Out of Print

Jake Aycardo’s Special Delivery

by Maia Puyat
Photos courtesy of Jake Aycardo.

How anime, fan art, and a “whatever” attitude made Kodawari the go-to for gyudon.

W henever I’m having a conversation, I find myself taking note of the phrases people often repeat. It says a lot about the person—how they think, how they take in the world around them, and how they express that to other people. Jake Aycardo’s most common answer to a question is, “it’s whatever.” It is a phrase that encompasses what I would say is his most characteristic trait—spontaneity. It cascades through his food and his brands. He is willing to try anything at least once. “It’s always just what I want to eat, really,” he said when I asked him what his creative process was, if he had any. Jake’s spontaneity has made him curious by nature and always willing to learn. Where a lot of cooks will focus on one cuisine, or even one dish, Jake will decide what he wants to do after he wakes up that morning. “Some days I’ll just eat instant noodles—I’ll cook it in a special way. It depends on what I have, so it’s whatever. Just little things to make the food a bit better.”

Of course, behind that spontaneity with his approach to life is one simple condition: he and the people around him should be able to enjoy it. If it’s food, it needs to be a dish we can appreciate with all of our senses. So for the gyudon of Kodawari, his most well-known brand, the food experience extends to an Instagram grid that mixes gyudon fan art and videos with mouthwatering close-ups.

“Have you seen the latest video?” He asked me, excitedly waiting for my response as I watched cheesy curry gyudon being pulled out of the airfryer, “Lost in Paradise” by ALI playing in the background.

“Most of my videos are like that—a bit informative but it’s really just making people fall in love with the food, that type of energy.” Jake shoots and edits the videos himself. He picked up the hobby after the quarantine had forced him to close his restaurant. He is proud of what he’s put out but is never shy to ask any of the people he knows to teach him more. “I made a lot of friends who are photographers—whom I consider to be the best in the Philippines—through making content like this and through asking them, ‘how can I get better?’”

“Do you always use anime songs for your videos?” I asked him, now craving for cheesy gyudon to watch the latest episode of Jujutsu Kaisen with.

He laughed. “It’s low key, if you-know-you-know vibe.”

Art by Gianne Encarnacion. Courtesy of Kodawari.
Like the holistic experience he’s built around the gyudon, Jake’s life goes beyond just food. Before he found himself lining trays with gooey rice, egg, and beef, Jake worked at a bank. Instead of culinary school, he read articles and watched YouTube videos to fill in the lull hours automating his work had given him. He put what he learned into practice by cooking baon, first for himself, and then for his officemates to try. Soon after, his food had gathered enough attention that his hobby expanded into selling 50 or 60 packed lunches. “I was like, hmm, I’m actually making more money from this and it’s a lot more fun.” He left the bank soon after.

His first foray into the food world was a leap —he joined Masterchef Asia. Despite having no experience, his willingness to work his way up from the bottom opened up doors for him. “That’s how I got a job at a kitchen. I didn’t have experience, I didn’t have an education. I just wrote personal letters saying I want to learn from you.” His experiences are varied. He has worked at Wildflour, fine dining restaurants, and what he described as a “fancy farm” called Holy Carabao. There, he made sauces using the misshapen produce that never made it to the supermarket shelves.

A library of knowledge accumulated from his experiences, he then tried his hand at helping others. He consulted for people who started out at the same place as he did, interested in opening their own stall at a food park but had neither the knowledge or experience to operate the small kitchen. His last pre-COVID venture was a restaurant called Ligaya Altanghap in the Rockwell Business Center Sheridan.

Within the hour after I interviewed Jake, I placed an order for gyudon—sadly, without any cheese or curry powder on-hand to imitate the recipe. Funnily enough, I discovered Kodawari because of a giveaway. It had a condition that captured my attention: name your favorite anime. As someone who spent much of her life battling the preconceived notions that “anime is weird” and “why do you watch cartoons you don’t understand,” it felt refreshing that a growing food brand was putting something I loved at the forefront. Like many of us do when watching YouTube videos, I scrolled through the comments, silently noting down interesting replies, like the one person who had named Totally Spies as their favorite anime. “I know, I know, but it was kinda benta,” Jake says. “Totally Spies is pretty lit dude.” Laughing, he recalled a time where he’d hide from his friends that he’d watch it on television. “But you know, some people just want to join the giveaway, they don’t really watch anime naman. There was one person who was saying she promises to watch anime if she wins.”

