are billions of recipes online, which sometimes require an overwhelming amount of kitchen gear. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned baker, muffins are always a good idea. They’re just as delicious as they are simple to prepare, and once you master the “muffin technique” (see blogs like or for easy recipes) you’ll be able to wow your loved ones with elaborate flavor combos. Think apple-cheddar or dark chocolate-bacon muffins. Next thing you know, you’ll learn how to frost and fight on “Cupcake Wars”. Pros: baking will make your apartment cozy and smell delicious. Cons: some clean up required.


  • Join a wine club. Wine clubs are a good opportunity for many reasons. You like to experiment with different wines but don’t have much time to browse in local shops? Wine club. You dread inevitable conversations with the too well-meaning salesperson and want to get a good price on bottles? Wine club. Get a feeling for which subscription could work for you on websites like net. Also, you’ll have plenty of reasons to enjoy another fun indoor activity: throwing wine tasting parties. Pros: show off the cheese knife set you bought yourself at Pottery Barn a year ago. Cons: now your friends will know better if you show up with “2 bucks-a-bottle-with-pretentious-label” wine.


  • Play board games. A great reason to put down our phones and computers, and actually socialize. If you’re asking yourself why you should try it, consider the many benefits associated with playing board games. Besides enhancing brain function, board games are known to help reduce stress, increase creativity and strengthen relationships. If the last board game you played was either Scrabble or Monopoly, then you’re in for a big surprise. Adult board game options are now countless. Just to name a few: Settlers of Catan, Cards Against Humanity, Exploding Kittens, and What Do You Meme? With updated options like these, you’re bound to have fun. If you’re looking for someone to play with, you should know that New York City is home to The Uncommons, a board game café with one of the largest library of games on the East Coast. Pros: the perfect occasion to spend time with friends and family while wrapped in a sleeved blanket. Cons: too much fun?


  • Knit. Yes, I’m serious. I’ll argue that knitting is one of the very few mindfulness activities that actually results in something useful. You can choose to actively pay attention to every stich, or, much like doodling, simply keep your hands busy while your mind focuses on other things. Crafts can be very rewarding, crushingly cute (ex. baby hats. Enough said), and of all shapes and sizes. If you’re already comfortable with needles and infinity scarfs, challenge yourself with quirkier artwork, such as knitted cactus vases or faux taxidermy. Pros: you won’t ever have to worry about buying gifts again. Cons: the inevitable learning curve and your supplies may be bulky to carry around.


As much as we all hope Staten Island Chuck was right, winter time gives us a chance to get creative indoors. At the very least, we should be prepared in case a snow storm cuts out the WIFI.


Word of the Month


Dakota Blackman



noun | wom·an  | ˈwu̇-mən , especially Southern ˈwō- or ˈwə- |

an adult female person


The word’s primary definition is simple enough: according to Merriam-Webster, a woman is “an adult female person.” Also according to Merriam-Webster, it is in the top 10% of most-used online words. This is hardly a surprise. Feminism (a noun which Merriam-Webster defines as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes”) is now in its fourth wave. Its current focus is on using social media to amplify opposition to all-too-common phenomena of violence against women, with an emphasis on sexual harassment. Feminism is seeping into popular culture as well. Beyonce’s song ***Flawless, for example, samples Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: in the middle of the song, we hear the activist read a few lines from her now-famous speech “Why We Should All Be Feminists.” Adichie says, “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you will threaten the man.”


This brief excerpt highlights what is most interesting to me about woman’s definition: in these few lines, Adichie reinforces the word’s inherent binary. Through the comparison of women to men (specifically, of girls to boys), she places women on one side of this binary, and men on the other. Interestingly, this binary is also reflected in the language: while a woman is defined as a “female person,” a man, according to Merriam-Webster, is “an individual human; especially an adult male human.” The gendered caveat of the word man lies only in the qualifying clause, skewing baseline humanity with maleness. Woman’s etymology further supports this: it is derived from the Old English word wifman, which itself combines the words wife and man—the former being the Old English synonym for woman, the latter being synonymous for human. The word “man” not only has more definitions than woman, but these definitions also extend beyond the confines of gender and even traverse into different parts of speech (the verb meaning to control or supply, for example). So not only is the word woman binarized, it is also linguistically upholds a gendered inequality. However, this binary does not solely exist within the confines of the language; it has somewhat insidiously entrenched itself into the norms of our culture. In fact, it is so subtly embedded that it can impact the way in which women think and feel about themselves and each other.


The word is especially appropriate given that March is Women’s History Month. It has been recognized as such in the United States only since 1995; before this, starting in 1981, just one week in March was celebrated as Women’s History Week. This week, and later the month, builds on the celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8th, which has been recognized in the United States since the year 1909, but was only recognized by the United Nations starting in 1975. (It became a national holiday in Soviet Russia in 1917.) The resilience of the women’s movement is always striking when its history is considered, particularly in a country like the United States, which touts equality and progressivism in its ideological foundations. Women’s History Month has only, within the past twenty-odd years, been adopted as a mainstream, national holiday. It can be disheartening to think about how much more work needs to be done, particularly when the definition of the word “woman” upholds an innate inequality. Yet, one of language’s most beautiful characteristics is that it can be fluid and dynamic; with work, the norms embedded both in our language and our society have the potential to change.


