The seventh point on the waiver I had to sign was “Please do not throw or toss food into anyone’s mouth, plate, etc.” I felt cheated: This was the implicit promise of Benihana — Japanese Steakhouse and Place Where I Would Learn How to Flip a Shrimp Into My Friend’s Mouth. But I signed, and my apprenticeship began.
I can’t remember the first time I went to a teppanyaki steakhouse, but like many Americans, I have an obsession with this specific form of dinner theater: A chef expertly flips his spatulas (it’s always a man), tosses steak, and makes a flaming volcano out of stacked onion rounds before a willingly captive audience of diners seated around an impossibly hot slab of metal. When I was a child, it felt like the circus to me. In adulthood, with the addition of tiki drinks and sake bombs, it’s become a campy indulgence, its invitation always prefaced by an OMG wouldn’t it be fun? In that way, it’s also become a bellwether of camaraderie: If you think it wouldn’t be fun, or if you think you’re too good for the restaurant Tyrese has in his backyard, you’re not good enough for me.
I am fascinated with teppanyaki chefs in the same way I am with dancers and competitive eaters; using the body for both work and performance feels like the exact opposite of what I do as a writer, and while I am not going to drop my career and take up ballet, I long to know what it feels like to make movement and coordination the means by which you pay your bills. To go home at night having caught 50 shrimp tails in your hat, banged your spatula and fork in rhythm between each course, spun an egg around a hot griddle, and know it was a job well done.
Benihana lets you find out. For the low, low price of $300, you can sign up for its “Be the Chef” program, which provides an hour-long training session that prepares you to wow and amaze five guests, to whom you will then serve shrimp and steak and chicken fried rice with the background assistance of a professional. You should know that I have been asking my editors to do this for years, insisting that I could coax a good piece out of it. But really, I just wanted to know what it feels like to be behind the griddle.
I thought this would be fun, but as soon as I texted my friends the invitation, a gray dread settled over me. I would have an hour to learn not just how to make lunch for them, but also how to perform the making of it. It seems silly that it hadn’t occurred to me how much being watched might affect my experience, that shyness or embarrassment might be part of the package. I thought of my previous experiences at a Benihana table, watching the chef’s every precise movement, laughing and clapping at the conclusion of each successful trick, and having that loving but specific attention turned toward me. I’d asked for an opportunity to earn my friends’ praise. Now it was dawning on me that I might earn only their pity.
The first Benihana review made no mention of the tricks.
In May 1964, a month after Benihana opened in Midtown Manhattan at the same address where it stands today, the legendary restaurant critic Clementine Paddleford wrote in the New York Herald Tribune that there was “no other restaurant like [Benihana] this side of Japan.” In her review, she marveled at the size of the tables, which cost the restaurant $800 each. She mentioned the waitresses were dressed in “Japanese kimonos complete with obis” and praised the “delicately brown” shrimp served with sansho dipping sauce, the steak with peppers and onion, and sliced mushrooms tossed with a “haystack of bean sprouts.” The only hint of pizzazz was Paddleford’s note that “barbecued foods are portioned and pushed to the hot metal surface just in front of your plate.”
But performance — specifically for Americans — has been part of teppanyaki cooking since the beginning. Teppanyaki steakhouses originated in Japan during the last days of World War II. According to Misono, the restaurant that claims to be the world’s first teppanyaki restaurant, the existence of teppanyaki is symbiotic with the American military. After Misono opened in Kobe in 1945, says its website, it “quickly became very popular among dancers and officers of the occupation army because not only was it delicious, but also it was fun to watch the cooking process like a show.” It continued attracting tourists, who were as eager to watch this style of precision cooking as they were to eat Kobe beef.
Hiroki “Rocky” Aoki, Benihana’s founder, capitalized on this popularity. A former professional wrestler, he saved up money to open Benihana after working a Mister Softee truck in Harlem; as Logan Hill wrote in New York Magazine, he “struck gold with a Japanese gimmick as American as the fortune cookie.” By 1983, Benihana had 11 locations; in 1997, following an IPO, that number expanded to 47. The company says it currently owns “67 Japanese teppanyaki restaurants and franchises in the United States, Caribbean and Central and South America.”
