Inspired by his childhood in Yamaguchi, Japan and his mother’s Japanese roots, Thompson has dedicated a large portion of his professional career to honoring one of his favorite forms of grilling, called yakiniku. Unlike using a gas grill hooked up to a propane tank for fuel, yakiniku calls for a small, usually countertop grill set up over a charcoal-burning flame, where foods like meat and vegetables get cooked to perfection.
Ahead, Thompson explains the form of art that is yakiniku grilling and shares some of the simplest ways to up your grilling game no matter the time of the year.
How is yakiniku different than other forms of over-the-fire cooking?
First, let’s delve into what exactly makes yakiniku grilling different from other forms of grilling. If you look at almost every global cuisine, you’ll find that it includes some form of over-the-fire cooking in its repertoire. (It makes sense, considering that fire + food = one of the most rudimentary and ancient cooking methods.) However, as cultures have adapted cooking over fire to meet their needs (and palates), you’ll find that the techniques, flavors, and what they call it varies from place to place.
For example, in Argentina, it’s an asado, where they usually have a wheel that allows the asadores (grill masters) to raise and lower the food onto the heat source (usually wood or coal). Meanwhile, in the United States, you’ll find various barbecuing techniques—Texas, Memphis, Kansas City, North Carolina, South Carolina, and so on—and folks using everything from smokers to pellet grills to gas grills (the list goes on) in their backyard setup.
All to say: What makes yakiniku different from all of the above—and Thompson’s all-time favorite way to grill—is the unique flavors this technique imparts. By relying on specific equipment (particularly Japanese charcoal and grill), cooking foods in close proximity to the heat source, and pairing it with Japanese flavors, marinades, and ingredients, in Thompson’s purview, yakiniku is like no other form of grilling.
TL;DR? Let’s skip to the good part: How we can replicate the flavors and techniques of this form of grilling from the comfort of our homes.
6 foolproof Japanese grilling techniques to try, according to a Michelin-starred chef
1. The charcoal used for grilling shouldn’t be an afterthought
If there’s one thing that Thompson would want you to take away from this is that the quality of the charcoal used matters—especially if the goal is tastier grilled veggies. “We use the real binchōtan Japanese charcoal, not briquettes, at Niku X and even when I’m grilling at home,” Thompson says. “Binchōtan charcoal is made from white oak wood that’s been hardened to create a charcoal that lasts a long time and gets very, very hot, like 1,600ºF to 1,700ºF, which allows us to get this nice char on the outside of what we’re cooking,” he says.
This type of charcoal is ideal for grilling just about anything, including anti-inflammatory-friendly fish and vegetables. “Once I discovered binchōtan, it became really hard to go back to a regular gas grill. It doesn’t give you the same flavor,” Thompson says.
If you want to give binchōtan charcoal a try for yourself, Thompson recommends purchasing them online from Mutual Trading Company, where they retail for $150 per 33 pounds. Plus, for the full experience, you can also invest in a konro Japanese-style grill that’s long and narrow and ideal for making yakiniku at home.
2. Marinades are your grilling BFF
According to Thompson, grilling and marinades go hand in hand. “Marinades work well with grilling. At the restaurant, we have different items that are marinated. For example, we have a tri-tip that’s marinated in an umeboshi—pickled plum—chimichurri. The sourness from the plum helps cut through the richness,” he says. He adds that pears, Dijon mustard, and oranges are great for making flavorful marinades, too.
3. Grill some of the vegetables that you’d typically roast for even more flavor
While you may be more accustomed to roasting your veggies in the oven, Thompson says grilling them (especially over charcoal) will make all the difference. “We work with a San Diego-based farm called Girl and Dug, where we source vegetables like squash and zucchini. When you put them on the charcoal, it helps bring out their sweetness even more,” Thompson says.
4. Resist the urge to slice into your food immediately off of the grill
Ask any grilling pro, and they’ll tell you it’s imperative to allow your food to rest right after it comes off the grill to prevent moisture loss. As food grills, it begins to constrict. But as time passes, and once it’s removed from the heat source, the food can relax and redistribute its juices again. As a rule of thumb, Thompson recommends waiting at least 10 minutes before digging in. That said, the larger the cut, the longer you’ll need to wait. (So, more like 20 minutes.)
5. Always, always, always check the temperature of your grill before grilling
Want a one-way ticket to accidentally ruining your food? Put it on the grill when it’s too hot (burn your food) or too cold (it’ll stick onto the grates). According to Thompson, it’s important to ensure your grill is at the appropriate temperature before getting started. If you’re working with a yakiniku-style grill, the built-in vents help control the airflow and, thus, the temperature of the charcoal.
According to Thompson, it’s important to ensure your grill is at the appropriate temperature before getting started.
Regardless of the grill that you’re using, Thompson recommends always conducting a quick temperature check. “Use something smaller first, instead of putting the whole thing on [all of the food], to test the temperature,” he says. This is especially important when cooking with water-dense vegetables, like zucchini. If you leave it on too long, it gets soggy. But if the temperature is just right, you’ll be able to achieve those restaurant-worthy grill marks while maintaining an al dente texture. And if it’s too hot and turns into a stuck-on disaster, you can always use an onion to help clean up the mess.
6. Finishing salts are better than over-seasoning your food
Especially if you’re just getting started with grilling, Thompson recommends seasoning the food a little bit beforehand but then relying on a high-quality finishing salt to seal the deal once it’s done cooking. “Go lighter than you normally would on the salt, and then add some high-quality finishing salt afterward so you’re not overdoing it with salt from the beginning and finding out after it’s cooked that it’s way too salty,” he says.
This is handy information since you can’t apply a chef’s cardinal rule of “tasting as you go” when it comes to grilling, amirite?