MODESTO, Calif. — An Instagram blogging chef is trading his do-it-yourself ramen kits to set up his first brick and mortar shop in Modesto.
Since March, Ernie Watkins has spent each month creating craft ramen for hundreds of hungry people in Modesto. It’s a project that he designed as a DIY ramen kit, where he’d make the broth, noodles and toppings for people to cook at home.
Despite having a working model on Instagram and business restrictions due to the coronavirus, he’s throwing caution to the wind in order to open what he calls Modesto’s first ramen shop, Konfucious Eats.
“It’s either I go work for myself or I’m going to go work for someone else that won’t appreciate the food that I can bring,” Watkins said. “I’m just at a point in my life where I feel like it’s on me now.”
Watkins himself said that there are places in Modesto to grab a bowl of ramen, but he noted that there is no dedicated ramen shop. He said many places have it on the menu, but it isn’t the star of the restaurant.
“There’s never been a ramen shop with real ramen here," Watkins said. "There’s a few places in town that has sushi (and) that has ramen on the menu… I want to be the first craft ramen shop in the area.”
He hopes his emphasis on craft, handmade noodles, toppings, and broths cooked for up to 12 hours will set him apart from the restaurants. He’ll also be using a special ramen noodle flour, making his own dashi, and using stewing chickens to get the best flavors for his soups. This is all to share the same kind of sensations and flavors he had when exploring ramen dishes in Japan.
Pulling from his Korean heritage, he’ll also be adding in some dishes that were inspired by his mother. Those include his mother’s kimchi recipe and a rice bowl with braised tofu that's topped with egg and kimchi.
Watkins developed his cooking skills over time after being cast into the restaurant industry. He said he got into the business after applying to be a server and then landing a job as sushi chef. By his own admittance, he destroyed more than a few California Rolls in the beginning, but he refined his skills over time.
“That’s really what got me started was making sushi. I really didn’t have any experience in cooking,” Watkins said, adding that most of his experience before was in cooking for his family.
The journey from sushi chef to craft ramen restauranteur ultimately started with a need to change things up.
“I just felt like the sushi run was burnt out," Watkins said. "I needed something new, so I started making ramen for friends.”
His ramen craft grew and refined over time, eventually landing him an opportunity to set up a pop-up ramen shop at a local restaurant in late March. However, due to COVID-19, those plans fell to the wayside.
"I was ready for this pop-up. I had bought all the ingredients. I had all the guest lists settled, and it was kind of devastating,” Watkins said.
Despite the setback, he rebounded with an idea for ramen kits that people could make at home. He'd do all the prep work and make the ingredients, but customers would assemble their food at home. It gained steam, and he found himself with more than 100 orders in a matter of weeks.
The success of those ramen kits and the community support he found are big reasons as to why he chose to open a new business during tumultuous times for the restaurant industry.
While an opening date isn't set in stone, Watkins believes the opening will come "really soon," possibly even in November. The shop will be located on the Northside of McHenry Village.
Photos: Konfucious Eats ramen in Modesto