While I didn’t win the giveaway, the brand had captured my attention enough that I decided to place an order for the shroomdon. I went with mushrooms instead of the classic beef because I was curious. It was the first time I’d ever seen a mushroom version of gyudon. Unsurprising to no one, I ate most of the tray, which I had meant to share with my mother, and ordered another one just a week after. Already an avid fan, I was excited to try the signature dish that had propelled him from selling trays on his main account to starting Kodawari. The order came with a card— fan art of two dogs, one offering the other a tray of Kodawari gyudon. On it, he scribbled in pencil: me (the dog holding the tray), the wonders of Chainsaw Man (the gyudon tray), you (the second dog).

Art by Darlingkink. Courtesy of Kodawari.

“At the end of the day, they’re not gonna unfollow because of some cartoons. It’s still about the food.”

Jake spent the next few minutes selling Chainsaw Man to me, which he places as his second favorite title. “It’s kind of like the antithesis to the typical shonen [protagonist] who is fighting for this big goal and working super hard.” As he tries his best to convince me to read the manga instead of waiting for MAPPA’s anime adaptation, he kept spoilers to a minimum. He feels that spoilers are a disrespect to the artist and the way said art is meant to be consumed. The main pull of Chainsaw Man is Denji, the unwitting main character who sells his organs and his services to pay back his dead father’s debt to a yakuza that betrays him. “Denji is like the opposite of that. He just wants to eat good food and hold some boobs—that’s literally his dream. He’s so stupid so it’s so funny.”

I noticed from our discussions of popular animes like Demon Slayer and Attack on Titan that, much like the way he views Kodawari and his food, he enjoys stories with multiple layers. None of those one-dimensional tropes or perfect characters dodging death through the power of friendship. He wants to see flaws, tension, and growth. “I was actually going to watch the latest [Attack on Titan] episode but I remembered we had a meeting so I’ll just watch it after.”

“What’s your top favorite?” I asked him.

“Between anime and manga, my favorite of all time is probably Vagabond by Takehiko Inoue. Have you read that? It’s so good.”

Most know Takehiko as the artist behind Slam Dunk. Vagabond does not have anything to do with basketball. It’s set in the year 1600 and focuses on samurais. “It’s an introspective journey,” Jake described. “There are so many good characters with different ideologies and different things they’re fighting for.”

Jake values individuality and how differences interact to create a whole. The team behind Kodawari operates like that. It is composed of Jake and his friends, each bringing their own perspectives and talents to the table. On the kitchen and food end, it’s Jake with his brother helping out. On the branding end, he has his cousin, Toni, handling the social media, which he sees as a blessing, since he feels he is too shy to craft good captions on the fly, and a designer creating assets. “I feel like the group collectively has high taste,” he beamed.

Like I said, Jake will try anything at least once, and thus, he is not limited in terms of genre with the content he consumes. A shoujo title, Kaguya-sama: Love Is War, joins the ranks of Vagabond and Chainsaw Man as part of his top five. A shift from the death and gore, his love for Kaguya-sama stems from an appreciation of tension. A comedy centered around two characters who are mutually attracted but refuse to be the first to admit that, the anime is able to create a ridiculous amount of tension around mundane things like exchanging lunch boxes or wondering who has an umbrella during a rainy walk home. He is also reading this shoujo manga about an office romance called Sweat and Soap, which he describes as “wholesome fluff.”

“Have you watched Your Lie In April?” I asked him. One of my personal favorites and a go-to whenever I need a good cry, it is the coming-of-age story about a piano prodigy unable to hear music following the death of his mother. The anime has one of the best character development arcs I’ve seen, and it’s beautifully animated too.

“I was emotional when I was watching it because—for some backstory—my mom died when I was a young and she’s one of my inspirations for cooking,” he said. “I think I watched it early during quarantine so I was without a job, broke, and the guy’s playing the piano so earnestly and wondering if it reaches the people he’s trying to reach. So that was my vibe.”

L-R: Art by Darlingkink and Chaiseng. Courtesy of Kodawari.

Four months before Kodawari had officially launched, Jake was selling gyudon trays from his personal page with the policy: you can pay after eating and it’s free if you don’t like it. He assured me that everyone paid. “That’s the energy, really. We want whoever’s eating to have the best time, the best customer service.” He tries his best to exude a “caring energy” to customers so they feel comfortable, attended to, and listened to throughout all interactions with the brand. Because Kodawari doesn’t attract a specific type of customer, Jake will observe the way a customer responds to him, quietly noting down the nuances in their speech and spelling to determine the best way to engage. 

One of his fondest customer interactions happened in a sushi restaurant tucked in the basement of a Tokyo building called Yajima Sushi. He showed me a photograph of the chef— the only photo he has of that meal—smiling at the camera. Chef Susumu Yajima is the type of chef he wants to be like. “His food was so quality and not pretentious. Some of the sushi he was making was not shaped properly, not like how you expect pristine sushi.” While he is usually the type to take photos of the food, for this particular meal, he found himself too focused on the chef, their meal, and the moment to remember. “When we were there, the only customers were this Japanese couple. The hospitality was so warm that we ended up drinking together.”

