Tony Chi places his cup of green tea on the aluminum grill and sprawls on a stool in the back of the restaurant. Adjusting his chef’s hat, he ties on his hachimaki, a traditional Japanese headband worn as a symbol of perseverance and hard work. He cranes his neck to scope out the two groups that just sat down at other hibachi grills. An elderly husband and wife sit at the first. Surrounding the second is a group of 30-something couples, the women flaunting blond highlights and low-cut dresses, the men gelled hair and starched sport shirts. Each of them orders a shot of whiskey or vodka.
Tony grins. “They’re going to get wild,” he whispers. “This table, it should be exciting.”
It is a rainy Saturday night in November 2008, and Tony is teaching me the art of scouting a hibachi party. Hibachi chefs like Tony don’t put on the same act for everybody. Rather, they size up the customers who sit before them and adjust their routines accordingly: families with doe-eyed children get balloon animals, older couples are treated to “sir” and “ma’am” flattery, and college kids drown in quarts of sake. Tony, who is 30 years old and has been cooking hibachi since before his voice dropped, prefers the third category. Long after those customers leave the restaurant, Tony remembers them. More importantly, they remember Tony.
As the head chef at Kumo, a Japanese steakhouse that opened in 2007 on Elm Street in New Haven, Tony won’t cook for either the elderly couple or the shot-slurping yuppies. His seniority among the restaurant’s three hibachi chefs means he gets to bide his time in the back of the restaurant, sipping his green tea until a third table is filled with hungry patrons.
I’ve had a longstanding affection for hibachi restaurants, and when I saw an ad for this place, I immediately dragged a group of friends here. We didn’t go for the food — in a hibachi restaurant, the meal is almost a distraction. The experience is all about entertainment. Sharp knives. Oil-drenched, sodium-laden food. Dangerous and uncontrolled inebriation. Fire. Crude humor. The risk of severe bodily injury.
Tony Chi wouldn’t have it any other way.
A few weeks before, I had watched Tony emerge from the kitchen, balancing a bowl of miso soup and a cup of green tea. It was 3:30 in the afternoon, and Kumo was empty. The lights above the hibachi grills were dark; aside from the smooth jazz piped in on the wall-mounted speakers, the place was still.
Tony, who is about 5’7” and has the build of someone who spends his job standing in place, extended a doughy hand. “So!” he said. “What do you want to know about hibachi?”
Pretty much everything, I told him, and he was pleased. Tony’s life is defined by hibachi. Where he works, what he eats, where he sleeps — all are the consequence of his grilling escapades. For the past 10 years, he has traveled the country, hopping
from state to state, restaurant to restaurant, hibachi grill to hibachi grill, honing his craft as he goes. The more places he works, he explained, the more tricks he can pick up. “I’m still learning,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a perfect hibachi chef.”
Tony spoke of his hibachi career as if he were a surgical resident describing his growing comfort in the operating room. To him, hibachi is a form of art. To me, on the other hand, it has always seemed a form of humiliation. After all, the job is founded on a demeaning stereotype. Hunching over a grill in a funny costume, making ethnic jokes, carving onions into volcanoes and piles of fried rice into beating hearts — how could someone do that, day in, day out, for his livelihood?
But Tony said he doesn’t mind the exaggerated pan-Asian accent he is asked to use, nor the sometimes-humiliating jokes he has to tell. Rather, it’s all part of the fun. And the fact he has to pretend to be Japanese (when he is actually Chinese) just comes with the territory. “Basically,” he said, “it’s a great career.”
Tony’s family immigrated to the United States from China when he was eight. His mother worked at a dress factory in Brooklyn; each night, when she got home from work, Tony helped her prepare dinner, washing vegetables and frying rice. He was good at this; other things, not so much. As Tony recalled it, he started elementary school without being able to speak a word of English. By middle school, he was in a special-education program. He still could not read or write, nor did he have the cool sneakers or clothes over which his old classmates obsessed. The only reason they didn’t pick on him, he said, was because all the “badass” kids — the ones who would fail classes not because they couldn’t read, but because they were troublemakers — were thrown in his special-ed program. They passed for friends.
But when he began high school, Tony still could barely read or write, and he was running out of patience. “The way I looked at school,” he recalled, “I just didn’t like it.” So one month into the ninth grade, he dropped out. For the next few years, he bounced around from odd job to odd job, working as, among other things, a package sorter, a waiter, a Chinese food delivery-man, and a busboy.
Tony saw himself as inferior, as a dimwit, as a man destined to live paycheck by paycheck, and not to enjoy doing it. “Sucks,” Tony said. “That’s not exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. You’re not going to get a nice house, a nice car, with those jobs.” His mother thought so, too, and about a decade ago, she drew the line. “She was fed up,” Tony said. “She said, ‘You got to get a good job.’”
