Arts & Culture

UK Alum Attains Success With Idea of ‘Atomic’ Proportions: Q&A With Chef Dan Wu

See Dan Wu talk about finding success as a chef. Video: Jenny Wells-Hosley/UK Public Relations and Strategic Communications.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Nov. 25, 2019)  You likely saw him on TV a few years ago. You’ve dined on his recipes at The Summit. He’s dishing up food in The 90. And, now he’s even at Kroger Field.

Since 2014, University of Kentucky art studio alumnus Dan Wu has been making waves in the restaurant world.

UKNow recently caught up with the popular “Culinary Evangelist” and owner of Atomic Ramen and found out more about his full circle journey back to his alma mater.

UKNow: Tell us about growing up in Kentucky.

Dan Wu: Sure. Well, my long short story or short long story is, I was born in China. I came to the States when I was 8 years old.

We landed in Fargo, North Dakota, of all places. We lived there for a few years, and then my dad got a job with the University of Kentucky. We came down here when I was in about the sixth grade. And they ended up — and this has kind of informed my own entrepreneurship — they eventually opened up a Subway sandwich shop, and then eventually opened up several of them. So, I got to learn a lot about what to and not to do in running a small business.

And then, I went to high school here. I went to Henry Clay. I went to University of Kentucky. And then, after I graduated, I moved out to San Francisco, and lived there for about four years.

Moved to Brooklyn. Lived there for about four years. Got married, had a kid. Moved back to Lexington because it got too crazy to raise a family in New York City, as you can imagine. And I've been back in Lexington ever since, for about 14 years now.

UKNow: What made you interested in pursuing an art degree at UK?

Wu: I had kind of the opposite of your typical immigrant Asian tiger parents. My parents did not push me into engineering, or medicine, or law. They kind of just let me do whatever I wanted.

I've always been interested in visual art. I was drawn to comic book characters ever since I was a kid. So, I was an art studio major at University of Kentucky. Ended up doing fiber arts as my concentration under Arturo Sandoval.

I had a great time. I took five years to graduate because I just kept taking classes that seemed fun.

I kind of lived and breathed WRFL, the student radio station — loved that, and made lots of lifelong friends there. I got to hear lots of crazy, cool music. I worked all over campus — worked multiple jobs — just had a really great time at UK.

UKNow: Is there any particular experience or memory from that time that you look back on fondly?

Wu: I would say probably, my UK experience. I was definitely kind of a misfit, which made me perfect to be an art major, and back in the old Reynolds Building, in all of its ramshackle glory. I really kind of look back with fondness.

Let's say, 3 a.m., night before a critique, all of the sculpture majors are in there. We've got pizza. We’ve got soda. We’ve got music blasting. We're all chiseling away at our plaster sculptures, you know? It was a fun, interesting, a weirdo kind of bonding experience.

UKNow: Today, while you don't do anything directly with art, you are in a creative field. Is there anything from your art studies that lends itself to a career in food and in designing a restaurant business?

Wu: Yeah. I think creativity and art have always been a part of who I am. And I've applied it to a number of different things.

When I was in school, I applied it to visual arts, to creative writing, to, honestly, the creativity of being a DJ at WRFL.

Coming out of that, I worked a whole bunch of different jobs in San Francisco and New York. Ultimately, it always kind of came back to a certain level of creativity. And a lot of what I loved about being a creative person is having the autonomy to kind of create whatever I wanted. I think, ultimately, it might have been inevitable that I became a small business owner because I wanted to call my own shots.

When it comes to something like Atomic Ramen, I knew that I wasn't just going to create a ramen shop, that I wanted to imbue it with everything that I was interested in. And for me, that's comic books, monsters, pop culture, robots, science fiction. So, all of my sort of personal aesthetic came into play when creating Atomic Ramen. That's why we have three comic book characters that were specially created for Atomic Ramen, as if it existed in its own universe that had superheroes, and monsters, and things like that.

UKNow: Before Atomic Ramen, you took your culinary talents to “MasterChef.” Tell us about that experience.

Wu: So, in the fall of 2013, I was going through a lot of personal life changes, and I was ripe for reinvention. A friend of mine calls me up and says, “Hey, we need to go to Columbus, Ohio on — whatever the date was.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” And he said, “’MasterChef’ tryouts.”

I had never thought about being on TV or competing in a reality cooking competition. But I was at the point in my life — I was like, what the heck? Let's give it a shot.

We go up to Columbus. I created a dish for them. It was a five-spice duck confit bao bun — so, if you can imagine, essentially a Chinese sandwich with the most delicious duck you can imagine inside it. Went up there. They tried my food.

I think there were 200 or 300 people at that audition. And they held auditions all over the country. Thousands of people apply every year. And then, they kept interviewing me, kept doing follow-up interviews, and eventually, I got on the show.

