From weight lifting, taiko, to takoyaki, they all require either dedication or discipline that Karl needs to tea bag the challenges doing takoyaki pop-ups in New York.
Writing that lead in, I had to look up the difference between discipline and dedication and based upon the Quality Incentive Company (who I never heard of), they define “dedication as doing what you like to do and doing it well.” Whereas “discipline is doing what you don’t like to do and doing it well.” Well, whichever one it is, Karl goes full #BEASTMODE because you can not do what he does without one.
Karl Reflects the Cultural Diversity of Us Americans While Also Rep’n Japanese Food and Culture Right
There are all too many restaurants owned and operated by business owners just out to make a buck by any means necessary. Except, from what I have I experienced from chatting with Karl over the last several months, is that he is one cool dude even though his balls have never touched my lips.
Right off, you are a Filipino dude who may or may not have had his fair share of lumpia, sisig, dinuguan and adobo and my favorite is tosilog. Do you have a favorite Filipino dish?
Hmm this is tough, as since I did grow up in a large family with exceptionally good cooks, such as my Uncle T who is a super pro chef in his own right, to my mom who modified traditional recipes to make them more healthier. Any right son would pick their mother’s cooking as number one, and she definitely is, but I’ve grown to crave Bicol Express which is native to my family who are from the Bicol region. Living in NYC now, there aren’t much Bicolanos here, so when I do have a chance to get good Bicol Express I pile the plate with rice and OD on Bicol Express. When I was a kid, shrimp paste, coconut milk, pinakbet (and even things like dried anchovies used to scare me, but now I love it. As far as food from my childhood, my mother always fried beltfish, aka tachiuo in Japanese, and I crave that as well on the daily. Despite being Filipino, my parents only cooked Japanese rice in the house (Kokuho Rose, etc.) and used Japanese soy sauce (Yamasa) so when I went to the Philippines the first time I had a hard time eating rice!
So you got your start at Otafuku, in New York’s East Village as their General Manager and later the Head Chef position (all of you can watch the segment featuring Karl on the Cooking Channel) from January 2012 to June 2013, but how did you end up there in the first place?
This is a long winded answer and I’ll do my best to make it more concise. Besides cooking takoyaki, my 2nd full-time job is being the resident caretaker/building manager of the oldest Buddhist Temple/Church in NYC, New York Buddhist Church located in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was though the Japanese and Japanese American community where I got my lead into working at Otafuku. To be honest, I think when they hired me, they really didn’t need extra employees. It was because Toyo Kikuchi, a well known woman in the community vouched for me and got me a part-time job there. At the start I was your uncomfortable “American” register guy. All my coworkers were Japanese, including my boss. I think I was the only guy working other than our prep kid, Pablo, who was from Mexico. I barely cooked, I only knew of yakisoba, instead of the other two served, takoyaki and okonomiyaki. I ate my first takoyaki at Otafuku and honestly, I didn’t have an opinion on it at the time.
“I had such a good staff at one point, full of college kids who loved Japanese culture. I wanted to make that little spot feel like a giant party, a giant matsuri, and my staff cared for the restaurant like they were the owners. I didn’t need to be on top of them.”
When management and staff changed, the owner, Mr. Yagi, offered me the GM position…and honestly, I really needed the financial stability in my life, so I took it and did my best to keep it going. I had to hire a whole new staff, and in the process learn how to cook everything so I can teach the staff how to cook. So maybe in the process of learning how to cook everything, methods changed a bit and my confidence grown. I had such a good staff at one point, full of college kids who loved Japanese culture. I wanted to make that little spot feel like a giant party, a giant matsuri, and my staff cared for the restaurant like they were the owners. I didn’t need to be on top of them.
Otafuku was already popular so when the food blog/YouTube thing started to really pop off, I took advantage of it, and wanted to expose the community of how cool this shop was. I had a lot of pride, almost too much, now when I look back. I had complete control over everything from recipes to ingredients, to social media, and I guess I was camera friendly, so when food blogs and documentaries came about, I took the initiative. I wanted Otafuku to be #1, I have great great respect for the Yagi family, and I wanted it to be the coolest thing in NYC Japanese street food. The Yagi family are the pioneers, the OG’s, and laid the foundation for Japan town in East Village.
The main thing was that we cooked our hearts out and cared immensely about it. I followed my heart when it came to ingredients, and at the time, I was still so new to the cooking game, but when I saw the smiles on our customers, I knew we were doing something right. Our customers were amazing…and some of them still follow Karlsballs and come to the stand now. I’m happy to say, I’m still friends with most of the golden staff of that time. I also just loved being in Little Tokyo in East Village, made many friends and had a lot of great memories.
You and your wife started Karl’s Balls in 2015 as a pop-up. Restaurant pop-ups are something I also do except I have nowhere near your hustle because I die from just one event. Do you know how many events you did prior to the shutdown?
In 2015, I applied for Queens Night Market and went all in. We were busy from day one, matter of fact I have a picture of the line being so long, it cut through half of the market itself. I did every Saturday for the whole season, then eventually added a Sunday location at another food market. So it was every Saturday and Sunday, then I added another location to make up for any possible losses of profit from our Sunday location which turned out to be a complete nightmare and since I was stuck in a contract I couldn’t leave the venue without paying a fee.
