|“Sharing Japanese food culture to the world.” The series of interviews feature the vision of Pocket Concierge. We interview the chefs of the leading restaurants in Japan and introduce their thoughts on the restaurant and their way of thinking as a “top” chef.|
“Torishiki” Mr. Yoshiteru Ikegawa
The most unbookable yakitori restaurant “Torishiki”– opened in January 2007, received a Michelin star in 2010. The chicken, dressed by maestro himself and grilled very close to the strongly burning charcoal, are incredibly sophisticated and perfectly calculated. Willing to spread yakitori as a traditional Japanese culture to the world, Mr. Ikegawa talks about his thoughts and aspirations.
|Pick up topics|
|1.Gradual Awakening That Lead to the Next Stage
|2.The Ideal Yakitori Derived From Constant Passion to Improve|
|3.Creating Opportunities For the Future Artisans and Spreading the Culture to the World|
Gradual Awakening That Lead to the Next Stage
―――Please tell us how you decided to become a yakitori chef.
I grew up in Koiwa, Edogawa ward in Tokyo. It is near Katsushika and Shibamata, where it is referred to as “shitamachi”, old town with neighbors being generally friendly. There were many shops that have yakitoris to go, or yakitori bars. They have always been a handy snack for me to buy on the way home. Living with yakitori being so familiar, I started to respect it as I grew up and eventually I started to see myself making a living out of it.
―――When did you actually start working in this business?
When I was 27. I had the passion about starting my own yakitori business but I didn’t know where to start. My college friend happened to come from a family running a yakitori restaurant, and I sometimes went to help them in summer. I liked the job, but I didn’t know where to start the business on my own, and I also thought employment experience would be important. So after finishing college, I first took the job of sales person at a recruitment agency.
On my days off, I went to dine at over 100 yakitori restaurants, trying to figure out how I want to start my yakitori restaurant. I grew up watching casual and smoky yakitori shops of my neighborhood. On the other hand there are high-class yakitori restaurants like “Toriyoshi” of Nakameguro. There, yakitori is a completed “dish”, the customers sit in counter seats and the dishes are served just like the way it was done at good sushi restaurants. Such style was shockingly influential on me, and made me determined to work there. I had a limited experience working in the kitchen, only as a student part timer, so I felt the need to actually work at a restaurant in order to master the techniques.
―――So “Toriyoshi” was the best of all the 100 restaurants you tried?
Yes it was absolutely the best. I still clearly remember when I first dined there. Until then, I only knew the yakitori restaurants in my neighbors, so I used to regard them more like appetizers that come aside alcohols. You know, with a cigarette between your teeth, sipping drinks with yakitori that already gone cold. On the contrary, “Toriyoshi” is just like a sushi restaurant, people come to have proper dinner. Customers are even dressed up, men escorting women. Yakitori restaurants back then were more manly, they weren’t easy for women to step inside. So yakitori restaurant like “Toriyoshi” was very rare, you would see only a few of such restaurants even in Tokyo. The chefs working at “Toriyoshi” were also very different from the yakitori restaurant owners I knew.
They served great dishes, although I could not identify nor what exactly were making them so delicious. I was more attracted to the atmosphere of the restaurant itself and the mood the customers were creating. Enjoying the yakitori and their conversations.
――― Training in Japanese cuisine tend to be very long. Could you tell us how your training days were at “Toriyoshi”?
I must say I had considered yakitori restaurants too easily and optimistically. Back then, I simply thought I’ll just skewer some chicken, grill them and they’re done, so it shouldn’t take time to learn what they call the techniques. However, when I started at “Toriyoshi”, I was busy cleaning the restrooms or washing the dishes. These routine work were called “oimawashi”, meaning “chase-around”. I was not even allowed to touch the chicken meat for the first whole year.
After one year, I was given the position of skewering the chicken. Skewering is a very important process to grill the chicken to their best. They have to be grilled evenly, so for example the drumette must be cut into small pieces, and you would also need to consider the shape of the grilling stove and the charcoal.
――― How long did it take for you to get to the grilling training?
In my case, it was 4 and a half years. That’s pretty long, but I believe my master thought my philosophy was not ready for the grill. Skewering is not just a chore, but it is an important work to be mastered. Each yakitori is not just grilled in routine. Each dish has the best timing to be served to each customer. They are simple, but simple as they are, they have a lot to be considered. You need to keep the same level, and keep them constantly. Simple, but very demanding and exhausting. The routine chores I did during my “oimawashi” were the same “work” I had to master. And you have to understand that philosophy from your heart, otherwise you can not continuously serve the best grills. I now understand the importance of each of the “oimawashi” chores.
―――What would you say were most important lessons you learned from your master at “Toriyoshi”?
