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Kirby: Flunking out in Benihana basics

By Robert Kirby

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Nov 27 2012 07:35 am • Last Updated Mar 06 2013 11:34 pm

Last week, Sonny and I watched a guy perform surgery on a shrimp. In three seconds it was given a face lift, a nose job and an appendectomy. Then it was tossed onto a grill with some butter and lemon.

The demonstration was part of our first lesson in Benihana’s "Be the Chef" program. Because we both flunked miserably, there won’t be a second.

At a glance

Benihana’s “Be a Chef”

Benihana sells gift packages starting at $140. For that price, a gift recipient receives one training session with a chef, commemorative gifts and a dinner for four. Visit http://www.benihana.com/bethechef for more information.

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Our poor performance should not reflect badly on Benihana, a premier Japanese teppanyaki restaurant with excellent food prepared in front of diners by a board-certified surgical ninja.

We met master chef Patrick Ly at the restaurant and suited up in aprons and chef hats. Because I never figured out how to configure the hat into anything other than a large scone, things didn’t bode well.

We counted our fingers before getting started. Taking inventory seemed the thing to do when playing with high speed cutlery and a grill the size of a hockey rink.

I asked Ly how he determined when the grill was hot enough to begin cooking. Answer: When it burns you or 450 degrees. Whichever comes first. The wisdom of the Ly, who’s been a chef at Benihana for 28 years, started off slowly by teaching us how to cook the simplest of Japanese recipes: chicken-fried rice.

As simple as it sounds, it’s still possible to screw it up if the cooking also requires a ballet of steel.

I do OK with a spatula at home. But flipping pancakes is nothing compared with knocking a raw egg around. With slight taps of the spatula, Ly managed to keep an egg airborne through his arms, over his head, up his back and onto the grill without breaking it.

When it was my turn, Ly handed me the spatula. I dropped the egg on the floor and broke it.

I didn’t feel too bad. It takes a long time to become good enough at whirling food around before being certified to perform in front of actual customers. According to Ly, anywhere from three to six months for a normal person.

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Unfailingly honest and polite, Ly said my age would work against me. When I asked if it was because the years had slowed my reflexes, he said it was more because I probably didn’t have enough years left to get it right.

Actually, you’ll see Benihana chefs toss a lot of different implements but never knives. Not only is knife juggling a bad idea in general, the restaurant’s insurance company forbids it.

That didn’t stop Ly from throwing everything else. He flipped, tossed, whirled and spun ingredients with a flash and a smile. Using wooden batons, he beat a rhythm on the grill that he said was a form of "Japanese rap."

With just the tip of his knife he tossed a shrimp behind his back and caught it in his hat. My shrimp went into the overhead heat vent and didn’t come back out.

A word about a teppanyaki chef’s knife. Despite what you may have heard, it is not razor sharp. No, the edge goes way beyond just sharp. Ly only had to show his knife to shrimp and they fell apart on their own.

But sharp isn’t everything. It takes practice to butterfly shrimp in the blink of an eye. Ly showed me how to do it. Several times. Didn’t matter. My shrimp still ended up looking like I butterflied them with a hammer.

The show is all part of individualizing the dining experience, which can include the ingredients. Benihana offers a gluten-free menu. Some customers even bring their own oil for cooking.

When the lesson was over and we had failed, Ly graciously offered us a chance at some extra credit. Here’s where we saved some major face.

As it turned out there is a part of the teppanyaki cooking process in which Sonny and I are naturally gifted: eating it.

Ly cooked us dinner. With chopsticks we shoveled in steak, shrimp, vegetables and eggs. When something is that delicious, you’ll find a way to eat it with anything that comes to hand.

On a dare and an invitation, we even tried sea urchin from the sushi bar. Other than finding out that I have the dexterity of cement, eating sea urchin was the only troubling part of our teppanyaki cooking lesson.

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