A Special Obituary: Günter Blobel


Joseph Luna

Editor’s note: This article was originally published as Twenty-four visits to Stockholm: a concise history of the Rockefeller Nobel Prizes by Joseph Luna in June 2016.


Günter Blobel (May 21, 1936 – February 18, 2018)

Let’s start with a fantastical scene: picture a band of Neolithic humans in a hot air balloon overlooking modern New York City. What would they see and experience? Lacking a vocabulary and a mental model of twenty-first century life, our ancient friends would be awestruck at seeing miniscule specks and strangely ordered structures, lines and squares, in green and gray. Perhaps the occasional yellow rectangle from which specks would enter and exit would catch their attention. Or they might ponder a box with flashing lights, speeding its way across a grid. It’s near impossible to imagine being in their shoes, but it’s easy to envision the excitement as they try to describe and make sense of what they saw.

This totally novel experience wasn’t far off from what early cell biologists encountered, as they used the electron microscope (EM) as a sort of hot-air balloon to discover the cities inside cells. By the mid-1960s, they had plotted the geography of all sorts of cellular worlds, had given names to energy-making blobs and recycling vesicles, and with the help of radioactive amino acid labeling, had a basic sense of where proteins were made and where they ended up. But big questions remained such as how did a protein know where it needed to go? For a discipline built on EM observations from high above, this was a challenging question to answer, but it captivated a young German post-doc enough to dream as if he landed his hot air balloon and walked among molecules, where the view was much clearer.

Günter Blobel arrived in George Palade’s laboratory in 1967, shortly after completing his PhD at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He joined a dynamic group of researchers who had stumbled upon an odd observation concerning the protein factories of the cell, its ribosomes: proteins destined to remain inside the cell were often made from a pool of freely cytoplasmic ribosomes, whereas proteins meant to be exported from the cell quickly associated with ribosomes attached to the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). How a new protein made this decision to stay in the cytoplasm or go to the ER was a mystery.

Within a few years, and overwhelmingly without much evidence, Blobel and a colleague (and Rockefeller University alum) named David Sabatini formulated what became known as “the signal hypothesis” that might explain how proteins got sorted to their proper locations. It represented a truly imaginative and startlingly precise leap, as if one could envision a five digit postal code and a stamp authentication system simply by watching mail trucks from space. Blobel and Sabatini proposed that ER destined proteins contained a special stretch of amino acids that acted like a signal that became apparent the moment the protein was being made at a ribosome. This signal sequence, located at the head of a protein, would be recognized by a factor (or factors) that would, in turn guide the synthesizing ribosome to the ER, where the protein in question could finish being born as it translocated across the ER membrane. Once properly sorted into the ER, the signal sequence was no longer needed and could be removed by an enzyme, even while the protein was still being made. Once finished, the protein could then go and do its job.

For many, this all sounded needlessly baroque. One attractive alternative was to consider different types of ribosomes, where each type was responsible for ferrying a nascent protein to a particular location. Another idea postulated that the mRNAs encoding proteins somehow got to the correct place before undergoing translation from any nearby ribosome. The signal hypothesis was one of many possible models, and a far-fetched one at that. But it made very precise predictions that could be tested, the first of which was the existence of a transient signal sequence.

Myeloma cells provided the first toe-hold for testing the signal hypotheses, since they secreted lots of IgG antibody light chains that could be readily detected. Using cell-free translation systems, based on these cells, other laboratories had observed slightly heftier IgG molecules than those secreted from intact cells, suggesting that a larger precursor was made and pruned to a final, smaller form. Yet, worries of an in vitro artifact abound. Blobel first repeated this experiment, and once confirmed, tinkered with his cell free system to uncover the order of events. Using detergent, he separated ribosomes from bits of ER (called microsomes) and added a drug that blocked new IgG production. He then let the ribosomes that had already started making an IgG to finish, keeping track of what they produced and when. Early in the experiment, only the smaller form emerged, which made sense if these ribosomes had already been at the ER and were nearly finished making IgG when Blobel had isolated them. But later in the experiment, a mixture of larger and smaller forms showed up: ribosomes that had just started making IgG indeed made a larger version. But lacking sufficient ER targeting, the signal sequence wasn’t pruned efficiently. Blobel had glimpsed a totally new feature in the early lives of proteins.

This was just the start. Over the ensuing years, Blobel and his team devised ways of recapitulating numerous aspects of protein targeting in the cell, from isolating the complex that ferried a signal sequence bearing protein to the ER (the aptly named “signal recognition particle”) to later confirming and characterizing the protein channel at the ER (the translocon) that nascent proteins traversed for proper processing. In part because of Blobel’s efforts, the hot air balloon view gave way to detailed explorations from the ground. A dream, as all good hypotheses are, turned out to be true.