“I think it was also the time I became the official takoyaki vendor for Japan Block Fair/Japan Fes which was an honor.”
In 2016, I followed the same formula of every Saturday but did more events as the outdoor markets started to build so I was averaging about 3 pop ups per week. I think it was also the time I became the official takoyaki vendor for Japan Block Fair/Japan Fes which was an honor.
“I average around 60-80 events from April to November every year.”
I think in 2017-2019, I started to do about 4 max per week but my events got larger and the line continued to get longer, so the staff started to grow…its a bit hard to remember as my memory now is not so good from being sick. 2019 we peaked as we were accepted into Anime NYC, and now I’ll be a vendor for Comic Con NYC. These events were insanely busy and my staff and I were cooking non-stop for 4 days straight. I was tired everyday, but I loved every single second of it as my staff is like family to me, and I feed off the energy of the customers and our wackiness. With that being said, think I average around 60-80 events from April to November every year.
I ask because that hustle is for real, and I know it has impacted your health because you are no slacker. I bring that up because you are fit AF, so my take on you is that you usually go at things with a lot of dedication/passion such as when you were training in Olympic weightlifting to you personal pursuit in powerlifting?
Yeah. I tend to go balls in (no pun intended) on things I do. I get obsessed and tinker at things to the finest detail. So when I was lifting weights and things, I would count my macros, weigh my food on the scale and measure my heart rate and blood pressure. I also work part-time for a supplement company called Vitol Products and we make some awesome old school bodybuilding products. They help me keep up my energy, vitality etc. So I guess you can say that I do get passionate about things when I dedicate my time to it. I help out Vitol Products because I love physical culture.
That passion also put you in the hospital?
“I thought the grind wouldn’t effect me that much since I was better at controlling my stress levels through Buddhist practice/concentration. 4-5 max hours of sleeping a night, seemed Ok for me.”
Yes, unfortunately after five years of the grind it all caught up to me. In my 20’s I used to suffer from insomnia and depression, so I took it upon myself to take advantage of revisiting insomnia with forced low sleep so I can get more stuff done to have the business advantage. So when I launched KARLSBALLS, I thought the grind wouldn’t effect me that much since I was better at controlling my stress levels through Buddhist practice/concentration. 4-5 max hours of sleeping a night, seemed Ok for me. I took a job at the local gym and the early mornings I would work at a gym from 3:30 am to 11am for minimum wage, come home and multi task temple work and the beginning stages of the food business, prep, paper work, getting the proper certificates, building the website, social media etc etc prior to the launch. At night time I worked on recipes and learning how to boil octopus correctly. I was experimenting and figuring it out, relearning the craft.
I also didn’t have a car. So in the first year of cooking, I would take a cooler and ride the subway to chinatown and fill that cooler with octopus and ice and haul it back up and down the subway stairs onto the D train and transfer it to the 1 and back to the temple. We needed propane every week so I would walk 7 miles round trip to pick up propane and walk it back on one of those granny carts in the park. I’m pretty sure that was illegal. I used to hide the propane in black trash bag and it was funny because the wheels would squeak all the way back uptown. People would stare at me like I was a wacko. Again this was after working at a gym from 330am-11am. Later I would work directly with food distributors to get and find better ingredients.
I would rent a Uhaul for the weekend but you couldn’t park it any where with out getting a ticket due to the commercial tags, so after Queens Night Market was done it was about 1:30 am in the morning, we just finished unloading all the stuff back into the temple— I would drive the van back to uhaul in Harlem and walk back from Harlem to the temple to sleep, wake up 2-3 hours later prep the batter in the morning, walk to back Uhaul, drive it back to the temple and load in. Some nights I just slept in the van because if I returned the van it would already be 6 in the morning.
I was a complete zombie for the first 2 years I think until I got a Scion xB and managed to fit every damn thing into that car. It looked like a circus act, I miss that square looking fridgerator on wheels.
Later as the years went by we only got busier and I upgraded to a Nissan NV200. I would prepare about 7-8, 5-gallon buckets of batter for our largest events in the morning, or boil the Dashi the night before. Some events if we ran out of octopus I’d stay awake and massage, boil octopus without sleeping. I’d purchase and chug the most extreme pre-workout energy drinks just to stay awake, but once I started cooking, the adrenaline kicked in and I was happy. I never wanted to fall back and let the staff take the lead because I thought they looked up to me. I wanted to take all the blows with them in the heat of the battle. The business kept getting bigger and bigger and every year was the same, work my ass off from April to November, sleep for a month then take a vacation and start all over again.
“I remember after night market was done, I went to the port-o-potty and my urine looked like Coca-Cola. We went home and still unloaded everything.”