They flew me out to LA in December of 2013. And we shot in the early spring of 2014. I lasted eight episodes — spoiler alert.

I came home, and then I couldn't talk to anyone about it because it hadn't aired yet. It wasn't going to air for two months. So, I had to kind of zip it.

Everybody came up to me, of course, like, “Did you win?” I was like, “Don't you want to watch the show?” You know what I mean? Just be patient.

And then, when the show aired in the spring of 2014, I got to get connected to a lot of breweries and other establishments in Lexington. We had viewing parties at West Sixth Brewing, and Blue Stallion, and Smiley Pete, and all kinds of other places. I just had a great time with it and got to see how supportive Lexington is as a community for its hometown heroes, but also for its restaurateurs and food establishments.

That whole experience really kicked down the door and allowed me to create what is now my culinary and restaurant career.

UKNow: Do you think “MasterChef” helped push you toward opening your own restaurant, Atomic Ramen?

Wu: For a lot of people, when they think about chefs and restaurateurs, you think about sort of the classic French model. You start off washing dishes and peeling potatoes, and then, 10 years later, you maybe work your way up to salads or being a sous chef.

For me, I kind of got a real boost from “MasterChef” — went from amateur chef to being able to be a professional chef through that experience alone.

I've always thought that who you know gets you in the door, and what you know keeps you there. And the "who" I knew was the name of “MasterChef.” So, I started getting private dining gigs through people who — in the beginning, honestly, it was like, hey, let's get that guy from that TV show to cook for our 40th wedding anniversary dinner with 10 of our friends. Those were the kind of gigs that I worked.

It really kicked down the door. But I realized I wasn't just going to be on “MasterChef” to get my 15 minutes of fame on TV. I wanted to really build a professional career from that.

UKNow: You honed that into something you called, "Culinary Evangelist." Tell us a little bit about that and your radio program.

Wu: So, coming back from “MasterChef,” and after the show had aired, I wanted to do a multitude of things besides just cooking. I've always been interested in food. I've always been interested in food as a way to talk about culture. So, I started a radio show, initially at WRFL, called, "The Culinary Evangelist."

It's an ironic name because I'm not a religious person, but I evangelize about food. I proselytize. I will talk your ear off about how great Brussels sprouts are, or whatever. So I started this one-hour interview talk show on WRFL, where I basically got to interview and pick the brains of all the different chefs, and restaurateurs, and bartenders, and farmers, and educators — everybody having to do with anything in the food scene in Central Kentucky. So that was a really, really fun way of me really connecting with the community in ways beyond just me cooking food.

UKNow: And when did you come up with the concept for Atomic Ramen?

Wu: The first question people asked me when I came off of “MasterChef” was, what is Gordon Ramsay like? The second question was always, when are you going to open your restaurant? And my answer was always, never.

Like, why would I open a restaurant? It's such a tough business. You see people fail all the time. I don't want to do that. I'm having fun doing private dining, doing my radio show and podcast. I'm having a good time.

And then, the opportunity for Atomic Ramen came to me. At this point, the idea of Atomic Ramen didn't exist. It was just an opportunity — hey, would you like to open a restaurant in this new development that we call, "The Summit," happening on the south side of Lexington?

What they really wanted is, they wanted to create a food hall that was going to be unique in Kentucky. It was going to be the first food hall in Kentucky. And they had different food categories that they wanted to fill, and one of which was Asian/noodles.

They didn't have any good candidates in mind, and Toa Green from Crank and Boom and Ouita Michel, the queen of central Kentucky cuisine, both recommended me. So, my first thought was, OK, don't screw this up because two people you really respect are vouching for you.

At this point, I was doing a lot of pop-ups and restaurant takeovers that became more and more ramen-focused and Asian comfort food-focused. So, my first thought immediately was like, well, of course I'll do a ramen concept. And then, the ideas kind of came fast and furious.

I knew I wanted to tie it into pop culture, and monsters, and comic books, and superheroes. So Atomic Ramen was right up there, in terms of concepts. And I'm one of those people, I do love to take risks, and I would rather bring something new to a place or new to a market that isn't there than to kind of jump into a saturated market.

There was no ramen at the time. In fact, it was very hard to find ramen anywhere close. You had to go to Indianapolis, Columbus, or Nashville. So, for me, I wanted to bring a new cuisine. And it was very much in line with my idea and brand of being "Culinary Evangelist" in that I wanted to spread the gospel of great food, and especially to expose more people to cuisines that they haven't had before.

UKNow: In the last couple years that success has brought you back to campus, back to UK. Tell us what made you interested in teaming up with your alma mater.

