Never a Dull Moment

Karl Palma won’t cook with a dull blade or a dull mind.

Karl Palma
25 July 2023
Karl Palma prepares takoyaki, a Japanese snack, at the Japan Festival occurring every year in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Karl Palma prepares takoyaki, a Japanese snack, at the Japan Festival occurring every year in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Photo courtesy of the author.

As a chef, I begin food preparation as soon as I wake up in the morning. On the way to the kitchen, I count my steps. Down the lobby, straight ahead—left, right, left, right. My feet glide across the floor and into the kitchen. I turn on the lights and some music. I make coffee, fire up the stoves, and boil a pot of water for dashi (soup stock). Then, I take out my knives and whetstones.

The sharpening stones I have in my possession are vital to me. About two-thirds of them were passed down to me from a temple caretaker. Rev. Earl Ikeda, a retired Buddhist priest from New York Buddhist Church, also gave me two special stones from Kyoto—both medium to fine grit—that I treasure. These stones are over fifty years old. I sometimes pause and remind myself of the long history of food being prepared from them, and how lucky I am that they’ve ended up in my hands.

Gratitude—how can I express it?

By doing my best today.

I get my sharpening station ready over the sink and start with my coarsest stone. Hozan Yamamoto’s album Ginkai plays in the background. The music is a blend of shakuhachi (Japanese flute) mixed with modern jazz—my favorite. I set a timer for twenty minutes and splash some water on the stone.

I want my staff to be happy. I want my customers to be happy. So, I cultivate happiness in myself.

I work slowly and methodically. Starting from the tip of the knife, I sharpen the blade back and forth, back and forth, counting in four groups of four at the push of the knife: one, two, three, four…two, two, three, four…three, two, three, four…four, two, three, four…. After this cycle ends, I move my fingers about half an inch down and start over. Staying on course, I repeat the process.

I listen carefully to the scraping of the knife against the stone. These sounds tell me if I need to give more attention to a certain area. I work my way down to the heel of the knife with intention. Somehow my vision always begins to tunnel, and I focus only on the knife, the stone, and my fingers making contact. I have to be careful not to cut myself.

Karla Palma holding his chef knife
For Karl Palma, sharpening his knives is a meditative practice. This is his custom-made blade from a master knife maker from Kumamoto, Japan.

This is a mindfulness practice, a meditation. I stay focused on what I’m doing in the moment. Letting go of any thoughts that come to my mind, I breathe deeply and slowly, but I do not make an audible sound or a sigh, as that would distract my senses. I repeat and repeat and repeat, only stopping to check the edge.

Once I feel the knife has been sharpened evenly with the first stone, I switch to a finer-grit stone and repeat the process. As I continue sharpening, fewer thoughts come into my mind, and things become more automatic. I can hear my music now. I’m immersed in the routine, watching the knife’s transformation from a simple inanimate object, into a tool connecting my heart and mind to my food. The knife and I sharpen together.

The alarm goes off on my phone. I’m ready to work.

I specialize in takoyaki, a ball-shaped Japanese snack. When I started my business in 2015, I was stressed about the responsibilities of being a “professional chef.” I’d long dreamed of becoming a chef of Japanese cuisine, but I had a lot to learn as I’m not Japanese. I’m Filipino. So, I would find sushi articles and books in Japanese and translate them into English. I also had the honor of living at the New York Buddhist Church with Rev. Ikeda, who knew a lot about shojin ryori (Japanese monastic cooking). When he had advice about cooking, I did my best to listen.

Back then, I had a cheap knife that always lost its edge. I would have to resharpen it constantly. I felt disconnected from ingredients and discouraged; my mind would be flooded with negative thoughts about my work. Ikeda Sensei told me that once I had the money, I should go and buy a new knife. So, I made a pilgrimage to Japan and, with the help of some friends, purchased a knife directly from a bladesmith in the small town of Kumamoto City. The art of making knives goes back centuries in Japan.

When I came back to the United States, I felt renewed and inspired to work. My cooking began to transform. Sure, I was putting in long hours slicing, but with a sharp and nimble knife, I was able to move efficiently and joyfully. My mood was better. I often thought of my mother’s calm demeanor when she cooked and how her food made me happy.

I want my staff to be happy. I want my customers to be happy. So, I cultivate happiness in myself. Sometimes, when I’m a little down, I go to the kitchen and sharpen my knife, and it brings me back to the middle path. Then at the end of my shift, I resharpen my knife, polish it, and clean it.

A good knife has enabled me to develop concentration and show respect for the ingredients. Reflecting on causes and conditions, I see that life never has a dull moment.

Karl Palma

Karl Palma

Karl Palma is the resident caretaker of New York Buddhist church since 2011. He also runs his own Takoyaki business called KARLSBALLS Takoyaki since 2015.