New York State of Mind


This month Natural Selections interviews Robert Gualtieri, Plant Operations 



How long have you been living in the New York area? 

Practically all my life, I was born and raised in Upper West Harlem, with the exception of 4 to 5 years that I lived in Puerto Rico.


Where do you currently live?  Which is your favorite neighborhood?

The Heights, in Washington Heights. I don’t feel like I have a favorite neighborhood, for me it’s more like spending good times in certain areas of the city that become favorite memories.


What do you think is the most overrated thing in the city? And underrated? 

The most overrated thing in the city are the new buildings with rents that are not affordable, and the most underrated are the people that can’t afford high rents.


What do you miss most when you are out of town? 

I would say everything…the lights, the sound escapes, the 24-hour grocery stores, just everything the city offers.


Has anything (negative or positive) changed about you since you became one of us “New Yorkers”?

Well, I’m a native New Yorker. So, I’m trying to keep a positive disposition with everything that’s rapidly changing and taking place here in the City.


If you could change one thing about NYC, what would that be?

I feel I’ll pass on this question, lol.


What is your favorite weekend activity in NYC?

Staying up late listening to music (vinyl or live is even better), I dedicate myself to the arts; so, weekends allow me to concentrate on creating new works or sharing time with some of my friends that are in the arts musically or visually.


What is the most memorable experience you have had in NYC?  

I have to say writing my name on the subway trains in 1970 when I was 14, and watching my name go by as I sat on the bench at the station with other writers. 


Bike, MTA, or WALK IT???

It all depends where I have to go; sometimes I drive, take mass transit, or cab it. 


If you could live anywhere else, where [would] might that be? 

I’ve been to a number of cities worldwide, and entertained the thought that I can live there during my stay. After a couple of weeks, I get homesick and want to return to NY, so for now I’ll just say that I’m not sure.


Do you think of yourself as a New Yorker?

If I don’t think I do by now, I don’t think I ever will.


Life on a Roll

In the Middle of Paris France

Elodie Pauwels

The Saint-Jacques Tower, with its flamboyant gothic style, is located in the middle of Paris. It is all that remains of a church built in the 16th century and demolished during the French Revolution. The 171-foot tower has had many functions since then (including a shot tower!) and undergone many phases of restoration. It is now open to the public (tour guide only), and the view from there is simply stunning.

Word of the Month


Dakota Blackman 



adjective  smit·ten  \ ˈsmi-tᵊn \ 

deeply affected with or struck by strong feelings of attraction, affection, or infatuation 

Greek statue entitled ‘Eros (Cupid) Sleeping’ from the 3rd-2nd century B.C.

The month of February often conjures up the all too familiar images related to Valentine’s Day: heart-shaped chocolates and balloons, bouquets of flowers, and Hallmark cards passed between young children at school and between romantic partners. In the United States, Valentine’s Day is a day dedicated to celebrating love—often, to celebrate the state of being smitten. 

I am interested in this particular word because, in addition to its form as an adjective, smitten is also the past participle of smite. Smite, a verb, has two definitions, the first of which is “to be strongly attracted to somebody or something,” or “to captivate.” In the context of this definition, the derivation of the adjective smitten is intuitive. However, smite’s second definition takes a dramatic 180° turn, from something soft to something harsh and  violent: “to take,” or “to strike with a firm blow.” 

According to Merriam-Webster, smite originates from a twelfth century Middle English word meaning to smear or defile; the dictionary likens it to an Old High German word with a similar meaning. As it relates to romantic love, this definition is almost paradoxical. Perhaps “captivate” or “take” make sense (Merriam-Webster’s example sentence cites being captivated by a woman’s beauty), but for this word to also be defined by violence produces a fascinating contradiction: why are the two linked? 

To answer this question, we can look to another common Valentine’s Day symbol that stems from Greek and Roman mythology: the God of love, Cupid. Usually portrayed as a young and winged boy, Cupid is armed with a bow and arrow; anyone who is struck by one of his arrows, mortal or not, is overcome by affection and love. Cupid’s very existence takes into account both sides of smite’s definitions: the first being the gentle inspiration of love; the second being the violent mechanism by which love is inspired. In some depictions, he is wearing armor as he works to matchmake. This begs the question: does this interpretation fall into the softer definition of smite, suggesting that love is invincible or impenetrable? Or does it fall into the harsher one, likening love to war? 

Perhaps these definitions cannot be parsed into a binary. Instead, perhaps they must be considered together, particularly in the context of romance, of love, and of relationships generally. In the past six months in the United States, there has been a massive eruption of reports of sexual misconduct, particularly regarding high-profile and powerful men. The catalyst was Ronan Farrow’s exposé on Harvey Weinstein in the New Yorker, and from it has stemmed a resurgence of activist Tarana Burke’s social media hashtag #MeToo. Now known as the MeToo movement, the premise is, according to Burke, to “promote empowerment through empathy” by sharing among women, particularly those who are vulnerable (for example, young women of color), the all too prevalent experience of sexual misconduct. Alyssa Milano, an actress who encouraged spreading the hashtag after the stories of Weinstein surfaced, explained it as follows: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” 

It is important to dissociate from love the type of behavior displayed by Weinstein (and many, many others). However, it is equally important to remember the duality of smite’s definition, and to remember Cupid’s bow and arrow, and armor when thinking about love and relationships as they exist today, particularly in the context of the MeToo movement. Those in positions of power have been forced to confront the issue of accountability, some for the first time, and these considerations will then hopefully trickle down into more of an awareness when it comes to fair and healthy relationships. 

