When 14 year-old Bjoern Heibuelt was shown how to fillet a salmon in the German Embassy in Japan, he had no idea that it was to be the start of a lifelong love affair with cuisine. It was during the 1993 reunification of Germany that his Michelin Chef father travelled to Japan with his son to cater for a very prestigious event. Service during the gala evening proved somewhat chaotic as 77 waiters chased around without direction. Having spent a bit of time in his father’s restaurant, young Bjoern worked out the problem, jumped up on a box of beer, put on the head set and took over as Maitre D for the night. So successful was his first soiree into hospitality, the Ambassador requested he return to assist the following year, and so a career was born.

The whole Japanese experience at such a young age instilled in Bjoern a deep sense of responsibility and a passion for travelling the world. Over the last 30 years he has travelled to 65 different countries and, together with his wife Cristina, has now put down roots in Mallorca where he is the proud owner of Ramen Otaku in Palma. Interestingly Otaku in Japanese means Nerd and Bjoern quite happily admits he is a Ramen Nerd. I think he is better described as a very shrewd nerd who has turned his addiction into a great business delivering top quality Ramen to the good people of Palma.

How did you come to be living in Mallorca?

“I grew up in Germany, and after an apprenticeship in Hotel Management, I began travelling the world … first to London, New Zealand, and Croatia mostly working as a steward on luxury yachts. I then worked on a MS Hanseatic expedition vessel which was a completely different kind of cool; there was no party scene, but I learnt a lot and met many interesting people whilst travelling to the Arctic and the Gambia.”

“From one extreme to the other, I then moved to Ibiza to work with an Events Company as a Butler… Not the penguin type, but a high-end concierge, looking after the requests and demands of the rich, famous and many Hollywood stars. It was a great job, surreal and exciting, organising private jets, yachts and impossible to get restaurant tables. I spent 6 years in Ibiza altogether.”

I first visited Mallorca for a week with my then girlfriend, now my wife, and we soon realised how nice the island was. It had a different vibe to Ibiza, somehow more grown up. We felt that it was going to be an easier place to live and so we moved across.”

When did the love affair with Ramen begin?
“When I was in Japan with my father, we were taken out to eat Ramen noodles a lot and it was then that I fell in love. I used to seek it out; whenever I went travelling, Ramen was the first thing I looked for.”

How did you come to open Ramen Otak?
“When we first moved here there were no Ramen restaurants in Palma so I used to have to fly to Barcelona to get my fix. My wife Cristina and I then decided that it would be cheaper to go to Japan and learn the correct way to make Ramen noodles. So that’s what we did. We joined a Japanese school, slept on the floor on a Tatami mat and learned how to make good Ramen.”

“With both my parents in hospitality, I felt confident to open a restaurant and I spotted a niche for Ramen in Palma…. I already had the menu in my head. Quite by chance I was in a restaurant, speaking to the owner who wanted to get out of the business. By the end of the conversation, we had agreed a deal at a good price and two days later I had the keys. We spent 10 days putting in a new kitchen, painting and getting prepared and had a soft opening in January 2019.“

Tell me why are you so addicted to Ramen?
“Because it is really good tasty junk food and it makes you happy. If you’re bored or heartbroken, Ramen will help.

“In Japan it’s different, no one spends more than 10 minutes in a Ramen shop. You enter, you don’t talk or socialise, you sit in a booth and you focus on the Ramen. The trick is to eat it in 7 minutes so that the noodles don’t get soft and the soup doesn’t get cold… Although I can actually eat it in five. In Japan It’s all about the slurping – you take the bowl and the chopsticks and you slurp. The more you slurp the more oxygen you add which increases the flavour and cools down the noodles. Of course, it isn’t like that here: people don’t eat in 7 minutes. Also, we serve larger portions of Ramen here. We serve 400 ml of soup and 140 grams of noodles plus toppings – that is almost double what you get in Japan.”

Why such large portions?
“Because people here want to eat it as a main meal and no one wants to order a second bowl. So, I serve a portion size that I would want to eat and it’s important to give people a bit more and good quality because they will come back. I am not in the business for tourists… 90% of my clients are locals who eat here all year round.”

Do you make your own noodles?
“No we don’t, they come from Hawaii where the best noodles are made by Japanese immigrants and exported all over the world - including Japan. The dish is ‘the noodle’ and I plan to start making our own here very soon. The noodles we buy are great but they are very expensive – we only buy the best ingredients and our customers can tell.”

What reception did Otaku get when you opened?
“People here knew what Ramen was and were freaking out as word got round. It took off immediately and we had queues outside every day. We were so busy and our first year was incredible. This was 2019 before the pandemic.”

Oh yes the pandemic... how badly were you hit through Covid?
“It really hit us hard. All the money we made in the first year was gone. It was tough on all fronts. We suddenly went from super busy to nothing so we started doing take away / delivery but that was very difficult. Chasing all over Palma, sometimes with half an address. People were calling us all day asking us to deliver and of course we wanted to use up the stock because we didn’t know for how long we would be closed. The first day we took 200 orders and we did our last delivery at midnight but no one complained. We didn’t make any money but we made a lot of people very happy.”

It's a small environment, you staff must like each other?
“Oh yes – we have a great team. My Chef has been with me since the start and we have reconfigured the bar to get a third person in the kitchen, which we needed to keep up with demand. We currently turn 50/60 people away every Saturday so expanding into next door will help. But our customers are great and will squeeze onto a table just to get their fix of the good stuff.”

What is next for Otaku?

“We are going to take the shop next door and expand. We will do something a little different; maybe cold Ramen, a Menu del Dia and Gyozas, all home made using the best ingredients of course. We plan to do a tasting soon. I have already bought a machine to make our own noodles and also a Yakitori grill from Japan. We plan to create some fun new dishes that I know our customers will love. The kids here are crazy for Ramen.”