Eventually, Tony saw a newspaper ad for a Japanese steakhouse in the Bronx that was hiring. He got a job working in the kitchen and started talking to the hibachi chefs. He realized how much money they made. He realized how fun their jobs sounded. “I’m kind of wild,” Tony explained. So is hibachi.
More importantly, from those evenings cooking rice in his family’s kitchen, Tony saw a shot at making it, poor test scores be damned. “The ad put it really nice, that you will have a great future, once you learn,” he said. “I felt like, ‘I got to do this, I got to learn this — that’s the only way I’m going to survive.’”
So Tony finagled his kitchen gig into a trial run as a hibachi chef, and the rest, as they say, was history.
Tony has bounced around the country over the past decade, manning hibachi grills in eight states — New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio. (He showed me the business cards to prove it.) Since May, he has worked here; he sleeps in a small New Haven apartment, along with other employees
of the restaurant, from Tuesday to Saturday, and then retreats home to Brooklyn on the weekend.
It’s a tough life, but Tony said hibachi has served him well. With tips, he can make $800 or $1,000 in a good week, more than enough to support his mother and still have money to stash away. One day, with his savings, Tony wants to open his own hibachi restaurant.
It’s 6:17 PM on Saturday, and a third group has lumbered into the restaurant. A motley crew of 18 assembles at the third of the restaurant’s four hibachi tables, crowding around both grills and filling every seat of the C-shaped table. The group is an odd assortment — a middle-aged couple, three 20-something couples, and 11 sweatshirt-wearing teenagers. One of the 20-somethings, a goateed hulk of a man in a black V-neck T-shirt, spots Tony and me in the back of the restaurant. “You coming over here?” he hollers. Tony nods. The man bursts into a toothy smile. “All right!”
Good news, Tony tells me. This is Ricky. He’s a regular.
As I wait near the edge of the dining room, Tony retreats to the kitchen to get his supply cart, which is stocked with everything a hibachi chef could ever need — butter, sesame seeds, soy sauce, vodka (which he pronounces, for effect, more like “wahd-ka”), and the rice and raw meat and fish that Ricky and his friends are in the process of ordering. A few minutes later, the curtain to the kitchen parts. Like a soldier headed into battle, Tony emerges, straightens his cap and strides toward the table. “There he is!” Ricky exclaims.
He and everyone else at the table are already drinking.
Tony flicks the switch on the fume hood above the grill and gets his cart in position. He’ll cook for half of the table; another chef will come out in a moment to cook for the other half. Yet I know this is not an ordinary dinner. A full table — an 18-person party — is enough to give even the most seasoned hibachi chef a few butterflies, Tony told me a few days earlier as we chatted during
his break between lunch and dinner. “All hibachi chefs, they will get a little bit nervous when they go up to the table. They’re expecting a show,” he said of the customers. “Everyone’s always expecting a show.”
First, though, it is time for business. Tony double-checks each person’s order and makes sure no one has problematic allergies. (The waitress is supposed to ask when she takes the order, but sometimes people don’t think to speak up. This is among the most frustrating things for a hibachi chef, since he must re-jigger the order in which he will cook the different elements of the meal. “Some customers are stupid,” Tony complained to me.) Then he cleans the grill, dousing it in oil and wiping hard, with his rag, in rapid linear strokes.
Tony puts the rag back in his cart and eyes Ricky. “You ready to get intoxicated?” he asks, lingering on that final word, flinging it at the customers in his exaggerated accent. Ricky beams. His girlfriend
— blond hair, highlights, obscenely low-cut tank top, ostensibly
fake breasts — nods approvingly. So, strangely, too, does the older couple, who I would find out are Ricky’s parents. (Hibachi is often a family affair.)
“Good,” Tony responds. He pulls a clear, condiment-type bottle from his cart. “Open your mouths!” he commands. It is sake time, which, for Tony, is an activity that can be characterized by the unadulterated glee of Christmas morning combined with the carefree recklessness of New Year’s Eve. From behind the grill, he shoots a stream of the liquid — a Japanese liquor made from fermented rice — across the table and, one by one, into the mouths of each of the nine diners. After the first two are doused in it, the rest realize they should use their napkin as a smock, of sorts, when under attack by Tony. Ricky is the strongest; he takes Tony’s fire for a full 10 seconds before succumbing and swallowing the sake.
I thought that would be the end of sake time. I was wrong.
Tony makes time, briefly, for a few standard tricks — flipping pieces of zucchini into customers’ mouths with his fork and spatula, igniting a big fireball as he prepares to cook — but his conclusion was that Ricky and his friends wanted to get wild, and, therefore, he should waste no time in helping them. “More sake, more happy,” he declares to anyone who will listen. Indeed, Tony squirts rounds of sake no fewer than six times over the next 45 minutes, pumping Ricky and his friends full of several quarts of the liquor. (That was nothing, he tells me later.)