When one is smitten, one is, according to the word’s definition, “deeply affected” by feelings. It is imperative to take into account the depth of this impact. As the language suggests, relationships—and love—hold great power. 


A Little Less Laughter in the Halls! Rockefeller Mainstay Isaiah Curry Says Goodbye


Aileen Marshall 


What can one say about Isaiah Curry? Almost everyone on campus knows him. Many of us know him as “that guy you always hear laughing in the hallways.” And we also know him as the person who handles much of the hazardous waste we generate in our work. He’s always there to greet us with a smile, a joke, or even some helpful advice. If you want to know a tidbit of campus information such as where a certain room or facility is located, or who to contact to find help with different issues, or the history of how the campus has evolved, you can always ask Isaiah. He knows almost everyone at Rockefeller, past and present. After forty-four years of being a campus icon, Isaiah retired on January 31, 2018. I had a conversation with Isaiah one night in the Faculty Club and this is what I learned about his history here. Of course, several people stopped by during the interview to joke with him. 

Having grown up nearby in upper Manhattan, Isaiah had heard of the Rockefeller University through his mother, who had worked here at one time. He started in 1974, originally in the custodial department. In 1976, the Radiation Safety Department was established on the 11th floor of the Weiss Building (then known as the Tower Building), with only five people. One of them invited Isaiah to join the team, where he was trained to handle the radioactive waste. Later, the department changed its name to Laboratory Safety, to encompass more aspects of that area. Then Isaiah added the processing of biological waste to his responsibilities. The department is now called Laboratory Safety and Environmental Health, and Isaiah has been managing biological waste material for the entire campus ever since.  

In the early years, despite being assigned a large grey cellular phone, which was cutting edge technology for its time, Isaiah still had to push all those carts that transported the biological waste materials manually. Later he was upgraded to a flip phone, and eventually the university provided a Power Tug and a small electric truck to help pull and push those large grey carts that transported the material. Isaiah also learned to do his job more efficiently, such as processing the waste after pickup from each building, rather than waiting until he had picked up waste from the whole campus. He often stayed late to finish his work and came in on holidays so there wasn’t a backlog when he returned. He learned early on that students and postdocs work on holidays. “It has nothing to do with overtime, it has to do with staying ahead of the labs…I don’t quit until I’m finished.” He has noticed over the years that the radioactive waste is decreasing and the biological waste is increasing, an indicator of how research techniques have changed. He has always been trustworthy and reliable, and is always glad to help anyone with questions or errors in their waste disposal. Isaiah has returned after several surgeries over the years. Even two hernia operations, a torn knee meniscus repair, and a hip replacement could not keep him away from his duties for long.  

Isaiah is known for greeting everyone he knows with a smile and a joke. Isaiah often jests that he used to be shorter before he started picking up the radioactive waste. Over the years he has gotten to know the likes of Robert Darnell, Günter Blobel, Roderick MacKinnon, Charles Rice, Ali Brivanlou, Michael Young, and Jeffery Friedman. Friedman always invites him to his lab barbeques. Darnell, head of The Laboratory of Molecular Neuro-Oncology, commented “I will forever remember the generous, humorous, and wonderful spirit Isaiah brought to the laboratory every single day, year in, year out. He helped make Rockefeller a special place for the scientists, nurturing the feeling that we were all on the same team, friends and colleagues working together to do something important.” We all know him as one who could make us laugh during the work day. Victor Cisneros, from Information Technology, relayed one humorous episode with Isaiah. They were chatting in the hallway between Greenberg and Founders when a “well-suited gentleman” approached them and asked for directions to Founders. Isaiah gave him directions. After the man left, Isaiah wondered if the man would “get his act together.” Victor said “Isaiah! That’s our new president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne. It’s his first day on the job!” Susan Powell of the Proteomics Resource Center remembers how he helped her after she was mugged in 2007 on York Avenue and 64th Street. “Isaiah constantly finds me walking the halls looking downward. For years he warned me, “Look up, Sue!” meaning, be aware of my surroundings. He also showed me ways to defend myself using keys. “Carry your keys in your hand so they protrude between the fingers, and if you need to defend yourself, aim for the eyes.” She added “They say laughter is healthy, it relieves stress, it helps the immune system, it helps to heal, it contributes toward a longer life. If all this is true, Isaiah will be around for a very long time.”     