Like Chef Yajima, he likes to interact with his customers, and handling the customer service for Kodawari has helped him to connect with them.Sometimes, he will come across the page of a customer with art that speaks to him, and he will ask them if he can send them gyudon. “I send gyudon to them and say if it made you feel something, you could draw. Most are super game naman.”

Chef Susumu Yajima. Photo taken by Jake Aycardo.

Art by Pia Samson. Courtesy of Kodawari.

He turned over his webcam to face his screen, where I saw a drawing of a person holding a gyudon behind them to give to another. My first thought was: I loved the colors. Instead of depicting something like a photo, it created a feeling using just yellow, white, green and red. “That’s like the energy, you know. I’m whatever about anything. I just like nice things. I want everything to be nice. I don’t like non-aesthetic stuff.” He scrolled through other illustrations and inspirations, like old school anime and “aesthetic” things that inspired him, most of which can be seen sprinkled all over Kodawari’s social media.

He joked that he pays extra attention to the titas because they may not resonate with the brand immediately. “I’m always worried that focusing so much on anime will alienate them but, you know, at the end of the day, they’re not gonna unfollow because of some cartoons. It’s still about the food.”

“Speaking of, why did you decide to make Kodawari such an anime-heavy brand?” I asked.

“Honestly, everyone I work with, I just want them to do what they want to do. Live their truth, so to speak. That will produce, in my opinion, the best work.” Anime, as it so happened, was a common denominator in all of their passions. Something that connected them.

He turned over his webcam again to show me more things on his screen for more context: their pegs, funny screenshots, and an art piece he received yesterday. It was a drawing of the gyudon that made it look straight out of a Ghibli movie with bright colors, highlights, and the right amount of saturation to make it pop. It’s the type of art that makes you want to eat the food, however apprehensively, because it’s almost too pretty to devour.

“There’s an Akira set and someone did a 3D thing,” he described excitedly, listing down all the content they’ve collected and have yet to post. “All the fan art of Kodawari, when people ask if I want anything I say no, just go crazy. That’s the overall energy of the branding and the style.”

Kodawari is a Japanese word that means “the pursuit of perfection.” But really, Jake just chose the name because it sounded nice. Less a perfectionist and more a person who cooks food that he wants people to resonate with, he has found himself more appreciative of over the top reactions. “I’m just happy when people like the food, like when strangers swear at me, they like the food so much they swear at me,” he said.

When asked if he was adding anything new to the Kodawari menu, he said that there’s a chashudon (pork cubes, tomatoes, and garlic sauce) in the works but has momentarily been put on hold due to broken equipment. However, just as the gyudon had been his third or fourth post-quarantine food endeavor, Jake’s mind does not stop at Kodawari. “Right now I’m working on another concept for shawarma rice naman. It’s also gonna be in trays but it’s the same energy as Kodawari, care and doing our best, but shawarma rice.” He’s already made the sauce and claimed that it’s really, really good.

Where Jake’s love for learning and experimentation has made creating new recipes the easier part of the building process, creating an entirely new brand has proven to be a more difficult challenge. With Kodawari, he had been able to work with people who knew him well. All he wants, really, is for all the brands under him to hold their own and depict the same feeling that Kodawari does, a space where any and all individuals are celebrated: the team behind it, the customers, even their suppliers.

“Every artist we collaborate with I tag, or all our suppliers I try to tag. That’s extra exposure for them, extra business.” He paused. “But I never tag myself.”

“Why is that?”

“I guess I’m shy, but also it shouldn’t be about me,” he said. “As much as possible, I’d like the brand to be about the brand, the food. I don’t want me to be part of it.”

With all the things he’s done, all the things he’s learned, Jake actually doesn’t consider himself a chef, so “Kodawari by Chef Jake Aycardo” didn’t sit right with him. It’s a title he holds a lot of respect for, and having only managed his brother in the kitchen, he feels it’s a title he has yet to earn. “I’m more of a businessman or whatever.”

“So you identify as a businessman who cooks?”

“If you put it like that I don’t know— am I even a businessman? I’m just trying to make good food and give people a good experience. Just nice things.”

As we ended our conversation, he told me to listen to the Kodawari playlist, which features another bright piece of gyudon fan art. I then posed this question to him: “If given the opportunity to be transported into any anime world, what would it be and why?”

“That’s so hard naman because the anime I like are, you know, death.” He laughed. He thought about it, trying to sort through the worlds that seemed “fun,” before ultimately deciding that if given the choice, he would choose not to be transported at all. “I’m happy here in this world. I’m ready to die also. I’m really whatever about it.”︎

Maia Puyat is the creative director for Type A Coffee and a freelance writer.