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Stroll down H Street NE on Sunday evenings and your nose might trick you into believing you’re in a skinny alley in Tokyo where billows of smoke off charcoal grills create a heavenly haze. Chef Blake King is giving the District a first taste of the yakitori business he plans to grow into a brick-and-mortar restaurant with a pop-up on Toki Underground’s new patio. Tori Sumi may have just hatched, but the restaurant that means “chicken and charcoal” is years and many miles in the making.
Yakitori—grilled, skewered chicken bits seasoned with salt or slicked with tare—is an indispensable part of Japanese pub (izakaya) culture. What King prepares is not an Americanized take or an interpretation of what he learned to cook during multiple stints living and cooking in Japan.
He’s cognizant of the fact that important conversations about who gets to profit off whose cuisines and cultures are happening in the food space and pledges to collaborate with as many Japanese-owned businesses as possible, like Reiko Hirai’s DC Sake Cō.
“I trained under Japanese chefs that know way more than me and it’s my goal professionally to honor them,” he says. “I’m trying to share something I was lucky enough to learn. I didn’t discover it. That’s something a lot of chefs like to say, ‘I went to Japan and found yakitori.’”
While he’s doing Tori Sumi pop-ups and inching toward opening his first restaurant, King is working for restaurateur Aaron Silverman as the chef de cuisine for Rose’s At Home. He’s held jobs in D.C. kitchens since 2009, when he says he convinced then Chef Cedric Maupillier to give him a shot as a prep cook at Central Michel Richard. King put himself through college working front-of-house jobs like busser and bartender at restaurants, but had no culinary experience or formal training. From Central he went on to cook at Palena, and later, Le Diplomate as a sous chef and head butcher.
King tried his hand at cooking Japanese cuisine when he helped open Momotaro in Chicago in 2014. Soon he was hooked on the country’s culture of mastery. “Japanese cooking is a pursuit of perfection through simplicity,” he says. “You’re not hiding anything. You’re not covering up anything. Every decision, every move you make is in pursuit of making something better.”
He traveled to Japan in 2017 to apprentice in three restaurants—Narisawa in Tokyo, Kawatomi in Osaka, and Kikunoi in Kyoto. These are fine dining restaurants, some with multiple Michelin stars, not humble, rowdy restaurants serving yakitori. One skewer awakened a calling in King when he stumbled upon neighborhood izakaya Senta Honten with fellow Narisawa cooks. A long piece of chicken skin encasing a scallion and thigh meat was so crispy it shattered like glass.
“I remember eating that and having my mind completely blown,” King says. “This is why I came to Japan. I don’t understand it. It’s perfect. Why is it so good? I have to understand this food better.”
He befriended Senta’s owner, Mutsushige “Mutti” Tahara, and eventually apprenticed for him for two months. “No one else has had the biggest impact on my life in terms of food, knowledge, and friendship,” King says, describing Tahara as “a brilliant mad scientist.”
Back in the U.S., King knew he wanted to focus on yakitori and began plotting a longer stay in Japan to learn the language and hone his craft while simultaneously establishing his Tori Sumi brand. With the support of Tahara, King enrolled in a language school in Tokyo and eventually joined the team at Yakitori Imai in 2018.
“I realized I was losing a tremendous amount of information because I’d have these chefs showing me things and talking to me and there was no one who could really translate and apps don’t capture subtlety,” King says. “Oh my gosh these guys are teaching me the secrets and I can’t understand them. That has to change.”
King would wake up early and study, head to Yakitori Imai to prep skewers from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., dash to language school in the afternoon, rush back to the restaurant to work the dinner service, and then go home to study some more. Fortunately, owner Takashi Imai closed his restaurant on weekends. Friday nights after customers left, King and other young chefs were free to practice their yakitori skills on the grill with what chicken remained while drinking sake.
“The precision of the skewers was ridiculously detailed,” King recalls. “Certain ones I never mastered. I’d ask, ‘Is this good?’ And they’d say no and something vague about balance or foundation. It was maddening, but it was part of the game.”
After working at Yakitori Imai for about a year, King went back to Senta to cook for six months before returning to the U.S. in December 2020 to put his Tori Sumi plans in motion.
King envisions a restaurant with a communal feel that sells yakitori and other izakaya dishes a la carte with classic izakaya cocktails and ice cold beer. He hasn’t started looking for spaces yet as the opening is a ways away. King is still in search of business partners to help him manage the dining room and the books, as well as investors.
That said, he’s already formed one critical relationship he hopes has longevity. King been sourcing chickens from Black-owned Deep Roots Farm in Upper Marlboro. This year Ann “Farmer Gale” Sutton raised a heritage breed of broiler chickens.
“Next year we’re going to be looking at some different varieties of birds that will hopefully provide the physical requirements that [King’s] looking for and we’ll start those on the farm,” she says. Toki Underground also buys ingredients from Deep Roots Farm. That’s how Sutton and King connected. Sutton says she’s swiftly become a yakitori fan thanks to King.
You can find Tori Sumi popping up on Toki Underground’s new patio at 1244 H St. NE on Sundays from 5 to 9 p.m. King serves yakitori skewers like thigh, breast, tsukune (chicken meatball) for $5 each, plus a few more intriguing options like inner thigh (rosu) on a secret menu. Vegetable skewers are $4 each. Toki Underground has cocktails, beer, sake, and non-alcoholic beverages to pair and plans to winterize its patio so pop-ups can continue.
There’s one moment King is most looking forward to when the doors of his eventual restaurant open. He asked each of his teachers—Tahara from Senta and Imai from Yakitori Imai—to give him a pour of their tare. That’s the umami-laden finishing sauce for yakitori. On opening night he’ll combine their tares with his as an honorific form of thanks.
Tori Sumi, popping up at 1244 H St. NE on Sunday evenings, torisumiyakitori.com