Wu: So, (working with) UK Dining came about also in a kind of serendipitous way. It was not something that I had sought out. In fact, as a small business owner, as a restaurant owner, it never occurred to me that I could be inside the university system.

I'm chugging along, and brand-new leadership from UK Dining approached me and said, “Hey, would you like to partner with us and be inside campus?” And I was like, “What are you even talking about? What do you mean, inside campus?”

He's like, “Yeah, in the dining hall.” I'm like, “How can I be in the dining hall?” None of it made any sense to me initially. And then, the more we talked — we did a lot of little pop-ups to kind of try it out. And as soon as we entered the dining hall (The 90), even doing a one-day pop-up of some ramen, suddenly there would be a line of 30 college kids.

Then, the line wouldn't break for two hours. And I'm like, oh, there's something here. They're hungry for something different. So, we've kind of dipped our toes in it, little by little. And now, we've been doing it full time for about a year.

UKNow: And more recently you have expanded from The 90 to the football stadium. What made you interested in taking on concessions?

Wu: So, we're full time at The 90. We're part-time at Champions (Kitchen) in the Student Center. We do a one-week rotation every four weeks, along with three other great, local restaurants.

We're also vending at all the UK home football games at Kroger Field as well. That was yet another thing that UK Dining wanted to throw at me that also sounded fascinating. And again, not a thing that would have occurred to me, to bring Atomic Ramen into sports concessions. So, we really had to adapt our menu a little bit to what made sense for that.

I had to realize that, unlike my restaurant at The Summit, where people are coming to me specifically for food, and for my food, football fans are there to see a football game. And then, if they can hop by, grab a soda, grab a drink, and grab some food, great. I think, just like on campus, there was a real need or want. Maybe people didn't even know it, but they wanted something a little bit different than your very everyday offerings at a stadium.

So, we kind of adapted it to basically be Asian-inflected sports food. We do chicken wings — we do two different styles of chicken wings. We do dumplings. We do Asian nachos, where we do fried wonton chips and pork belly on it — so, so good. And Korean tacos. It's all food that you can eat with one hand while you're watching a game.

UKNow: Being part of UK Dining and The Summit says Atomic Ramen is among the best of what Lexington and Central Kentucky offers in food. What's it like to be chosen as kind of an ambassador of the flavors of Lexington?

Wu: I'm really honored to be one of the people at UK and at the stadium, and really proud to kind of spearhead different facets and different flavors of what I consider a really robust and really diverse food scene in Lexington, to be among people like Smashing Tomato, and Taste of India, and Bourbon n' Toulouse, and House of 'Cue, and Athenian Grill — some of my favorite food in Lexington. I'm super stoked to be in that kind of company.

UKNow: What's next?

Wu: In my life, honestly, I like to stay open to possibilities. If I hadn't been open, I wouldn't have taken on Atomic Ramen, created Atomic Ramen at all. If I hadn't been open to ideas, I wouldn't have taken on UK, or football, or any of that.

So honestly, I'm ready for whatever the next thing is, but I don't necessarily know what the next thing is. A big part of my brand also is, I want to stay very much connected to the community and do a lot of community service, and community work, advocacy work — particularly for immigrants and refugees. It's very important to me that I balance and kind of integrate both my business and my activism.

One of those recent projects that we worked on was a collaboration with Kentucky Equal Justice Center. We got a grant from Blue Grass Community Foundation. I just wanted to create kind of a hearts and minds project to remind people and to encourage people to support our immigrant and refugee community here in Lexington. That immigration is not just an issue at the borders, that it's right here.

In fact, most of us probably already know and love immigrants and refugees. You already shop at their stores. You already go to their restaurants. You already work beside them. They're your friends. They're your kid's friend's parents. They're already people you know.

So, we created a project called BelongLex, with a beautiful poster, designed by local artists, Cricket Press. And it says, very simply, immigrants and refugees belong here. We've printed up a ton of them, and we've been pasting them up all over town in different small businesses, places of worship, offices, classrooms — basically, everywhere where people can see it, and kind of let people know what kind of community Lexington is. It's a community that's very supportive of all of its members. And it's a community I'm really, really proud to be a part of.

To find out more about Dan Wu’s Atomic Ramen, visit the restaurant online at www.theatomicramen.com or connect with the restaurant on Facebook or Instagram.

The UK School of Art and Visual Studies, part of the College of Fine Arts, is an accredited member of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design and offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in the fields of art studioart history and visual studiesart educationcuratorial studies and digital media design.

photo of Dan Wu in front of his kitchen at Atomic Ramen in The Barn at The Summit
Dan Wu at Atomic Ramen in The Barn, a uniquely Kentucky food hall at The Summit. Photo by Jenny Wells-Hosley/UK Public Relations and Strategic Communications.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion three years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" two years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for four straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.