In May 2019, I went to the gym as always but decided to hire a personal trainer for a change of pace. He was this hardcore IFBB pro bodybuilding coach. He asked me what I wanted to work out that day and I said, “legs”. Now if you know anything about training, legs is the most difficult, the most painful. And I love pain. Everything he threw at me in the session, I threw it back, he said to do 10 reps, I did 15. Every exercise I went beyond the threshold of pain because I had a coach that that day, and I loved the intensity. I am an animal in the gym, After the session we stretched out, had my protein shake then proceeded to go home, but, I couldn’t walk up the stairs. I had to walk backwards to the subway. My legs were swollen and I couldn’t bend them. I somehow managed to take the subway back home and I was already sore and in pain, but the next day was Saturday and I had to cook. My legs became so swollen with lactic acid that I couldn’t move them without screaming in pain, so my wife drove the van the next night. I still prepped all the batter ingredients for Queens Night Market despite having trouble walking. I still cooked takoyaki. I stiff-legged deadlifted coolers into the van. I remember after night market was done, I went to the port-o-potty and my urine looked like coca-cola. We went home and still unloaded everything.
The next morning I’m forcing my self to walk and I’m up prepping but the pain got worse. I had to go to the hospital but my wife still wanted me to finish the prep, thinking this was minor and we can still go back to the Sunday location and squeeze in a few dollars. LOL. I ended cutting it short went to the ER, and was diagnosed for rhabdomyolysis. Rhabdo in short is a condition where your kidneys cannot process the amount of lactic acid waste your muscles create when the have micro trauma or tears. The lactic acid usually gets buffered by the kidneys, but I exercised so damn hard that my kidneys couldn’t process the amount of waste being thrown at them. My doctor said that I was in the top 3 Severe Rhabdo cases of Mount Sinai Hospital history. The nurses heckled me and called me Ivan Drago for training so hard. My doctor questioned me and asked if I was on steroids due to the possible kidney damage from training. I said no as I don’t do that stuff, but he said I should have because I would have recovered! Through the help of my doctors I was able to recover but I had to stop weightlifting for awhile. What a bummer.
That was hospitalization #1.
We finished the 2019 season strong and with possibly the best sales ever, but I was exhausted. My team as well. We just finished cooking Anime NYC at the Javits Convention Center. My wife planned a vacation to South America right after the season ended, but I still had temple work to do. So I decided to not sleep that night before the flight to get all my temple duties done. We got to Newark Airport and our flight was delayed by a zillion hours so by the time we got to south America I didn’t sleep for 48 hours. The vacation turned out to be a complete nightmare for me as it was a jam-packed adventure that ended up with me getting food poisoning, diarrhea (on the daily, everything I ate went out the window), altitude sickness from visiting and climbing Machu-Picchu in one day, to assisted breathing with an oxygen tank in Uyuni, Bolivia, and overnight fevers. 3 weeks of living hell but I pulled through like a tank like I always do. I believe we went to 3-4 different countries in the span of 3 weeks. It was too much….all the bus rides, plane rides, being un prepared for weather, cold elevation. Couldn’t stomach the food.
“The doctors and CDC started coming poking and prodding me. I think I was in the iso room for about 9 days. I thought it was the end really.”
So by the time I came back to NYC I was extremely, exhausted. A day or so later I woke up with a rash on my thighs that looked like Cheetara from Thundercats. It later spread all over my body up to my face and my body temp crept past 103*. So I went to the ER, filled out some paper work. Once they found out I came back from South America, they admitted me quickly and threw me into this isolated room in a room and everybody and anybody who walked in had a mask on. My fever rose to around 105, maybe around 104.8, and suddenly my rash got extremely itchy, like my body was on fire. I was losing strength and couldn’t hold myself up anymore being in the bed. The doctors and CDC started coming poking and prodding me. I think I was in the iso room for about 9 days. I thought it was the end really. They ended up testing me for every virus, condition in the world. You know that Covid swabbing? I had it been done 3 or 4 times, where they shove that swabber up into nose all the way up to your brain. I counted around 20-30 vials of blood taken out in 8-9 days. And on top of that, the room was boiling hot! All I wanted was a cool fan to cool my skin off from burning. Sweating in this iso-chamber booth with no idea of why I was sick.
“It was embarrassing. The nurse used to come into my room and strip me naked to put Calamine lotion all over me, even my junk. It didn’t help at all, though it did cool me down a bit, but I still felt helpless.”
It was embarrassing. The nurse used to come into my room and strip me naked to put Calamine lotion all over me, even my junk. It didn’t help at all, though it did cool me down a bit, but I still felt helpless. The strongest name in takoyaki, couldn’t even get off the toilet without assistance. I think the only thing that kept me sane was staring at ceiling and meditating. I would just count my breaths until 300 and start over again. I thought about my life and the things I still wanted to do and achieve, and the things I shouldn’t have done. I cried—a lot, alone.
So that is how I ended 2019 into 2020. I was finally discharged from all the doctors and CDC after about 9-10 days. Every test on any possible, disease, infection, “bug bites”, allergies etc, came back negative, but what I really think happened was that my immune system just stopped working. It was sign to tell me that all the money I made from the years of cooking didn’t mean shit anymore without my health. It took me over 2 months to get my sense of smell, taste back and I have lingering issues now, brain fog, sensitive allergic skin and even the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine made me feel like hell. I’m awaiting dose #2. My friends joke with me saying I was “Covid Patient Zero”, but it wasn’t. On a completely other note, I was able to pass a Sake Advisor course without having the sense of smell. My memory—sucks, I have to write stuff down.