Isaiah has always been active in campus life. Some members of campus might remember Isaiah being involved in the basketball league that began sometime in the 1980s. Isaiah remembers that Patricia Murskey, then head of the Rockefeller library, donated money in memory of someone who had died to have a basketball tournament. They would play teams from other institutions, on a small basketball court, where the Greenberg building is now. And those of you who use the gym might know that Isaiah has always taught a class there. In the early 1980s, when the gym was located in the Graduate Students Residence, where the Child and Family Center is now, mailroom attendant Jose Santos would practice karate there, piquing Isaiah’s interest. Isaiah would work out with him, trained in Santos’s dojo, and eventually became a black belt. Even after Santos left, Isaiah continued to work out and practice in the gym, and other people liked what he did and asked to join him. Thus his class evolved, over thirty years ago.  He has never charged, and faithfully shows up, no matter how much work he has to do. He often goes back to work after class.  

Isaiah’s last official day at Rockefeller University was January 31, 2018. He vows to keep working out, and is toying with the idea of moving Florida. Considering that the Rockefeller is practically Isaiah’s second home, I wouldn’t be surprised if we still see him popping up here from time to time. He has always been a thread that unites us. As many people have commented “it won’t be the same here without him”.  


For Your Consideration – And They’re Off! Edition


Jim Keller   


I maintain that one can liken the Oscar race to a horserace with each studio betting on its thoroughbreds hoping to place. In the analogy, the studio is the owner, public relations is the jockey, and the horse is the actor or film. Here I’ve included my rankings as they stood on the eve of Oscar nominations—the number in parentheses indicates my placement following nominations. I chose eight nominees for Best Picture out of a possible ten. All other categories reflect five nominees. The picks that appear in black text within the table were my original nominee picks, and those in red represent actual nominees that I had not chosen.  

 Because Christian Bale and Michael Shannon have history of sneaking in at the last minute, I chose to go with them. (See Bale’s Best Actor nomination in 2014 for American Hustle and his Best Supporting Actor nomination in 2016 for The Big Short and Shannon’s supporting role last year for Nocturnal Animals). That’s the thing about the Oscar race: just because you try not to get burned, doesn’t mean you won’t in the end. 

 With that, I give you my current Oscar predictions:


When Winter Makes You Feel Like Crap: A Look at Seasonal Depression


Antonia Martinez

A text message stopped me dead in my tracks: “The moving truck is coming next Friday.” So soon? Wasn’t it only a few weeks ago that my cousin mentioned the idea of relocating to Nevada? She has lived in New York City her entire life. Now, here she was nearly all packed and ready to leave for good. “What made you want to leave now?,” I asked. “It’s the cold,” she said, revealing that heading for warmer pastures had been a secret desire for years. “I get so depressed in the winter time.” Coincidentally, I had just been reading about people like her. “That’s a thing,” I told her. “Yeah,” she said. “I know.”  

That “thing” is seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a pattern of recurring depression that coincides with the change of seasons. Winter SAD, or winter depression, is the most common. Symptoms appear in fall or winter then subside with the return of spring or summer.  Reverse SAD, or summer depression, is rare, accounting for only one-tenth of cases.  SAD affects an estimated 1-10% of the global population, predominantly those living far from the equator. It is more prevalent in women than men and more frequently starts in young adulthood. Roughly 10 million Americans suffer from SAD.   

The clinical definition of seasonal affective disorder began appearing in the scientific literature in the 1980s, but the phenomenon of illness triggered by seasonal change has been described since ancient times, including by Hippocrates himself. Yet, the exact cause remains elusive. Many scientists believe that seasonal shifts in the amount of available sunlight create imbalance in the hormones that affect our mood and internal clock, triggering depression. Reduced sunlight reduces levels of our “happiness hormone,” serotonin and increases levels of the ominous-sounding “hormone of darkness,” melatonin, which affects sleep patterns. However, some scientists question if SAD really exists. 


Signs and Symptoms 

If you find yourself desperately seeking brightly lit or sunny places every winter or keeping the lights burning all night at home, you might have SAD or a less severe form of the condition called “winter blues.” In his book, Winter Blues, SAD research pioneer Norman Rosenthal, M.D. says many sufferers instinctively gravitate toward light in an effort to feel better, but don’t necessarily make the connection. Some people worsen their condition by withdrawing to dimly lit or dark places in response to their darker mood. Other unhealthy attempts to self-medicate include overeating and excessive use of stimulants. Common signs and symptoms of SAD include: 

Winter SAD: low energy and extreme fatigue,  difficulty waking up, increased cravings for sweets and starches, increased cravings for alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or recreational drugs, weight gain, poor concentration, feeling down or depressed, social withdrawal, decreased sex drive, and unexplained aches and pains. 

Summer SAD: poor sleep or insomnia, loss of appetite, weight loss, and anxiety. 


