Dinner and a show: That has been the point at Benihana since its first restaurant opened in Our Year of the Beatles, 1964. But who knew that any John, Paul or Georgina could don an apron, step behind a griddle and throw down for a night? And that flipping shrimp tails into a heavy toque on your head while cooking Japanese teppanyaki-style for your pals could be such a rush?
I do, now. My official certificate is at the framer’s. The fact that I was photographed in action for this article is something I might never get over.
There are sharp knives to be twirled, ersatz salt and pepper mills to be tossed, sauces to be ladled and steak temperatures to keep track of, on the teppan, or wide steel griddle. It’s a sizzling good time, above and beyond the chefs’ flashy routine, which hasn’t changed much but never fails to earn applause.
The chain’s Be the Chef program began seven years ago, the result of big-think marketing along the lines of, “Gee, wouldn’t it be great to have husbands return the favor of cooking on Mother’s Day in a way that guarantees showboating?” Can you think of another restaurant that’s willing to allow folks 18 or older, after one hour’s instruction, to work a 500-degree griddle then serve what comes off it — to paying customers?
You need to check all food snobbery at the door. More than 100 million meals have been sliced and buttered at corporate and franchise Benihanas worldwide. The numbers might approach McDonald’s territory once you factor in all the copycat places that serve, in order, an onion-brothy soup, a ginger-dressed salad, filleted seafood, steamed or fried rice, soy-sauced vegetables and quickly grilled proteins.
Nudge a baby boomer and you’ll find a soft spot for Benihana. Then again, the same can be said of co-workers, conference-goers, first-daters and many, many families whose children demand a seat for birthday celebrations. Even at the Bethesda, Md., location — one of only two in the Washington area and a somewhat down-market setting when compared with the newest Benihana, set to open in the Mall of America next month — Saturday night means 500 covers.
That’s a lot of shrimp to devein. (More on that later.)
“Husbands did apply for the Be the Chef program at the start,” says Benihana’s corporate executive chef Toshiya “Tony” Nemoto. “Last week, I taught nine people from a company, as a team-building exercise.” Sounds better than paintball.
Nemoto, 54, flies under the radar in the celebrity chef universe. He comes across as an Iron Chef: confident, focused on the task at hand, no-nonsense. In fact, he counts original Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai among his friends; Sakai was named the restaurants’ culinary adviser in 2007. But Nemoto’s influence is undeniable. Since age 17 he has risen through Benihana’s ranks, helping to train the 880 corporate teppanyaki chefs and to improve cooking procedures. “Watch the next time you are sitting at a table,” he says. “Everything used to go on the grill together. Fried rice might have been cooked where raw seafood had been.
“The corporate guys have asked me, ‘Can you make Benihana food taste as good as it used to?’ That is my goal.”
The head chef is based in Blackwood, N.J., and spends most of his time on the road. The story of his life is one of immigrant success: Born in Yokohama, Japan, he left his mother, father and three siblings at age 11 for the chance to live in Hawaii with his aunt and study in America. “I wanted to grow up and be an 18-wheel-truck driver who would see the USA coast to coast,” Nemoto says. “I guess I’m seeing it now.”
He soon got an after-school job as a dishwasher, and he became a line cook within a year. By 14, he was put in charge of a noodle shop, and at 16, he was behind a teppanyaki grill. A year later, in 1977, he caught the eye of Benihana founder Rocky Aoki, who challenged him to cook a meal that was off the menu and followed it up with an invitation for Nemoto to join Benihana in New York.
Nemoto became executive chef in 2011. Some of his changes in the past year have involved quite a bit of retraining for experienced Benihana hands. Wire scrubbers are used for after-service cleaning of the Garland electric griddles, taking the place of steam; the latter tends to lift grease and deposit it on those near the heat. A little firecraft in the form of carefully ignited oil on the teppan might make it back into the regular routines.
“I heard some chefs . . . making grumbling noises,” says Sergio Tapia, 28, of Silver Spring, an 11-year veteran who’s one of 10 chefs at the Bethesda restaurant. “But we are getting good feedback from the guests.”