Restaurateur Drew Nieporent argued that Aoki “was the first one who made it accessible for non-Japanese people to enjoy the Japanese experience” — by making it “fun.” Aoki accomplished this by positioning Benihana as both an authentic Japanese experience and a place where the primary goal was wowing Americans with novelty. One ad from the 1970s sold Benihana’s authenticity by telling the story of a man who is shamed for trying to order sukiyaki (apparently the equivalent of a basic chop suey order at a Chinese restaurant) but then learns of the “popular form of Japanese cooking” that is “hibachi” and is better for it. Another ad compared the chefs with leads in Broadway shows, saying they must have “the precision of a juggler. The grace of a sleight of hand artist. The flash of a flamenco dancer.” If Benihana was showing Americans real Japanese culture, then many customers immediately associated that culture with an over-the-top mission to entertain and please.
In 1978, Palestinian American scholar Edward Said defined the term “Orientalism” to describe the particular depictions and expectations Europeans and Americans held of “the East.” “The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences,” he wrote. The concept of Orientalism defines the West and the East as diametrically opposed, the latter the subject of the former’s fascination and subjugation. Orientalism, Said wrote, is “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”
“You have these stereotypes about what is Eastern, what is Asian, and there’s this expectation that every encounter you’re going to have with things that are so-called Asian is going to somehow match this picture,” says Dr. Nicolyn Woodcock, the assistant director of the Asian and Native American Center of Wright State University. Those assumptions could be of subservient women, children who are good at math, or dumplings that are so good and authentic because they come from a cheap hole-in-the-wall. “It’s just this very narrow idea of what Asia constitutes and this expectation that every time you encounter a person who is Asian, they will be able to perform that.”
The early 1960s were a ripe time for those expectations and stereotypes to flourish in America. As Mark Padoongpatt writes in Oriental Cookery, Asian cookbooks and restaurants became very popular in the postwar period in America, as many military officers and their wives returned from occupied Japan and Korea with a newfound taste for what they ate. Or, at least, what their servants cooked for them.
“White American women became enchanted with Asian and Pacific food culture in large part because they enjoyed the services provided by local natives,” Padoongpatt says. This was catalyzed by Orientalist assumptions that they were owed this treatment by Asians, especially in a hospitality setting, but also that this all came somewhat naturally for a Benihana chef — the precision, the flair, the performed gratitude for being able to cook for such a kind audience.
Benihana made Japanese food “accessible” to Americans by appealing to their assumption of difference. Many immigrants at the time sought the twin goals of acceptance and assimilation — or, really, believed the latter would lead to the former. But there is no such thing as assimilating when you’re performing an Orientalist assumption of Asian-ness. Teppanyaki cooking, both in Japan and in America, thrived because it gave the largely white audience what it wanted. There’s no telling what it would have looked like without that influence.
I think about the toll of that kind of performance and the burden of framing your culture primarily as “fun.” The menu that has barely strayed from steak and shrimp and fried rice. Spending all night slicing and dicing and flipping to applause, then reemerging into a world that values you only for your ability to conform to its preconceptions. Perhaps you think of yourself mainly in terms of how well you live up to others’ expectations, even if you never agreed to them, and fret about performing that role. Perhaps there’s barely room to think of what else you could — or want to — offer. Anyway, there is no show good enough to earn you acceptance. But still, you hope.
Rupak, the chef who was running my private training, seemed to have a confidence in me that felt unearned. In the days leading up to the training, I was a wreck.
I must have emailed the restaurant a dozen times asking for confirmation on every detail: Could I have five guests or six? How long is the training again? Do I need to wear slip-resistant shoes? What time should I tell everyone to be there? Do I have to make eye contact while I cook? Do I have to smile? Can you please confirm all these details yet again so I don’t station myself behind a griddle and completely embarrass myself in front of the staff? And yet, within a minute of rolling the food cart into our private room, Rupak pressed a knife into my sweaty palms and was adjusting my toque, ensuring that there was an ample pocket for all the shrimp tails I would flip in there. Meanwhile, I eyed the array of tools on his cart, second-guessing whether I’d developed a shellfish allergy since registration.