Treatment and Prevention
If left untreated, SAD can become more severe, leading to other problems, including serious mental health issues such as eating disorders and suicidal thoughts. Treatment may include light therapy, medication, psychotherapy, and mind-body techniques such as meditation and relaxation techniques. Light therapy, the go-to treatment for SAD, exposes the patient to full-spectrum bright light in an attempt to rebalance hormone levels and readjust the internal clock. However, people may mistake SAD for conditions that have look-alike symptoms, among them: seasonal bipolar disorder, hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, and chronic fatigue syndrome. So it’s important to consult your physician if you think you may have seasonal affective disorder.  Preventative measures you can take to help reduce symptoms or your chances of triggering SAD include: exercise regularly, spend more time outdoors, stay socially active, restrict your sleep to 7-9 hours a night, eat a balanced diet, reduce stress, use full spectrum light bulbs and home and work, get plants, and add color to your walls and wardrobe. 


Explore these resources to learn more about SAD: 

Winter Blues:  Seasonal Affective Disorder and How to Overcome It, Norman Rosenthal, M.D. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder (NIH) 

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) (Mayo Clinic) 

Why Winter Makes You SAD: Seasonal Affective Disorder Explained (The Royal Institution YouTube Channel) 


Life on a Roll


Nan Pang

Machu Picchu is arguably the most famous historical ruin not just in Peru, but in the Americas. Since the re-discovery of this Inca citadel by American historian Hiram Bingham in 1911, this iconic lost city in the sky has been attracting visitors non-stop for the past century. 

 From the stunning view at the top of Huayna Picchu, to the carefree llamas chilling in the lawns, Machu Picchu possesses magical enchantments hardly describable by words. Peru prides themselves as “the richest country in the world” in their recent marketing campaign. Well, it was. It truly was. 

Getting a Head


Miguel Crespo

If you thought Dr. Frankenstein was just a figment of Mary Shelley’s imagination, history is about to turn against you. If you believed connecting heads to different bodies was just a gimmick of old-school science fiction comics, here is a slap in the face from destiny. After successfully transplanting hands and even faces, neurosurgeons are now trying to live up to the ultimate challenge of transplanting a head. Yes, you read correctly, this is not a typo.

Dr. Sergio Cavanero in Italy and Dr. Xiaoping Ren in China have already been trying to get around the legal and ethical hurdles that concern such a procedure, and they claim they can make it with more than a 90% chance of success. Detractors call him bombastic, but Dr. Cavanero pays no heed to critics. Most likely, the surgery will have to take place in China because no other country seems willing to permit it yet. Dr. Canavero is known to make unfounded claims and promote his work largely through the media. However, he is an accomplished surgeon with a solvent publication record in top-notch journals.

Dr. Sergio Canavero, who plans to carry out the world’s first human head transplant in December this year.

A similar procedure has already been carried out in mice by Dr. Ren where the spinal cord was sectioned with a diamond blade and the nerves glued back. The miracle was made possible by a chemical known as PEG, poly ethylene glycol by its full name. This amber fluid can break open the lipid membrane, which lines the neurons and fuse together two different cells, thereby allowing them to function as a single hybrid cell.

History is punctuated with attempts of head transplants in dogs and monkeys. The first “two-headed” dog came into being in St. Louis Missouri back in 1908. The bicephalic beast was again generated in the Soviet Union, and lived for 23 days.  In the 1970s, a surgeon named Robert White transplanted the heads of several rhesus monkeys onto others’ bodies. And in January this year, Dr. Ren was able to duplicate the feat. Unfortunately, these animals couldn’t do much more than blink, breathe, and follow objects with their eyes.

The first human to volunteer was 31 year old Russian, Valerey Spiridov. Paralyzed from the neck down, he can barely eat, type, or move the joystick that sets his chair in motion. He suffers from a rare muscle wasting disease. In spite of the surgeons’ optimism, concerns of all kinds have been raised. In the first place, the procedure entails the concert of 80 surgeons working together on the order of days. The limiting step in the process is keeping the brain cold after the head has been removed in order for it to be transplanted onto the donor’s body. The brain suffers irreversible damage within minutes of losing blood flow; cooling the brain can delay damage for up to one hour.

In this procedure, only one hour is available by injecting a liquid into the head blood vessels and recirculating it throughout. Once the surgeons get that down, then comes the rest of the procedure joining of the arteries, veins, muscles, and, ultimately, the skin. Such a procedure requires a great deal of choreography and its cost is estimated at $10-100 million, depending on where it takes place.

Is it worth it? Well, Spiridov himself initially said that he was not signing up for an expensive euthanasia and would not go through the operation unless success is guaranteed. But as the date approached, he announced he will not undergo the surgery.

However controversial, if successful, this procedure would bring hope to those who become immobilized from spinal lesions. But this raises more questions than answers: if according to Drs. Ren and Canavero this technology is available, why not apply it to remedy spinal lesions?

Many scientists and ethicists have slammed the project, accusing the surgeons involved of promoting junk science and raising false hopes. However shaky, others find scientific foundation in the project.

What we know so far is that hearts, livers, kidneys, lungs, uteruses, voice boxes, tongues, penises, hands, and faces can be transplanted. So there’s good reason to think that the next logical step would be the head. However, in this case immunological rejection becomes more of an issue than in the previous instances. And who is rejecting who anyway? Is it the body donor who receives a head transplant? Or is it the head donor who receives a new body from a neurologically dead donor?

