Break Dancing Is The Secret To NYC's Newest Restaurant

Break Dancing Is The Secret To NYC's Newest Restaurant
Courtesy of The New York Times

I grew up listening to hip hop music - cooking yakitori felt natural to me. My body and mind are always in sync.

Chicken dancing is one of the most gauche things in the world. While it may not seem appropriate to use those words to describe exceptional fine dining, it is difficult to avoid when chickens and dancing are an integral part of the joy of dining at Kono, Atsushi Kono's 14-seat yakitori restaurant in Chinatown.

In his omakase menu, Kono cooks 20 birds per night from a farm in Pennsylvania sourced from a farm. During a recent dinner, he prepared a juicy chicken breast roulade with dashi jelly and a chicken liver and thigh pâté sandwiched between thin rice crackers with miso and black truffle.

A binchotan grill-as-altar anchors the restaurant as Kono transfers platters piled with 20+ chicken parts a few at a time to platters piled with chicken parts as the starters progress to skewers. It is at this point that Kono begins to salt, dunk, flip, squeeze, tap, flip, and fan.

As a child, Kono was raised in a seafood market and restaurant in the Saitama prefecture of Japan. He began helping out with the business when he was 11 or 12, but his true passion was dancing.

A Bronx-born break dancer and choreographer, he choreographed and danced in music videos, before joining Rock Steady Crew in 2002.

Courtesy of The New York Times

As a result, Kono moved to New York City three years later to pursue his dance dreams. Kono honed his second craft at Torishin and discovered that dance and rhythm were inseparable from his cooking at Torishin. He competed, performed, judged competitions, DJed, and also got a job at a restaurant like many young artists.

Kono also experimented and improvised within a tradition while breakingdancing. The lessons he learned at Kono carried over into the unorthodox yakitori & kaiseki cuisine, the chef's commitment to zero waste cooking, and the physicality of service at Kono.

As Kono seasons each skewer before it is placed on the grill, he bounces lightly on his feet, playing it like a xylophone, using skewers as mallets to bang it. Kono's eclectic playlist of jazz, funk, soul, R&B and rap syncs with all of his work, even if it isn't choreographed.

There are two sous chefs who help Kono prepare meals; one is a rock and roll musician and the other is a jiu jitsu master. It's not just dinner and a show, it's precision cooking by an in-house chef. In addition to keeping pace with diners, Kono says they also change their tempo to keep things moving smoothly while serving yakitori.

Watching them at the grill is like watching a movie: Which cut will they cook first? What will they cook?

Following the lacquered, bouncy, wasabi-laced chicken heart, you'll find custardy livers whose centers are so yielding they resemble ravioli. The chicken belly, which was delightfully chewy and fatty, followed by the chicken thighs topped with shishito peppers, which were juicier than Lizzo’s.

The cooks and Kono constantly touch, push and squeeze the skewers as they turn each skewer up to 50 times.

Using a primitive tool, Kono circulates smoke and controls the grill's temperature by constantly moving his paper fan. A lean breast meat, partially guarded by shiso and umeboshi, barely has a tan after cooking over high heat. It's accompanied by shiitake mushrooms, chicken skin-wrapped green onions, and chicken skin-wrapped green onions.

Courtesy of The New York Times

With waxing and waning textures, temperatures, fat contents, and caramelization, the meal is truly magical. A raw egg yolk, once burst with the pointy end of a skewer, becomes a sauce once Kono uses his tsukune, which combines minced duck and chicken. My first thought was a deeply burnished chicken wing, but it was actually a third foul: smoky, bone-in quail with smoky skin.

If you opt to add a few more esoteric skewers to your meal after those two rich skewers, dinner at Kono winds down. On the night I visited, there was chicken skin that was skewered in ribbons and grilled until it was a crunchy shell encasing molten fat. Kono features a rotation of chicken skins, including breast, neck, belly, and gizzard. I hadn't previously considered the subtleties of chicken skin. Chochin, an ovary that surrounds an unfertilized egg, still clinging to its fallopian tube and liver, is particularly popular among diners who like chewing on springy cartilage. 

The tasting ends with kono offering wagyu and king crab legs, even though he prefers chicken.

At Kono, the final course is brothy noodles and creme brulee topped with Okinawa black sugar. Together, these dishes are a pure comfort after one of New York's most exhilarating kitchen dances.

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