I had assumed there would be some preamble I had to sit through, but there was none. No explanation about the history of teppanyaki cooking or the legacy of Benihana or even what we were about to make. Rupak just banged a spatula on the griddle, flipped it and caught it, and asked me to do the same. It took me three tries, but I did it, slowly, and refused to try with the knife even after he demonstrated it could be done.
And then, we cooked.
We started with small shrimp. Rupak showed me how to position the meat fork and knife so I could cut through the tails directly on the griddle. As we moved the shrimp to a cooler spot, he told me it was time to try flipping the tails. I asked how to do it. “Just do it,” he said. There was no trick; you just threw them up and aimed the best you could. I sank two out of three into my hat, grateful that I still had some muscle memory from that one Klutz juggling book that seemed compulsory in the ’90s. I felt, for a brief moment, cocky, or at least that I had bought my way into a secret. Of course, it was easier than it looked. Benihana is a national chain: How else could so many people do it?
Soon there was no room for worry. I existed only as a vessel to enact Rupak’s instructions. Put the garlic butter here. Beat the eggs with the fork. Scoop and spread the rice. Push the mushrooms into the garlic butter, then bring them back to the center. Use the fork to separate the rings of the onion and stack them on top of one another, then squirt vodka in the middle and light the whole thing up. Flip the shrimp. Season the steak.
It was hot. The smoke and onions made my eyes water, and a blister was growing on my knuckle from when I accidentally touched the griddle, but there was no time to react. My hands were not my hands but the tools needed to carve the fried rice into the shape of a heart, then slip a spatula underneath one of the chambers and tap on it to make it “beat.”
Only twice in my life have I experienced the detached consciousness instructors have always told me is possible in asana-based yoga, where I existed solely in that moment and was aware of nothing but how my body moved. As I sat eating the test meal I had just prepared for myself, I realized that I had experienced it a third time — while making an onion volcano. I had entered some sort of hibachi flow state. Despite it all being preparation for a performance, for a few minutes I did not think of how I looked or whether I was doing things correctly, only that I was doing. I was allowed to experience something with no expectation of what happened next. My thoughts trickled back in, but I felt calm. There could have been 50 people in the room and I wouldn’t have noticed, I thought.
My friends began showing up, giddy at what was about to come because this whole thing remained profoundly silly. They filed in around the griddle, ordered cocktails, and peppered me with questions: Did I get to keep the hat? Was I really supposed to use the knife directly on the metal griddle? Was I any good?
Perhaps my face froze at that last one, as it was immediately followed by assurances that this would be great no matter what. But of course that’s a lie — it’s more fun when someone knows what they’re doing.
Initially I thought cooking for my friends at Benihana would feel much like cooking for them in my home. I’m no stranger to standing in the kitchen, stirring a pot of murgh masala on the stove, or accepting compliments on a dessert pulled from the oven. This is an easy transaction: I cook for you and you thank me for it. My relationship to attention has often felt paradoxical, ricocheting between being generally desperate for praise and wanting to crawl into my own skeleton whenever anyone offers it. This is not a particularly unique affliction — the mortifying ordeal of being known and all — but cooking for someone at least makes me feel like I have earned whatever I’m given.
At Benihana, the gift is not the food but the performance, like you must be so grateful to even watch me try to build a volcano out of onions. The ask is not that of a dinner party — please show up and you’ll be rewarded with a meal — but that you will cheer me on at something I’ve practiced for only an hour. And while I did not bear the weight of representing Japanese culture, real or imagined, on my shoulders, I did feel like I had a tradition to live up to, lest I make a mockery out of all of it.
I banged a commencing spatula on the griddle to much applause. I thought back to my flow state. I had done just fine. Please, I thought, let me earn this.
Then Rupak returned, this time with a much larger cart full of significantly more food. Whereas alone I had to cook four shrimp, now I had to cook 24, along with six steaks and a pile of fried rice the size of my torso. It dawned on me that my training had been basically useless. Yes, I could flip a shrimp tail. But that wouldn’t be enough if lunch sucked.