Yet another way to look at it, what would happen if an older head was transplanted onto a younger body? Would we be at the gates of life extension technology? Another aspect to take into consideration would be personality. It is known that hormones produced by the body have an effect on the brain. Would this result in a body changing the person’s mood, a head commanding a new body, or a mixture of both? And if so, would the head donor be inheriting the ways of a dead person or imposing his on a corpse?

There’s no previous evidence to back up claims in any direction, and, unfortunately, there is only one way to know.

Nessa Noms: Paku Pakus



Vanessa J Wu*


Paku Pakus is a new ramen restaurant on 2nd Avenue, between 72nd and 73rd Streets. It is right off the 72nd Street stop on the Q line and opened on Monday, October 23. The restaurant is the culmination of two sisters’ love of food and Japan, modified to fit the needs of those on the Upper East Side. They are enthusiastic about their housemade products, signature flavors, and quality you can taste. I spoke with both the owner, Chin Ip, and the chef, Sarah Ip.

Paku Pakus Sisters.


NS: Would you say there’s a special meaning to the name Paku Pakus?

CI: Paku paku literally means open and close. So for dining, it means your mouth is opening and closing constantly. Eating nonstop and also in big mouthfuls. Paku paku is also this [picks up origami fortune teller]; it is part of our logo. This paper-folding is like fortune-telling, so it would be good to expect what is unexpected and let life tell you what is going on and the next step.

Paku Paku.


NS: What inspired you to open this restaurant?

CI: I spent quite some time in Japan–a lot of different kinds of places, a lot of different kinds of food. But ramen has really become my passion. I like trying different kinds of ramen from different regions. Different regions have different kinds of soup. Like kaito is more fattening, more rich. Soup noodle is one thing, but I found out I also like mazemen, which is with different kinds of sauce; it’s kind of spicy. In the Upper East Side, you don’t see a lot of ramen shops, unlike Lower Manhattan, so I saw this as a good opportunity to open one for myself. And I knew to find a good chef, so I hired Sarah and the team in the kitchen. I think, together, we can really make it work.


NS: Sarah, how did you start working with Chin and Paku Pakus?

SI: Actually, we’re sisters! So we’ve been working together for quite a long while. We’re always looking for good food, good restaurants. If we thought a restaurant was serving crappy food, we thought, “Oh, if we had a restaurant, we could do it better.”


NS: How long have you been cooking?

SI: I’ve been cooking since I was young! Actually, I was a pastry chef before. I love cooking and I went to Paris for cooking classes. Also, I spent time in Japan. We tried many different places for ramen, so we were like “Oh! Maybe this is something we can handle and try to make our own.”


NS: How long were the two of you in Japan?

CI: I have been on and off for 2-3 years; Sarah would travel to Japan and visit me. She also visited her friends there before. She and our cooking staff have been working on Japanese food for quite a while, so I thought this would be a good team to start with.


NS: What do you both think makes for good ramen?

CI: First of all, it should not be soggy. The noodles have to be chewy, but not undercooked. For soup noodles, the soup has to be steamingly hot, especially to fit the cold weather in New York. The meat–the chashu–has to be melty, not dry; it should still be moist, so we keep the fat to keep the moisture of the meat. Egg-wise, it should not be overcooked, it should be—

SI: Soft-boiled.

CI: Yes. That’s what I was thinking. How about you?

SI: No MSG! The soup that we cook, I cook over 8 hours. A lot of people just use from concentrate.

CI: We are trying to tell the story to the community about the birth of our most popular dish so far, the Rich and Creamy. So how we get it, we have a big pot and we load it with a lot of bones, full of gelatin, which is good for our cold weather.

Rich and Creamy.

SI: We use maybe 60-80 pounds of meat in order to reduce to only 20 quarts of soup. So in the summer, we will probably make it less concentrated, because it will likely be too rich for people in the summer. But in the cold, it is really good when it’s really thick. So if you put a spoon to your lips, it’s gonna’ stick.

CI: It’s one of our most popular ones so far. It’s really picking up in the cold weather.

SI: For the dumplings and everything, we grind the pork ourselves, do the dumplings ourselves, instead of just buying it from the store.

CI: The principle is that we are not making anything for our customers which we ourselves don’t eat. So for us, no MSG and the pork has to be hand-ground. That’s our principle; that’s our rule.


NS: What would you say is your favorite item, for each of you, on the menu?

CI: Tantan men! I always go for some strong flavor–black coffee, strong tea. So tantan is my favorite because it is spicy, nutty, sour. Everything seems to be going on in your mouth.

Tantan Mazemen.

SI: The chicken lollipops. First, we got the Japanese wing sauce, and after that, we thought why don’t we put some strawberry puree and balsamic vinegar? We loved it. That’s still my favorite.


NS: What are your future plans for the restaurant?

CI: After we get more business, we will be thinking of spinning off to other areas in Manhattan or Queens. That will be some years down the road. We want to really stabilize our quality, make this one successful, and make a name for ourselves before we start expanding.