“Keep in mind that I was, and still to this day, taking care of a Buddhist temple while running Karlsballs.”
Keep in mind that I was, and still to this day, taking care of a Buddhist temple while running Karlsballs. The job requirements are to clean a 5 floor building, maintain and handle security detail, assist with religious events (I even clean the cemetery, transfer ashes from urns), assist with the resident minister, comply with building and city protocols, maintain good relationships with the local Police precinct and neighborhood. I would mop, sweep, construct, handle meetings, make beds, housekeep, order supplies, you name it. I really don’t know how I did it for the past 5 years. Some days I would do all my temple work in the morning and then go to the kitchen and prep octopus for the remaining of the night. I didn’t think I really cared about the consequences, since I knew I had to work harder just be on equal terms with a Japanese chef. I felt inferior being a Filipino, so I had to work harder and become better to be seen as equal in the Japanese culinary world. When I think about it, people would come up to me and say “hey, I watch your IG videos, stories and I respect the grind, etc., etc., etc,,” but now I think I was just stupid and careless. I was obsessed with getting better and better at the craft. I wanted to be really good at something and prove that I can do it.
I assume that because you are also hardcore into taiko too, but did your sister-in-law Tamiko Ooka get you into it? For those who do not know her, she is the Chairperson of Soh Daiko and the Vice Chair of the TCA (Taiko Community Alliance).
“I was losing faith and started dabbling more in meditation to get my mind back at ease. This is where Buddhism started coming back into my life, and I started sitting Zazen longer and longer.”
Tamiko used to be my taiko teacher. She’s amazing. I pursued taiko out of the interest of not knowing much about Asian culture in respects to music. Initially I was studying to become a jazz musician, but I felt like something was lacking in my cultivation Here I was learning jazz, Latin music, classical snare drum, but didn’t know any Asian Music, besides the usual Asian pop or whatever. While in jazz school I started to have a hard time dealing with studying, working, growing up, relationships, and in the end I was going though a bunch of insomnia, depression, etc. and dropped out. The low point was when the dean of the music school started to send me to this shrink because I started hearing voices in my head. They wanted to prescribe me Zyprexa. From there I woke up, and knew I had to change because those meds would make me brain dead. So I dropped out. I went back to taking drum lessons with my drum mentor, Tony DeNicola. Then he died, and I was even more devastated than before. I changed majors to personal training, then automotive…I was pretty lost. I reformed a band with some old bandmates, I was still playing music, but my mind was going bonkers again. I was losing faith and started dabbling more in meditation to get my mind back at ease. This is where Buddhism started coming back into my life, and I started sitting Zazen longer and longer. Out of nowhere, I had this epiphany to try to learn, some world music.
“Taiko was the catalyst for everything Japanese culture in my world. I learned about being a Kohai, respecting the senior members, being in a team, an extended family.”
I started researching different styles of Asian music and suddenly I recalled a deep memory of seeing a kind of drumming group on Sesame Street when I was a kid. It was Taiko. I found a group based out of a Buddhist Temple called Hoh Daiko about an hour south from my parents house. I emailed them asking about learning, and that’s when I met Tamiko. We met at this bad sushi bar in south Jersey lol. I knew it was an interview, and I hope I didn’t come off as a psychopath. But I really wanted to find myself, through hitting the drum, and was graciously accepted as a trainee. I studied taiko for 2.5 years as a probationary member in the group, but the real rewards was that I gained a sister in law who I love to death as she fell in love with my brother. Taiko was the catalyst for everything Japanese culture in my world. I learned about being a Kohai, respecting the senior members, being in a team, an extended family. I miss playing it. Because of Hoh Daiko, I was able to make the transition to moving into NYC as the building manager of NY Buddhist Church which also houses Soh Daiko the oldest Taiko group in the east coast of America (Est. 1979).
I know back in the day you were the “chappa” hand cymbals dude. How is it that the big dude ends up picking the hand cymbals?
LOL. I have no idea. I just picked them up and was able to play them. Since I play drum set I know the sounds I want to get out of them. They’re like little hihats and I can make them pssh, pssh easily.
What about taiko do you like about it? I did taiko as a kid, and I have performed at our temple but I suuuuuuuucked at it. You are playing with the senior members of Akido which has some bragging rights.
“Taiko is very masochist. I’d beat the drum until I cannot move at all. Your hands are bleeding, your shoulders are sore, legs are shaking, you’d squat in these crazy low stances like martial arts, but you cannot stop. I’d learn how to kiai (Scream) like a warrior and push through the pain.”
For me it was very personal. I loved the discipline of it. Taiko is very masochist. I’d beat the drum until I cannot move at all. Your hands are bleeding, your shoulders are sore, legs are shaking, you’d squat in these crazy low stances like martial arts, but you cannot stop. I’d learn how to kiai (Scream) like a warrior and push through the pain. Call me insane, but I love it. It’s the same as going to the gym and squatting 150lbs for 50 reps. There is something beautiful that happens in the middle of the chaos, you reach clarity.
