It seems that everyone has had this same experience: going to a hibachi restaurant for the first time. It might seem a bit unusual at first, being led to a table that fits two families or three couples, and this cafeteria-style dining is not something everyone is familiar with. And then, the server comes and asks for drink orders and dinner orders, from which you order off a menu that ranges in options - each of which is soon to be cooked on the flat top grill in front of you.
When the chef comes out shortly after, they're ready to rock and roll and always have an attitude that's upbeat and energetic. Of course, it's not necessary - but it certainly adds to the excitement of what's about to happen. The grill is ripping and ready to go and before you know it, you're watching the chef in front of you bounce eggs into their front pocket, flip spatulas, and create onion ring volcanoes. There might even be a veggie or two to catch in your mouth along with a long stream of sake that could pass for a sake-style beer funnel... without the funnel. The question everyone wants to know is this: how does a chef train for such a theatrical and fun cooking experience?
The Artful Cooking Technique Known As Teppanyaki
There is a difference between hibachi and teppanyaki and while teppanyaki restaurants are called hibachi in the U.S., it's actually teppanyaki-style cooking that's taking place in them. Hibachi is translated to 'fire bowl' while teppanyaki means 'iron plate' and 'grill,' which references the flat top grill on which food is cooked. The differences don't end there, either - a hibachi grill is more of a classic grill with a grated design. A teppanyaki grill features a flat top and is usually powered by propane, which allows chefs to cook noodles and rice in addition to large cuts of protein (which are split up among diners).
Teppanyaki cooking originated in Japan during the 1940s and, surprisingly, was not all that popular. Therefore, the art was brought over to America where it caught on like wildfire - the restaurant Benihana was one of the first to fully embrace the cooking style, creating restaurants specifically for it. These restaurants are still open to this day although there are now many hibachi-style restaurants where diners can experience the fine culinary art of teppanyaki.
Where Does A Teppanyaki Chef Train?
To start, teppanyaki chefs must have a culinary background as they need to know how to cook just as well as they can spin a spatula in the air. They must first be comfortable with tools such as knife sets, bench scrapers, large spatulas, chopsticks, and various sauce bottles, as well as a whetstone for sharpening everything since much of what they do is so fast-paced and a dull blade has no place in culinary arts.
Once a chef is comfortable with this, they attend culinary school or learn from professional, experienced teppanyaki chefs who have had a long history in the field. Teppanyaki is a culinary branch like any other, only one that's more physically demanding and theatrical. Contrary to what some people might think, there aren't many teppanyaki-specific culinary courses out there so on-the-job training is the way that most chefs learn teppanyaki. When they've trained long enough to master the skill, a chef can then apply to work in a hibachi restaurant.
What Do They Learn And How Long Does It Take?
It can take years for a chef to master the art of teppanyaki and that wouldn't at all be unusual. Just like any other craft, the art of teppanyaki takes time and patience, a positive attitude, the ability to spend up to ten hours standing on your feet, high dexterity, and an outgoing persona. Some of the things that teppanyaki chefs will learn how to do is juggling utensils and sometimes even knives, as well as how to throw food so that it has the best chance of landing its intended target.
Tossing food such as rice and protein in the air and catching it, along with knowing how to move it on a grill and cut it once it's done, are also techniques that must be learned. And, finally, knowing how to toss eggs, crack them in unique ways, and catch them in unique ways are also part of the teppanyaki process. Learning how to plate food and present it with flair and in an organized manner is also important to the overall experience. So, next time you're at a hibachi restaurant, don't forget to thank your chef - it likely took them years to learn how to put on such a show!