He has often said, “Do not be yourself, be honest to the ingredients and to the customers.” We cannot pursue our goals without our customers. We need to respond to what they are looking for. There are various customers, and likewise, each skewer of yakitori are different. I need to determine the best way to grill each skewer. There is no “me” in the process. I have to find out what I can do to grill the skewer to its best. I used to grill them in “my style”, but eversince I understood such philosophy, my technique has deepen.
The Ideal Yakitori Derived From Constant Passion to Improve
―――How did you decide to start your own restaurant?
I worked at “Toriyoshi” for almost 7 years, and by the end of my career there, I was the second chef after my master. When I started, I was determined to stay until my master tells me that I am ready to be on my own. My initial aim was to start my own restaurant. I started to be confident on my yakitori philosophy, and on my knowledge and experience of the ingredients. By then my customers naturally started to ask me if I was going to start a restaurant on my own. I started to think that starting my own restaurant would be the best way to show my gratitude towards the “Toriyoshi” customers. I started “Torishiki” 10 years ago, with a rather new style of yakitori.
―――What were the initial concepts of your restaurant?
I started “Torishiki” with my wife, and it had the family-run business atmosphere. The name “Torishiki” has connotations to the word “shiki”(“Tori” means chicken, “Shiki” is written in hiragana). Shiki or 四季 is four seasons. You don’t really feel the seasons in chicken, so I decorate the restaurant with flowers so the customers can feel the season. Another meaning for shiki is 士気, meaning self-esteem. I would like my customers to enjoy the atmosphere, rather than just the food. I am aiming to make the restaurant where customers are encouraged or cheered after dining.
As per the philosophy I inherited from my “Toriyoshi” master, the customers are the fundamentals. They are the main characters on stage, and I will always be the stage crew. Therefore, I do not want to interrupt them on their conversations. I serve the dishes as if I am just a breeze. My service may appear conservative, but we are a restaurant with a strong presence. I am hoping my customers to say, “that was a pleasant time we spent there.”
―――Your grilling technique is well known and praised. Is it what you learned at “Toriyoshi”?
The basic technique I of course learned at “Toriyoshi”, but I did study further and evolved it on my own. The heat is controlled by the height of charcoal. Temperature is higher near the heat. If you grill far from the heat, both moisture and flavor would be lost. So I grill quickly with close distance to strong heat. The charcoal, I use bincho-tan from Kishu(Wakayama). Bincho-tan is essential to keep the heat at high temperature, and that is crucial in grilling the yakitori at its best.
I serve about 30 skewer dishes. While keeping the strong heat, I cannot let the skewers burn. I control by turning the skewers, and adjusting the use of my fan. I also need to consider the ingredient features, its strength towards heat. For instance liver are soft, and I’d like to keep the soft texture, so I carefully grill with strong heat, but vegetables need to be grilled slowly with smaller heat. I need to determine how and where they should be grilled. I even change the skewers according to the ingredients. Angled skewers are for the meat, and for vegetables I use thin and rounded ones so I don’t damage the fiber.
Regarding chicken meat, important factor is whether it is flavorful after grilling. Before I start “Torishiki”, I tried grilling about 10 brands of chicken. Yakitori requires soft meat, but not too watery, and with suitable umami. Since yakitoris are grilled, the meat is inevitably hardened to some extent, resulting in less flavor. Not all of the famously branded chickens are suitable for yakitori. Grilling changes their flavor. My answer was “Date-dori” of Fukushima. There are many famous and popular chicken brands, but Date-dori still gives out flavor after grilling, so they are the appropriate chicken for yakitori.
Regarding the rare or precious parts of chicken, the parts that you can only obtain one piece per bird, I purchase them by parts. But other than that, I purchase the chickens by whole. I took the required license to dress chickens, which my master at “Toriyoshi” also had. Gutting chickens and studying them everyday, I come to know the health of each chicken. If it had been eating well and so.
―――What would you say are the factors of “delicious yakitori”?
That’s very difficult to answer in a few words. I would say it is balance. Just like people. When you meet someone for the first time, appearance speaks a lot. As for yakitori, appearance and the flavor have to balance out or you would feel it bland. In order to find it delicious, you need even more factors, such as smell, and the grilling technique. Additionally, I would say it must be something you would want to come back to. Even with people, there are those who you would want to meet again when you are reminded. It’s very similar to that. There are special yakitoris, tasty and liver with such rich flavor, the price may also be expensive, you are so satisfied, but you wouldn’t want to come back for the next 1 or 2 weeks. Those are for a special day. However, my idea of “good yakitori” is something you would want to come back to in 2 or 3 days.
I think “good yakitori” is something you would want to come back to in 2 or 3 days.
Creating Opportunities For the Future Artisans and Spreading the Culture to the World
―――Please tell us about your restaurant atmosphere.