In the beginning, training was nuts, as I remember beating the drum to get all this suffering out of my system. I hit the drum so damn hard, I would imagine my imperfect self on the cow-hide of the drum and wanted to kill it. I wanted to carve away at myself until I could evolve into something better. With repeated practice, it healed a broken person. Taiko—it changed my life. Practicing in the basement of Seabrook Buddhist temple introduced me to a whole new community full of history. I didn’t know about the interment camps. I didn’t know about WW2 and how our country locked up our own American people. It was a bit of shell-shock.
On top of that Hoh Daiko was like family. We joked, we laughed, we cried. I learned about Bon Odori, met other groups from other Buddhist temples such as Nen Daiko of Virginia, to Soh Daiko from NYC. I was also honored to play with senior members of Kodo…I even composed a piece that we played together. When I look back on it, it was so so amazing and at one point in my life it was all I ever thought about. I almost wanted to go pro, or go to Sado Island to take junior training with Kodo. Now I think of it….that was my catalyst into Japanese culture.
That is another thing, you work at the Buddhist temple although you are also heavily involved in a lot of the community outreach?
Well being in the temple you kind of are forced into it. You represent the temple, so you have to be a good person and try to help out the neighbors, etc. There was a period of time when I was living completely alone, pre-marriage, and we didn’t have a priest living there. I was alone in this huge mansion and every now and then you get a visitor who wants to pray, or cry, or talk. You have to be a good person and see yourself in their body. You have to learn how to relate to them and share their pain and sufferings as well. I’d jus sit with them in the Hondo, or meditate with them in the meditation room, try to give them tips from my own experiences about life, etc. I also try to be well informed of what’s happening in and around the neighborhood. I go to the local precinct community meetings as a representative of New York Buddhist Church.
Speaking of community, you being in New York, I’m sure you are aware of all the COVID induced violence? If you do not mind would like to ask you your thoughts on how that has impacted you? If you don’t want to get into it, you don’t need to.
This situation was very tough. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, I knew that from the origins of it starting in Wuhan, the threat of domestic racism towards Asians and Asian Americans would be unavoidable. Living in NYC, I can only imagine what it would be like to be isolated and quarantined in an apartment equivalent in size that of a shoebox. People’s insecurities of not having a job, seeing the increasing infection rates and deaths would give an easy reason for hate to build up towards someone or something. I knew us Asians would get targeted eventually given the all the things happening.
In regards to the temple, I remember hearing the non-stop sirens and sometimes gun shots early to mid 2020. It was depressing, but I stayed grounded and kept busy. I would check up on specific neighbors and see how they were doing, if they needed groceries and or supplies like Lysol or disinfectant, and although I wasn’t working, I knew that I was able to get bulk supplies and groceries for anyone that needed them. I also was lucky to have some N95 masks from my temple cleaning job, so I felt confident to make food runs (sometimes at 2am to avoid crowds) and create these mini food co-ops for the neighbors to chip in and share.
I did get a couple stupid looks or folks who would cut you off while driving and we would argue, get into minor confrontations, but it was more or less a “fuck you, learn how to drive” type of thing, and I would roll up my window. You know…New Yorker type stuff.
Then of my friends was mugged in midtown, a Japanese woman. Then I heard about one of my staff members getting spit on. Then so on, and so on. Me being that guy who was ready for WW3, I immediately asked if they wanted me to get them pepper spray/electric taser/self defense items and they said yes. So I gathered orders from specific people, friends, friends of friends and I would make bulk orders to be delivered out of state, and I would deliver them one by one. This was something I spearheaded on my own as I was able to get to know the owner of a company who makes reliable self-defense products and he was gracious enough to discount us and give us free expedited shipping. My current batch of orders has now extended to all of NYC and all Asian communities. I have over 45+ orders to be delivered in all boroughs. I can only hope that these self defense weapons will give some of the Asian community a bit of security during this horrible time. I’m delivering everything one by one, to each buyer. I made an account on IG called @armedasiannyc so I hope I can spread the word more to those who don’t feel safe that they can protect themselves legally with something, other than walk around with nothing.
“I also started volunteering for Project Bento, spearheaded by Susan Miyagi McCormac. I deliver Bento boxes with my van to Manhattan, Queens and soon Brooklyn.”
I also started volunteering for Project Bento, spearheaded by Susan Miyagi McCormac. I deliver Bento boxes with my van to Manhattan, Queens and soon Brooklyn. I feel confident in my driving—driving around NYC ain’t got nothing on driving in Philly, and I feel that I’m pretty street smart to watch my surroundings…plus I get to jam out in the van to X Japan (we are X!), find some things to eat. But the main thing is good feeling you get helping out, doing something positive, going in the right direction.
