Why Yakitori Is Such A Hot Food Trend

Chefs across the country are firing up the yakitori grill, one ingenious skewer at a time

Sit down for a meal at Olmsted, a buzzy Brooklyn restaurant that bridges the divide between special occasion and neighborhood spot, and you'll be presented with a small paper menu. Though most dishes are seasonal, there's been a mainstay of late, listed simply as Yakitori Olmsted, no description. It's opaque on purpose, chef and owner Greg Baxtrom explains. "You're going down the rabbit hole of Yakitori Olmsted."

Ask about it, and a server will hand you a separate, laminated menu on a clipboard, written in both Japanese and English. There's Sapporo and sake to choose from, and a list of nine skewers with meaty offerings like chicken thigh or heart and shiitake mushrooms. Fired on one of two portable box grills that rest atop the stove, the skewers pick up a smoky char before getting brushed in a sweet-salty glaze made from yuzu kosho and oyster sauce. They're served alongside eggplant in fiery Calabrian chiles, fine shreds of daikon with furikake and a small mound of togarashi—or Japanese pepper—for dipping. "It's a restaurant within a restaurant," Baxtrom says.

Yakitori literally translates to "grilled bird" or "grilled chicken." Classically, every part of the chicken, including cuts less common in the U.S. like the tail, is skewered and grilled over binchōtan, a type of charcoal, on street-side grills or at specialty restaurants, and then basted with tare, a sauce made with soy, sugar, mirin, sake and often garlic.

Photo: Tasting Table

In cities like New York, Miami and Charleston, a small group of chefs, often not of Japanese descent, are experimenting with the form in unexpected ways. For the last few months, The Four Horsemen in Williamsburg has been serving a yakitori menu complete with chicken meatballs (see the recipe), made with ground chicken, onions and ginger, from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. In Miami, Food & Wine Best New Chef Brad Kilgore serves his riffs on yakitori, like maitake mushrooms with toasted nori, chicken fat and a sherry vinaigrette, at the bar outside of his acclaimed Alter, where he also hosts yakitori collaborations with chefs like Scott Anderson of Elements in New Jersey. And in Charleston, Jeffrey Stoneberger, who runs 2Nixons, serves different kinds of yakitori, like charred heirloom carrot yakitori with umeboshi and bottarga, at his ongoing and ever-roving pop-up.

They may be all over the map, but one thing most of these chefs have in common is that they're pushing the boundary of the traditional definition of yakitori, often into the realm of kushiyaki, or grilled skewers of any sort in Japan. "We've never actually done chicken on our yakitori menu," Kilgore says. "I try to get creative with it. The theme at Alter is to alter things." Stoneberger, who pops up with grills at various bars around Charleston, says, "We use [yakitori] as a verb for anything on a stick that we can grill over a fire." For him, that includes scrapple with egg fudge and hot sauce, which he says looks like a meat push pop and is inspired by yakitori meatballs, or tsukune.

No matter the final presentation, most of these chefs are using the same key tool to make their yakitori: a small, portable and affordable rectangular konro grill (often from NYC knife shop Korin) that starts at $150 and goes up to only $300, far less than most restaurant-grade grills. "Everyone uses one of these grills . . . from the guys at Virginia's to Per Se; it's become the new staple thing to have," Baxtrom explains. "That grill is meant for yakitori, but people are grilling whatever else they want" on it. For him and Nick Curtola of The Four Horsemen, it's the only grill they have in their kitchens, easily pulled out when it's needed and tucked away when it's not.

Photo: Tasting Table

But Curtola adding yakitori to the restaurant's offerings wasn't just about a way to use this grill, or the Sasso chickens he fell for from a butcher. It was also a way to cook nose-to-tail in a small kitchen. "We could never bring a pig in here," he says. But nodding to a tradition that uses and honors every tiny piece of a bird allows a chef to show that "you're a follower of a method of cooking," just on a small scale, he says.

As for Stoneberger, cooking yakitori also shows a reverence for the Japanese approach of dedicating intense focus to a single dish or method of cooking. "We're in a [moment] in the industry where we look to Japan for a lot of the rules," he explains. For Anderson, who spent seven years as a child living in Japan and has served dishes inspired by yakitori at Elements, yakitori is nostalgic, even if the final result is far from the tradition. That can mean grilled octopus from the collaboration dinner at Alter or a chicken roulade dish served with squash succotash with yakitori-style grilled chicken thigh mixed in. "[We've] almost transformed it into something different, but the principles are the same," he says.  

Some might say all this experimentation strays too far from tradition—a valid point in a moment when cooks and diners are struggling to find a comfortable spot on the spectrum between tradition and modernity when it comes to food, and particularly who has the right to experiment with it. But to others, these chefs are introducing a new set of diners to yakitori—and having a great time doing it. We hope they stick with it.

This month, we're taking you Beyond BBQ into the deep, dark, drool-worthy corners of the 'cue world, from Seoul to South Carolina. Smoke will get in your eyes (and your cocktail) as we explore the best pits, tips, roasts and rigs—you might even see a vegetable or two along the way.