I’d like my customers to enjoy yakitori with all of the 5 senses. So I try to incorporate the scent, the appearance, and the sound to make up the restaurant atmosphere. You may find the restaurant quiet, and some customers ask why I don’t play background music. However, I think be best sounds to hear while enjoying the yakitori are the sounds like hammering of charcoal cracking, fanning the fire, the crackling sound of the burning charcoal. Today it is difficult to actually hear and enjoy such natural sounds in daily life, and I think my restaurant is a rare place where you can have such experience.
I also burn incense for the similar reason. I use different incense per season. The moment you enter the restaurant and smell the incense, you are stepping into the extraordinary. It’s how I want my customers to be reminded of “Torishiki”. Of course the smell of charcoal would work the same way. Scent is a tool to remember something clearly. I would like my customers to naturally perceive the comfortable mood, rather than by sensationally announcing,
―――What do you think makes “Torishiki” different from other yakitori restaurants?
People may think that I grill special chicken, using special sauce or special salt, and with special technique. However that is not exactly what I am doing. Rather, I weigh more importance on the fundamentals of yakitori, and emphasize on the ability of consistently doing what we decided on. It is similar to martial arts. It takes time to learn the basics, but once you acquired the technique, that becomes your strength, wherever you go. Therefore, to my trainees at “Torishiki”, I concentrate on teaching them the fundamentals that become their backbone.
―――Has there been any changes to your philosophy in the 10 years of “Torishiki”?
For the 10 years, I have not proclaimed, but there is something I always had in my mind. I must say yakitori is one of the very traditional Japanese food culture. In comparison to sushi, soba, or tempura, yakitori is rather disdained, which, I must say, I myself used to regard similarly. It is not considered authentic, formal Japanese food, but regarded more like a spin-off. Nevertheless, while everything is so high-tech today, food like yakitori is rare, even primitive, using charcoal. It’s like how tank engines are subsisting and somewhat respected in this century. You don’t cook with charcoal in your home kitchen, so what I’m doing is almost the traditional culture itself.
Furthermore, there aren’t many craftsmen who can pass this on. I now come to believe I am in a responsible position to do so. There are many customers from overseas visiting “Torishiki”, and I am confident that it is because yakitori is something you can enjoy only in Japan.
―――We see you have been taking part in events overseas. What brought the changes, now that you started to have an international view?
Having looked outside Japan, I came to realize how our works are extraordinary and remarkable. Thus I began to have confidence to be proud of what I am doing. Although my initial dream was to own a yakitori restaurant, I now consider passing on the culture and introducing it overseas is what I need to do. Currently I annually organize a yakitori event in Japan, with about 15 influential yakitori restaurants. In regards to overseas, in July this year(2017), I took part in an event in Spain, in which the theme was to introduce the Japanese craftsmanship.
―――Lastly, please tell us about your future aspects.
When I started “Torishiki”, I was too busy just to run the restaurant and finishing the daily tasks. Now I began to consider what I can do, given my experience. It is like showing gratitude to my past environments. At “Torishiki”, I don’t let anyone else grill. So I started a new restaurant “Torikado” in January 2017 to give chances to the young craftsmen to train themselves, like martial arts dojo. It is my responsibility to let the young chefs finish their training and start their living with yakitori. I have to let them develop and promote their own yakitori with the philosophy of their own. As for myself, I am willing to be grilling yakitori throughout my life. Just like Mr. Jiro Ono of “Sukiyabashi Jiro”, who still makes sushi at the age of 90. I highly respect his style.
Also, Japanese need to spread out the beauty of craftsmanship more. I feel this by comparing to the cases overseas. The delicate and sensitive philosophy and techniques of Japanese deserve to be broadcasted more. The yakitori culture should be acknowledged further to the world, so that it becomes more popular, more people wanting to join the industry, and making people happy.
〈A word from the maestro〉
Yakitori is an extraordinary food. You don’t be tired of them, and they are something I don’t mind eating even everyday. They are healthy, and chicken is accepted in most religious diets. Such incredible food has not been focused enough, the reason being the insufficient publicity by us craftsmen. My next aim is to spread it to the world.
It is one authentic food of Japan, and a traditional culture. Those are the two distinctive sides of yakitori. It can be an entertainment content that you can enjoy the live performance of, similar to music. It is a culture we can export overseas. Just like how Japanese go to France to study the French cuisine, it can be something people from abroad would want to come master the technique. I’d like to help make that happen. Thank you very much.
〈Access to Torishiki〉
2 minutes walk from JR Meguro Station
|Address :||Kami-osaki 2-14-12, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo|
|Restaurant Hours :||18:00~23:00 (Entrance)|
|Closed :||Mondays and holidays|