My wife left for China to visit a baby shower in 1/2020. Her family is in Hubei near Wuhan and went the outbreak occurred I knew things would get increasingly difficult. Luckily she was able to stay in an area that was well controlled, quarantined and the local community and government pitched in with free groceries, delivered by local taxi drivers. Unfortunately my mother-in-law was also suffering from stomach cancer and in the process of being quarantined it went form a repressed state and spread quickly and in 11/2020 she passed. My wife is and still was devastated and now her VISA has been terminated due to overstaying outside of the states. We’re currently working on renewing it with help of an attorney. It’s been complete hell for her. I try to remind her that being back in China is much safer for her. There she can walk her dog, be with her friends, eat whatever she wants and doesn’t have to worry about racism or the anti-maskers ruining the state of the human race, etc. If she was here right now, I think things would be even worse for her given her ethnicity and how things in general as so bad for Asian people. Honestly, we would probably drive each other nuts considering we’re not working, we can’t leave the apt without worry of getting killed, and also…I can’t cook Chinese food. With her it’s all about the Sichuanese takeout…and frankly we don’t have the money or means to do that.
My parents left for the Philippines in 1/2020 as well and got stuck there until 7/2020. With no one to take care of the house, and worried they didn’t have supplies for toilet paper, lysol etc, I went to Restaurant Depot and bought a bunch of Pandemic supplies (canned goods,
paper towels, toilet paper, disinfectant, Vienna sausage (‘cause you know…) big bags of rice to make sure when they came back and quarantined, they didn’t have to lift a finger. I went down there a couple of times to mow the lawn, watch Netflix on my pop’s bigass Hoshitoshi TV, and
just take a break from NYC.
Now that we have a little back story on you, I want to know what goes into the takoyaki process. I think you had said you had to massage the hell out of the octopus upwards of 2-hours (if not that, what else is involved in the 3-day process)? If that is the case, all that time in the gym paid off, lol.
I started researching everything I could about octopus prep. I would translate sushi articles, manuals into English (using google translator), and with the help of the resident priest of the temple, he would read and help with deciphering some Japanese methods.
Ha! Another long answer. First of all let me state that when I first started KARLSBALLS, I knew that takoyaki, being B-Class Gourmet food in Japan, was essentially an easy recipe with slight variation from shop to shop. You have your batter, your protein (octopus) and your minor ingredients, ratios, and cooking technique. I wanted to distinguish myself as a serious aspiring chef, and being a fan of sushi, I wanted to learn how to boil octopus. I wanted to take it to a whole another level. Before, the octopus we used to get at the restaurant was already boiled, cooked and chopped into pieces so as far as food prep was concerned, we only had to defrost and get rid of access water. Inspired by Jiro Dreams of Sushi, I started researching everything I could about octopus prep. I would translate sushi articles, manuals into English (using google translator), and with the help of the resident priest of the temple, he would read and help with deciphering some Japanese methods. The priest of the temple is also a very knowledgeable chef with Shojin Ryori etc, so he gave me some pointers too about approaching the Japanese method. After studying and researching for 6 years, this is the general process I came up with for preparing octopus for sushi and or takoyaki:
Note: All the octopus comes into the US from various regions of the world are mostly frozen, and some them are packed with various salts or nitrates that would add extra water weight in the freezing process. Depending on the variation of octopus, I would modify the technique to adjust removing of access water after defrosting.
- After defrosting, I would record its weight then soak the octopus in a temperature controlled, cold salt water brine for over 8 hours, mimicking the temperature and salinity of the ocean of its origin. What this does is relax the octopus back to its natural environment and releases extra water and tension in the body. I would usually do this at night time so the next morning I can start the massaging and boiling process.
- The next morning I would reweigh the octopus and how check to see if the weight changed. If it lost a substantial amount of weight then I would probably not order from that brand/distributor. Then I would prepare my pot stock with a proprietary blend of ingredients to boil the octopus in. That stock would be heated on low, simmered while I massage the octopus. I would check the stock periodically to make sure it was not boiling.
- From there I would clean and rinse the the octopus to remove any possible “salty taste”, slice and discard the tips, remove the beak and make a slice from the mouth to the lower section of the body to create a nice pocket for the water to boil the body area more efficiently. Clean the octopus again.
- Now… onward to the massage. Depending on the octopus, I would massage anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours, using nothing but the weight of my body pressing on the octopus. The only exception is that if I prepare a certain species that carries more water in its body, such as Mizudako, I’ll resort to using irinuka flour to help pull more water out of the body.
- I have a special table that is set low, just a few inches higher than my knee so I can lock myelbow and press into the octopus with full force and my body weight. I have a specific method of counting in rhythm of the massage so everything is even. From there everything is feel and observation, sometimes I massage more, sometimes its less. It’s all about removing the water content for a very very good boil. In between there is rinsing, cleaning with cold water, rinse, clean and repeat. It’s a combination of feel meets method.
- Once I feel the octopus is ready I set my stock on the highest heat possible—as I want the octopus to be always in boiling water at its harshest boiling temp. I weigh the octopus again and based on its pre boiled weight, I vary the boiling time. Everything is calculated, and I have a formula that works every time.
- From there I slowly dunk and lift the octopus in and out of the stock to cook the legs and get a nice curl. This is repeated as needed until I drop the whole body in and cover the pot to keep the temperature high. From there I prep a sink or container of cold water to transfer the octopus out of the pot and flash stop the cooking process.
- Once the octopus cools down I place it in a colander and bowl underneath and reweigh to check it’s post boiled weight. I like to have around an 85% cooking yield—meaning that 85% of the original weight is left before boiling. If the result is good, I take note. The octopus then goes back into a refrigerator for one day so the bowl will collect any additional water.
