F&W’s editor, Dana Cowin, sets out to understand Japanese food traditions—but is soon impressed by how modern and trendsetting the cuisine really is.
At Yakitori Totto, on the second floor of a squat walk-up, my dining companion was French chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin. Eric loves this place. For the longest time, he would go anonymously and wait on line like everyone else. The idea of one of the greatest chefs in the world standing in a dark stairwell, patiently awaiting his turn to be seated, really tickled me. But it also confirmed that the food was worth learning more about.
We chose seats at the counter to get a look at the cute cooks methodically turning bamboo skewers on a flat grill. The skewers held a diverse set of chicken parts, including knees, skin, tail, cartilage (breast bone) and meatballs. In the past few years, chefs in America have followed this model by leaving their closed-door kitchens to cook out in the open, as these grillers were. But Yakitori Totto reminded me that the Japanese shortened the distance between cook and customer eons ago.
To make sure I got the full experience, Eric did all the ordering, including pretty much only pieces of the chicken that I’d never tried before. I admit it made me squeamish to eat chicken heart, but I barely chewed, swallowed quickly and tried not to think too hard.