At 7 PM, after finishing off the chicken and scallops and steak and shrimp laid out before him, Tony turns off his grill and grabs his cart. As quickly as he took the stage, now it’s time for him to go back to the kitchen and prepare to greet a new group. Ricky gazes at him earnestly. “Very nice, very nice,” he gushes. “Thank you, bro.”
As he pulls his cart out from the grill, Tony spots me on the side of the restaurant. He motions a thumbs-up and flashes a wide smile. The diminutive chef, returning from his conquest, looks larger than life.
The Japanese steakhouse is a distinctly American concept. What we’re really talking about here is not hibachi — the Japanese word for an old-fashioned charcoal heating device in the shape of a bowl — but rather teppanyaki, which comes from the Japanese words teppan (steel griddle) and yaki (broiled). But corporate branding has won out, and hibachi is what Tony and everyone else here calls this profession.
Hibachi never was supposed to become a mainstay for American families celebrating birthdays. In Japan, the restaurant chain Misono introduced the concept of grilling Western-style food on a teppan in 1945, hoping to provide an exotic and foreign dining option to native Japanese. But because the Western ingredients it employed did not jibe with the Japanese dietary system, Misono restaurants found themselves occupied more by foreign tourists than by Japanese people.
Naturally, then, the restaurant’s concept eventually migrated to American shores. In 1964, Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki, who died this past July, opened the first Benihana of Tokyo on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Within six months, the restaurant had lines out the door every night of the week, according to newspaper accounts at the time. “The steak, vegetables, and whatever are cooked at the tables,” The New York Times explained to its surely-confused readers,
“and its appeal seems universal.”
Today, Benihana is synonymous with hibachi. The chain has served over 100 million meals since 1964 and today operates 79 Japanese steakhouses. And there are hundreds more independent hibachi restaurants like Kumo. Three new hibachi restaurants have opened in this county alone in as many years. And as new locations have sprung up, older ones have begun to change their act, at least according to Tony. More sake, more tricks and stunts, more over-the-top antics — these are the demands of hibachi patrons today. “That’s what American people want,” he told me when we first sat down. The trick for any hibachi chef, Tony said, is balancingthe cooking with the entertainment.
Some restaurants prioritize one over the other; Tony said he tries to pay equal attentionto both. “To make it in this business, you have to be funny,” he said. “But why do people come here? Because, of course, they are hungry. They’re here to eat. The show and food go together. When hibachi chefs think the show is more important, that’s when they get messed up in life.”
Messed up, as in juggling knives — something Tony will not do — and accidentally flinging one into a customer’s eye. Or putting too much vodka on the grill and igniting an uncontrollable fire. “Some hibachi chefs get out of control, and you catch the customer’s hair on fire,” Tony said flatly. “It happens.”
But it must not happen too often, because the hibachi business is booming. One cost, it is clear, is authenticity. Not once, Tony said, has a customer called him out on what, from his appearance, is an obvious paradox: he is a Chinese chef at a Japanese steakhouse. “Japanese, Korean, Chinese — they can’t tell the difference,” Tony said. “They don’t really care if you’re Japanese or not. They just want more sake.”
That’s not to say hibachi chefs don’t get any grief. While Tony must entertain in the vein of a circus performer, the sake can sometimes
spur customers to treat him as one. Tony has heard his share of demeaning comments over the years, but he said they are simply a consequence of the job. “I just ignore it,” he said. “You just have to accept that. If you can’t take what people say to you, you can’t do hibachi.
Tony cooks for four tables’ worth of customers on this Saturday night, and his technique varies at each table. (He is very pleased that I pick up on this.) But he also has some recurring tendencies that I pick up on. For one, he is a deft zucchini-flipper. At his first table, Tony goes 6-for-7 in launching a tiny bit of vegetable (“wegetable”) across the table and into the mouths of his customers, and the one miss comes when a teenage boy purses his lips and lets the zucchini bounce right off his face. This upsets Tony; when someone fails to receive a good zucchini pitch, he hurls a whole handful of zucchini bits at him.
Like everything else in hibachi, there is an art to zucchini-flipping, an art Tony had told me he learned in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin or one of his many stops on the hibachi circuit. Really small bits of zucchini are more difficult to flip, he said. Ideally, you want a medium-sized piece, and you want to coat it in oil, so that it will have some heft and can more easily be shunted over the table. Who knew?