- The last day I take out the octopus and inspect the bowl to see how much water is collected. If there is minimal water I know that I did a good job of massaging, if there is an excess of water, I’ll take note and readjust my technique. I then take it to the cutting board and slice the octopus in to pieces that weigh between 6-8g. 7g is ideal. All the pieces are cut and stored into a colander and bowl to collect more water. From there I will count all the pieces, place them into a vacuum sealed bag, write the date of the prep, a grade of quality control (AAA+++ is best), quantity of pieces, then vacuum seal it and refreeze it. Before cooking I would select the grade and quantity I want to use then defrost it for the event.
Aside from the octopus, what other aspect of preparing takoyaki was the biggest challenge? My assumption is that grill action flipping the balls?
“There is a video on YouTube from a Japanese food blogger that shows my team cooking at the end of the season in cold and windy weather. We were exhausted and we were having such a hard time cooking in those conditions. It made me sad reading the comments (its all in Japanese) because most of it was negative and directed to my wife who is Chinese”
There are many challenges with cooking takoyaki such as heat control, cooking technique, endurance. My stand is busy so our cooks never have a break. It’s a non-stop event of endurance. The grills are very hot so your forearms arms get conditioned to pain of being close to the hot grills. You have to cook efficiently and watch your gas to make are not to burn the balls, but you have to pace yourself because the line just does not stop. But the biggest challenge is mother nature. Wind and cold really effects our cooking as well as humidity. So sometimes I will bring more flour to the event to adjust the batter to the elements. If its too humid or too cold I will add a bit more to quicken the cooking time, but not so much that it changes the recipe and or texture. Just a little bit . There is a video on YouTube from a Japanese food blogger that shows my team cooking at the end of the season in cold and windy weather. We were exhausted and we were having such a hard time cooking in those conditions. It made me sad reading the comments (its all in Japanese) because most of it was negative and directed to my wife who is Chinese and the obvious main focal point of the video. If the viewers only knew how hard it is to cook in the cold and wind and when you’re tired, they would comment differently. All in all, we do our best and still cook from the stand point of love.
Anybody who has worked in the food industry has their own concoctions they have put together when the boss was not watching. Now that you have your own thing, is there a crazy type of takoyaki you have produced (maybe a hot cheeto takoyaki with cream cheese)?
In the beginning stages of KARLSBALLS, I had all these ideas to make these funky “munchies” related takoyaki. The ultimate stoner balls. I still do. But due to my respect of Japanese culture, I took a hard look in the mirror and asked myself “How good is your original recipe?” I realized I didn’t have much experience. From there that is when I decided to dive in the deep end and pursue cooking the most authentic Osaka taste you can get outside of Japan. Of course my takoyaki sauce and octopus prep is my own thing, but I really wanted to introduce authentic Osaka takoyaki because all the stuff here is either frozen and deep fried like chicken nuggets, or of the Gindaco/Tokyo type variation.
You know why I like what you do without even having ever talked to you? It’s because you go about things with a level of humor from naming your business “Karl’s Balls” to having an “aho special.” That right there I was like, “this dude is cool.” So do you have any favorite comedies from movies, shows, anime, etc?
You know, KARLSBALLS, is really a stupid business name. So many times I wanted to change the business name to some thing more serious etc., etc, but I guess…that is me.
In my early teens I was addicted to Ren and Stimpy. Such a crazy, messed up show, but I always had an imaginative mind. Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!! Is probably one of my favorite Osaka comedy shows. Men at Work starring Charlie Sheen and Emilo Esteves is another favorite as well as Kingpin starring Woody Harrelson and Bill Murray. I love Bill Murray and Robin Williams as well. Anime? Initial D (since I also used to participate in SCCA Solo 2 Racing), Hajime No Ippo, Baki the Grappler, are some favorites. I’m currently watching Konjiki No Gash Bell, as recommended by a friend and I like it! I like Umagon the funny horse character. Ike! Ina-chuu Takkyuubu (The Pingpong Club) might be one of the funniest, sickest twisted funny anime I ever saw. Since I like ping pong too, that hits home. I even have an idea about a KARLSBALLS anime, where this normal dude cooks takoyaki and turns into BALLMAN and throws giant takoyaki balls at Kaiju. My mind is always laughing, always active. You know, KARLSBALLS, is really a stupid business name. So many times I wanted to change the business name to some thing more serious etc., etc, but I guess…that is me. I have a bit of a sense of humor and I don’t take myself so seriously. But the cooking I take very very seriously, and once I’m back on homeplate, I’m looking to hit grand slams.
You might be called Karl’s Balls which may have some skeptical skeptics thinking you do not know your chit, but you do produce an authentic Kansai style takoyaki. Is there a reason why you chose that style over the crispier and oilier Tokyo style?