I squirted some oil on the griddle and was off, with Rupak tossing me ingredients and gently reminding me what I had to do. My friends oohed and aahed at the sizzling butter and how sharp the knife had to be to slice onions with no resistance. I successfully executed a couple of tricks, flipping shrimp tails and creating the onion volcano with relative ease. But I felt rushed and anxious. The flow state never came; whereas before I had only myself and the task to think about, now I was aware of my friends’ every reaction and noise, their conversations that I wanted to join, the looks on their faces as they laughed at their overly sweet drinks.
During our training, Rupak told me he had been doing this for 23 years and still got nervous. Sometimes he messed up tricks, but as he told me, you could only keep going. So I tried. I tried to corral the staggeringly large amount of rice, which always seemed to want to ooze elsewhere. I molded it into a sloppy, angular heart. But all my determination couldn’t make up for the fact that I was not fast or skilled enough. I was not doing it right. More and more Rupak jumped in, kindly but with authority, like I was a child about to make a fool of myself. He organized the rice and seared the chicken I forgot about and sliced four steaks while I was still trying to make it work with one, and soon my friends’ awed reactions were directed at him.
Of course they were! It’s not like I expected anything different. Of course the professional was better than someone who had practiced for an hour. But still, shame rushed through me: I felt like I had failed. I had asked my friends to watch me perform. Now it felt like all they saw was me, in a big hat and an apron with sweat stinging my eyes, standing around while someone else accomplished what I was supposed to. If the promise was a performance, I had broken it.
Here’s what I make of that reaction: My embarrassment had happened before they even showed up; it lay in the ask itself. I want to be noticed, but I do not want my presence to affect anyone else. I want praise without the specificity of a person taking time out of their day to offer it. I want love without the knowledge that someone has made room in their heart for me, considered me, rearranged even a moment of their life in my direction. I am bone-deep humiliated by wanting and even more so by getting the thing I want. Because to acknowledge that someone in my life may care about me not for something I did for them but for the pure fact of myself… I actually don’t know what that would mean. We haven’t gotten there in therapy yet. But I do know this embarrassment felt familiar.
I spent a long time lightly resenting my heritage. It wasn’t because I was bullied, or felt like I was caught between two cultures, but because most people I met seemed to think my heritage was the most interesting thing about me.
So then, a performance. Pretending sometimes I knew more about “my culture” than I actually did. Pretending certain practices came naturally to me when they didn’t. Not knowing how to speak about myself without putting that part of myself in a spotlight, to confirm what others thought should be true. We can be honest that this was Orientalism at play, and it made me wary of myself. It wasn’t solely responsible for my anxieties — no one thing is — but in many ways I’m never quite sure what someone wants out of me, if it’s something I can do for them or some idea that I never asked to live up to. Either way, it has to be something. The humiliation of wanting to be loved for myself comes from my assumption that that kind of love could never exist.
Maybe I love Benihana so much because it feels like it exists in this limbo: Japan and the military and Orientalism are foundational to its existence. But even though the thousands of people who still get a glimmer of a thrill from being served with a flourish by an Asian chef may never interrogate their Orientalist instincts, I also don’t know anyone who considers Benihana an authentic representation of Japanese culture. The servers aren’t in kimonos, and the chefs are just as likely to not be Japanese. Benihana felt like it yearned, as much as a restaurant can yearn, to just exist.
But after half a century, perhaps Benihana no longer has to hold the weight of Japan for the American public. Like any second-generation American, it has made something else of its heritage. And while people still bring their own expectations to the experience, Benihana has asserted its own point of view enough that it can just be itself, and people will show up all the same. The dream.
After the last bits of steak were served and the griddle was wiped clean of oil, after Rupak bowed and left the room, my friends continued their applause for me. I was still shaking from the performance, but as I sat down and removed my hat, three shrimp tails fell to the floor. Here, I thought, was proof that I had partially succeeded in meeting their expectations. I had given them something they wanted. But some part of me knew, just a little bit, they would be there if I hadn’t landed a single trick because they expected nothing of me but myself. I tried to hold on to that as long as I could.
Christian Rodriguez is a photographer and artist based in NYC. His personal work is most interested in themes of the Dominican diaspora.