Tony, for one. To him, hibachi is both a talent and a science, a matter at once of stagecraft and of process. His day comprises two parts: the morning, when he hunches over a table in the kitchen and prepares all his food, and the evening, when he hunches over the hibachi tables and cooks. The first is decidedly less exciting — hours on end slicing steak and chicken, stripping meat out of lobster tails, chopping vegetables and peeling shrimp. In a 16-inch yellow plastic toolbox, Tony stores a knife for each of these tasks. For beef, his knife is extra sharp but not too long, so it can be wielded to carve out veins; for vegetables, it is extra-heavy, so as to require less force and ease the perpetual strain on his arm.
Tony has amassed his knife collection over the past decade, just as he has grown his repertoire of tricks. He has special tools for that part of the day, too. Hibachi chefs have an intimate relationship with the fork and spatula they use while performing; Tony has used his for about seven years, and only settled on them after testing utensils of a wide range of weights. (He prefers a middle-weight variety.)
And just as his tools stay constant, so does Tony’s general game-plan at each table: turn on the fan; clean the grill; light a big fire on it; cook the rice and noodles; cook the vegetables; cook the meat and fish; clean the table; and collect any tips. Along the way, depending on the size of the crowd and the amount of time he has before he must move on to the next table, he sprinkles in an assortment of tricks.
The exact routine, however, depends on the party. While Tony was a sake-spewing ball of energy with Ricky and his youngish group, at his next table, where he cooks for a 50-something marriedcouple sitting by their lonesome, Tony turns into a professional chef. He throws around “sir” and “ma’am.” He cooks very neatly, making sure no rice or vegetables bounce off the grill. And the sake stays in his cart.
Tony works two more tables, both filled with assortments of youngish couples and a few scattered older folks. His routine varies slightly. At one — as always feared — a patron says she forgot to tell the waitress about a shellfish allergy, so Tony has to retreat to the kitchen to rearrange the order. “Never fear, Tony is here,” he tells the party, smiling widely, ready to be the hero. (This is part of the artifice of hibachi. In reality, Tony told me later, he was livid. “You just have to put a smile on your face,” he said. “I pretend.”)
At his last table of the night sit a few 30-something guys and a group of college-aged girls. I know that Tony has a weak spot for young women. “I get a little bit nervous,” he confides. “I’m a guy, you know?” Indeed, he earlier had complained to me when another hibachi chef took a table of eight teenage girls, all blond and all showing various amounts of cleavage, a table for which Tony said he very much wanted to cook. This normally would be creepy, but with Tony — who addresses all young women as “pretty lady” — it is somehow endearing.
Meanwhile, Tony remains relentless in peddling his sake. “More sake, more happy,” he repeats. “Let’s get a little more intoxicated!”
“No sake, I’m driving,” one of the men argues.
“No!” Tony shoots back. “Sake!”
The man relents. When it is sake time, no one can deny Tony.
It’s 10:12 PM, and Tony is slouched at Kumo’s bar, his eyes fixed on the plasma television showing “Saturday Night Live.” “This is exhausting,” I tell him. I’ve been on my feet in the restaurant all night, standing sentry, watching him cook for all his tables. I feel like death.
He nods his head.
“I’m actually a little bit tired now,” he admits. He restates what he told me a few weeks earlier: cooking hibachi is not an old man’s game. “It’s like hell,” he says. “They’re like, ‘Oh, you must have so much fun!’ No, it’s not fun. It’s very hot. It’s hell in summertime.”
Tonight, at least, it’s cool, and as Tony sips on a bottle of Sapporo, I pepper him with questions about some of the tricks I observed. Most interestingly, I noticed that he had deployed a different variant of the onion volcano at three of his four tables. There was the traditional volcano, which billowed fire and then smoke; the nighttime volcano, for which Tony turned out the light above the grill and flicked sesame seeds into its billowing fire to create the illusion of sparks; and the erupting volcano, which overflowed with a mysterious “lava” when pushed onto the hot spot in the middle of the grill.
The lava is really soy sauce, Tony reveals. He doesn’t mind explaining all of this, because, he says, I have proven myself to him. In fact, I should consider working in hibachi. “Have you ever thought about it? Thought about doing hibachi?” he asks intently. He even shows me his tips to make a case. Twenty dollars from one table, ten dollars a piece from two others, fourteen from the fourth — not a bad day, he says, considering that that doesn’t even include the 15- to 20-percent most people leave when they charge their meal to a credit card.
Tony takes another swig of beer. He puts his hand on my shoulder.
“But it’s not the tips,” he says. “It’s about when they leave here, and they remember me. That’s a good feeling.”
With that, Tony puts down the beer, reaches overhead and takes off his chef’s hat, placing it on the bar. Gingerly, he unties his hachimaki. Picking up the hat, he stands from the barstool and turns to the kitchen, his posture slackened from the strain of a tiring shift.
As he walks away, ready to collect his things and head home, Tony has shrunken to mortal size. The show is over, and he is no longer the star.
But in the world of hibachi, there’s always tomorrow night