One change could include a restructuring of how chefs are compensated. Last September, a former Benihana chef in Miami sued the corporation, claiming wage violations. (Benihana pays its chefs a minimum wage, based on experience, plus a share of a tip pool.) Nemoto says he is encouraged by newly appointed company leadership and hopes any inequities will be resolved.
Meanwhile, Nemoto is proud of his step-by-step resource binder for the cooks and chefs. A pictorial poster hangs in each corporate restaurant kitchen to show which raw-ingredient combinations go on trays for specific dishes. The cooks and prep assistants who work solely behind swinging doors are responsible for handling takeout orders and, among other things, deveining in the neighborhood of 250 pounds of shrimp per week. One small, sharp knife, operated efficiently, can dispatch 25 to 30 peeled shrimp every 15 seconds or so.
My training session for Be the Chef didn’t teach any shrimp- deveining tricks, but there was plenty more to go through. It is one-on-one, during the break between Saturday’s lunch and dinner service. To keep things simple, the set entree is Splash ’n Meadow, a Benihana signature steak-and-shrimp combo. The chef instructor is patient as my spatula flips and lands everyplace other than where it should — in my hand. By the time we’re done, the table looks like some ill-mannered children had a food fight and left. (Mental note: Must tip the cleanup crew.) The chef lends me the smaller of two scary knives from his metal holster to practice cutting those proteins.
I come away feeling pessimistic about the show but fairly positive about cooking the dinner. The chef is particularly impressed with my execution of what they call the “onion volcano.”
One thought nags at me: The weekend training teaches you to make enough for just one dinner, while at service you’re cooking for four or eight, and that tends to induce performance anxiety. Spatula aerobatics and putting on a good show become the least of one’s worries.
“It’s not about speed,” Nemoto had warned prior to my training. He told me to watch temperatures and to remember to move the food to lower-heat portions of the griddle. The repositioning, albeit with a flourish, suddenly makes sense. The ever-darkening center of the surface runs 450 to 500 degrees. The adjacent perimeter is closer to 325, and the edge closest to guests averages 250 to 275 degrees.
When my big night arrives, Benihana servers take table orders, then small carts are filled and wheeled out just as the other chefs get underway. That’s when I step up — with my mentor standing by.
I’m able to pull off one maneuver: tossing up a whole egg and catching it on the edge of the spatula, so that yolk and white gradually hit the griddle. But I have done so in a high-heat area, so burnt edges quickly appear on the eggy bits for my fried rice. The colleagues I’ve invited are being way too supportive to mention it. They have agreed to refrain from live tweeting; that’s a lot to ask of modern journalists, who are quite tickled to refer to me as Bonniehana.
I shove the 1 / 2-inch-thick steaks away from the hottest territory, yet let them linger too long once I pull them back for dissection. The onion volcano whose construction seemed effortless during training — you have to stack the rings just so — collapses like a house of cards before I can squirt in the water that makes steam shoot out of the top.
A shrimp tail lands in my red hat on the third try. Yesss! But the required utensil choreography distracts me while I under- or over-season each component. Unlike a chef in the kitchen, I’m not tasting the food.
Chef Nemoto had told me that a well-prepared meal should require no more than 1 tablespoon of oil on the griddle; I waste twice that much drizzling it at the center, where it turns into eye- stinging smoke. I go intentionally light on the last-minute dollops of plain and garlic “butter.”
About those quote marks: I can believe it’s not butter, to co-opt a phrase, because it doesn’t melt that way. Turns out, the product is a zero-trans-fat, “European style whipped butter blend margarine” made with skim milk. Judiciously applied in concert with lemon juice, the stuff provides a noticeable, pleasant flavor.
With everybody fed, take-home cartons arrive along with scoops of ice cream. Bethesda head chef Cesare Jovel, my Saturday instructor and weeknight spotter, steps in to clean the griddle — but not before he presents me with a Master Teppanyaki Chef diploma.
“How’d I do, chef?” I expect a straight answer.
“Not bad,” he says. “But you should keep your day job.”
As he knows, I cook for that one, too.
Benihana’s Be the Chef basic program package costs $140, which includes a weekend-day one-on-one training session (the Splash ’n Meadow entree); a toque and apron; and dinner for four to be cooked during the week. It can be ordered online via www.benihana.com.