2/21/2013 04:04:00 PM

Get Schooled: My Day as a Benihana Chef

The author tries his hand at the grill, and tries not to burn it off; photos: Graig Klein
While drumming a metal spatula against a hibachi griddle, Romeo Cabala pushes a strip of grilled zucchini behind a steaming mound of sliced onion and yells, “Choo choo!”

The onion-zuke train has just left the station and Benihana training has only just begun.

The most important thing a new teppanyaki chef has to learn is that, despite all the metal clanging and tricks, what diners want is food that is well-seasoned and neither burned nor raw.

“It’s all about timing for me,” says Cabala, a 10-year Benihana veteran, during a recent demonstration of the chain’s Be the Chef package. The $140 deal includes a training session for one with a “Master Teppanyaki Chef” and the chance to try your hand at cooking a meal for up to three others. Most importantly: the Benihana chef hat, apron and “Be the Chef” diploma are included.

Leaning over the 500 degree grill, the faint but constant drift of safflower oil smoke drying his eyes out, a Benihana chef has just a few minutes to get everything cooked - including vegetables, shrimp appetizers, fried rice, chicken and steak - while entertaining kids, making sure no diners’ hands are absentmindedly inching towards the grill and throwing a few tricks in for good measure.

It’s a hard job, too hard to learn in one day. At Benihana’s Midtown location, they cut off would-be teppanyaki failures before they can burn everyone’s food. In his seven years working at the midtown location, general manager Dhyan Chang has only seen one person make it all the way through a service.

“She was a regular,” Chang says. “She was someone who came in every week to eat and she just knew everything. I think it meant a lot to her.”

Cooking at Benihana means mastering the rare combination of food preparation and entertainment. Cabala says he’s been doing it for over a decade, and his jokes fly with precision that’s almost as practiced as his knife skills.

“The first thing we have to teach you is how to clean the grill,” he says stoically.

He demonstrates an entire meal for me and then it’s my turn put on the white apron and red hat. The first thing I do is throw some onions and zucchini on the hibachi…and Cabala and Chang are already laughing at me.

“You just did that with your bare hands,” Chang said. I’ve barely even started and I’m already breaking sanitation rules and risking serious burns.

It’s time for the onion volcano. When Cabala demonstrated, it took maybe three seconds to stack the rings of onion and get the train moving. Clamping each piece between spatula and fork, by the time I’m done, the bottom onion is caramelized and my volcano is collapsing like Mount St. Helens. The stack barely survives long enough for me to muster a weak “Choo! Choo!” as I push it out of sight.

Next, the chicken goes on the griddle, followed by chopped veggies and white rice and then...theatrics! As I spin an egg dreidel-style across the griddle (a trick Cabala tells me is called “Japaese Egg Roll”) I think, “I got this, ain’t nothin’ to it.”

Deftly (at least to me), I snag the spinning egg with the spatula and toss it in the air. I’m supposed to catch it in a bowl, but the egg is heading to a nasty ending in the left field seats when Cabala makes a web gem for the ages.

They keep a tighter leash on me after that. In a restaurant that serves a few hundred customers a night, the last thing they need is some idiot throwing yolks willy-nilly.

The eggs are scrambled and mixed in with the rice and veggies, then it’s all seasoned and tossed with “Japanese Coke.” That’s what Cabala calls soy sauce.

Then, as per Benihana tradition, the rice is molded into the shape of a heart and portioned out into small bowls. But even that, the serving of rice, can be perilous. The rice gets scooped up straight from the griddle and if even one grain misses the bowl, it can mean searing pain.

“Once it’s sitting on your finger, ohhhh,” Cabala says, grimacing. “It happens a lot, but I have stay with my hand there. Most of the time the customers don’t know.”

Next comes the steak and mushrooms, these need just a few minutes, but they’re timed to finish at the with the chicken. It sounds simple enough but it can get complicated when cooking for and entertaining eight diners, which Cabala does five or six times a night.

It’s a feat of culinary organization, and Benihana’s chefs train for at least three months before they’re allowed to work an eight-person table. Based on my first day’s performance, I think I’d need more time than that.

Still, I’ve completed “Be the Chef” without losing a finger, and for that I get the official certificate. It says I’ve trained with a master, “performed the ancient art of Teppanyaki, and shall hereby be called MASTER TEPPANYAKI CHEF.”

That said, I'm not sure you'd want me to re-create the experience at your dinner table.


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