It was a no brainer. If I was to study and cook pizza, NY style is the best. Takoyaki originated in Osaka so it made the most sense to introduce that style to the west. I find that that Dashi is more complex in Osaka. There are shops that boil chicken with vegetables and fruits for Dashi. One shop called Tamaya, boils this crazy Dashi out of something like 20 ingredients with lobster in it. It was the only takoyaki I ate that I felt like I could sleep for one month after eating it. It is so heavy and rich. Everything is based around the Dashi, so the flour content is less. When the flour content is less, the takoyaki comes out more soupy and creamier. Thats the best part. If its dry or spongy, thats TAKOYUKI, not TAKOYAKI. Another thing that sparked my interest was the use of copper plates. It seemed like all my favorite shops in Osaka cook with copper plates so I transitioned to copper around 2017. That was groundbreaking for me as the texture improved in similarity to those shops, and I had better control with manipulating the gas fire. In Japanese culinary its all about balance and bringing out the natural tastes of the food, so when observe the crispier, oilier takoyaki, I find that the oil tends to mask the taste and balance of the food. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Gindaco. Usually when I go to Gindaco I get their OG style with a highball to chase, or their mentaiko style. I try not to discriminate but Osaka will always be #1 when it comes to takoyaki.
I’m kind of jumping around, but the other reason I have respect for you is that I have had people say “why does this guy only have one product (ramen)??!” I only had one product because they do not realize if you are doing something the “Japanese way,” it means a labor intensive and laborious process. Whereas so many other restaurants will simply purchase a frozen pre-made takoyaki and call it a day. I know they can watch you prepare takoyaki right in front of their eye’s from scratch, but you also have to set-up and tear down your booth, hauling everything around, staff, etc. It is so tiring, soo, where do you see yourself ideally taking Karl’s Balls? A permanent brick and mortar? or?
My end goal would be to have 3 brick in mortars. One in NYC, one in LA and one in Japan. The stores would be so nuts. Still authentic cooking, but just presented in this funny, KARLSBALLS way. Everyday would be a chance to just say thank you to a culture that really brings me life and happiness. I would be so happy to cook in Japan. I’d set up a gym right next to the store and have this crazy set up with my drum set in the store, lifting weights and flipping balls. It would be this crazy anime of a shop with my Ballman logo everywhere, playing American Funk music, hire a bunch of muscle dudes to flip tiny balls HAHA. I’d have a giant 300lb takoyaki made out of concrete sitting outside with a handle and if you could one arm deadlift it, I’d give you free takoyaki. Just 3 stores. It would be so much fun, I can imagine it now…
I really don’t care about owning a chain of stores, because I know that it would be hard to keep the quality high. It’s really not about the money, though I do want to be comfortable financially, its more about continuing the tradition. People always ask me when I will open a store in NYC, and its hard because of the way I cook. I hate electric grills and only want to cook on gas fire. For me it just comes out so much better when you use gas. Unfortunately there have been a string of fires in NYC due to gas leaks, and I think the city is very hard on restaurants opening with gas lines being used. I am sure one of these days a property will open up, but for now cooking outdoors is best for me. Since the rent is lower, I know where to cook that can reap good profit for myself and staff, I can put more money into the best ingredients I can use. Plus I can take a break whenever I want and hibernate during the winter. But don’t get me wrong, I would love to have a store. I still dream of it everyday.
Speaking of allegiances, it is to the Kansai region (Osaka) with takoyaki, yet you do not wear a Hanshin Tigers jersey. What you do wear is a Fukuoka, Kyushu based baseball team because I think you have a homie affiliated with the team? I know you also have the officials players cap too. Can you tell me more about that?
Ha! My friend is a player/coach for Softbank Hawks, Yuichi Honda. That is his hat and jersey I wear all the time. His sister in law and I are good friends. Japanese baseball is just so awesome. Korea too, I heard Korean baseball is awesome as well, but I never been to Korea.
I reached out to somebody who visited you in the hospital, and he’s one cool homie which is why I asked him if he had a question: Mark Hoshi aka Ramen Culture asked “do you wish you were born Japanese?”
I love Japan and its culture very very much so. The community and culture really opened my eyes and heart to become a better person and give me discipline and opportunity to do something very special. When I first visited Japan, I immediately felt much at home, especially Osaka and the southern prefectures. Someone told me that if I go south, I’d see my twin…so I hopped on the train and explored.. and he was right! Big eyes, round faces…love of pork LOL. My mom looks Japanese. On some weird karmic level, I am also born on the year of the rooster and based on that, my personal guardian deity is Fudo Myo-o, one of the main Deities of Buddhism that protects the Dharma with his immovable spirit. Somehow I ended up living in a Buddhist temple in NYC, protecting and watching over Amida Buddha. So with that being said, maybe I have some type of karmic relationship with Japan. Maybe in a previous life? I know my immovable spirit will never stop cooking takoyaki.
“However if I was born in Japan, I don’t think I would have the same parents that raised me and did their best to keep me in the right track. I owe a lot of my empathy and compassion to my mother and my no-nonsense, lets get chit done attitude from my father.”
However if I was born in Japan, I don’t think I would have the same parents that raised me and did their best to keep me in the right track. I owe a lot of my empathy and compassion to my mother and my no-nonsense, lets get chit done attitude from my father. I can’t replace my folks. Plus all the experiences good and bad made me the person I am today—I’m not perfect at all, but I’m always looking for ways to improve.
Well thanks Karl for taking your time out to do this Q&A on your elitest MacBook Pro.
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