SI: After we make this successful, maybe we can have a central kitchen and make our own noodles. It is only one store right now and the space in the kitchen is not really big, so we cannot make our own noodles. But if we have a central kitchen, we could.

CI: Our next step is making our own noodles. That’s how you can maintain the quality and customize it, too.

SI: For example, some of our customers think the lunch portion noodles are too big. If we could make our own noodles, we could make it a smaller portion for lunch hours. For lunch, we have our lunch combo with the salad and appetizer; if they have the full portion of the ramen, it’s probably too much and they’ll fall asleep when they get back to the office.

CI: Also, we think the mazemen, those with sauce, should go with a thick noodle. It’s like pasta. To me, I’d like for it to be like linguine, but when we check with our supplier, the thickest they can offer us is not really to our standards.


NS: And are you planning on expanding the menu?

SI: We are minimizing at the beginning because we like to do everything step by step. We still have a lot of interesting dishes that we’re going to do.

CI: Some of the items printed on our flyer, we are taking out from our menu, because we talked to the staff and they said it’s better to minimize the number of dishes and make sure it’s good quality before we expand the menu. I think the next step is vegetarian stock. We are now offering fish stock and the pork stock that we are proud of. It used to be a Jewish area, so the pork stock is actually a minus here. As for the fish stock, some people are vegetarian, so they can’t even take the fish stock. So we really want to embrace our vegetarian community.


NS: Do you have any sneak previews of what you want to add to the menu once you start expanding, besides making your own noodles and veggie stock?

CI: The ones we planned before that we’ve taken out from the menu. Like the cheesy gyoza. We find it quite interesting. The first few days, we offered it and people loved it; it’s just a little labor-intensive.

SI: It has parmesan on the bottom, so it’s crispy.

CI: It takes a long time to prepare, so I said let’s sacrifice it for the time being and come back later. That is one thing. Another is the eggplant, which is on our flyer, but we took it out as well. That one is –

SI: Spicy miso and also lime miso. We use the Korean spicy sauce, mix it with the miso on the eggplant, and grill the top; you can eat it alone or with chips.

CI: The miso that we use is four types of miso; we blend it all together in different portions, so it is something that is really house-made for us. It’s not something you can get from the supermarket. We want to use this miso blend that we have, our signature one, and use it in more and more dishes.


NS: The area we’re in is more Eastern, traditional seating while the rest of the restaurant is more Western style seating. What made you choose this difference in layout?

CI: Tatami is very uniquely Japanese. I thought a tatami table would be good especially when it’s facing the street, kind of overlooking the street: being seen and also seeing people. The problem with the tatami is that a lot of Westerners, probably with long legs, would have a harder time, because with the real tatami, people sit on the floor with their legs folded at the back. That’s why we have the hole down there so people can stretch out their legs. We tried to make it Japanese, but we modified it in order to try to fit the Americans. We have the long table over there in the back as well. We thought of putting those low stools, which is very Asian, but we found out this area, the Upper East, has a lot of elderly people, so they may have problems with backless seating. So for the backless, we have it at the bar, but for in the dining hall, we have something with a back.


NS: There’s this eye-catching mural all along the wall when we walk in. Tell me about how that came to be.

CI: Noodle shops usually have a long noodle bar. This was our first thought of what to do with our décor. But the thing is our setup is a little difficult, so we changed our mind. When you think of a noodle bar, it’s a long table. And we wanted to have a lot of different, colorful characters. When you think of a long table, with a lot of characters, the first thing that comes to mind is Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” So when I talked to my manga artist in Tokyo, I gave them the idea of a long table with different characters that [mimicks] Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. So some of the gestures, you can find in “The Last Supper” as well. The judge who is holding back those two guys behind him, you can also find in “The Last Supper,” but we kind of changed it a little bit. The theme is still there, but instead of Jesus saying someone betrayed him, we get the reactions of colorful figures and how they handle their different bowls of noodles. A little boy gets shocked by his dad and drops his bowl, so it flies off the table and we have a girl in school uniform flying off and catching a mouthful. And we have a guy nonstop paku paku, nonstop eating. We also have a ramen competition–three contenders trying to get in the competition: the winner and the other two, still trying to fight for it and stay in the game. We’re thinking of different ways people will handle their noodles, how people treasure it, and fight for what they want.


NS: You mentioned the ramen eating contest. Do you think you’ll have anything like that here?

CI: That would be a very good promotion for us, but we haven’t really thought that through yet.


NS: Is there anything either of you would like to add?

SI: I really want to take any comments where we can make improvements from it. At the beginning, I don’t mind. Tell me, instead of not coming back!

CI: Daily, we are fine-tuning our recipes from the comments we are getting from our customers. The serving team and the cooking team are working very closely. If anyone isn’t finding it good enough for any reason, we always tell the cooking team.


*This interview was conducted on November 4, 2017. Since then, Paku Pakus has made some of the changes mentioned in the interview, such as creating a vegetarian-friendly broth.