Walking into Benihana before it opened, when it was just a bustling place of preparation and practice, was — excuse my enthusiasm — a little bit magical.
The charm of Benihana has never faded for my family. We're the table full of people laughing and clapping at the whole bit, even if it is the 30th time we've had shrimp tails flipped at us. So, the opportunity to be a Benihana chef, even if just for an hour and a half, felt to me a little like sneaking into Disneyland after the park had closed.
One day, as a student in Benihana's "Be the Chef" program, I learned to make a full "splash and meadow" dinner, which included chicken fried rice, a shrimp appetizer, shrimp, steak and an assortment of grilled vegetables. I also learned some of the showmanship tricks, such as how to flip shrimp tails and build onion volcanoes.
The entire time I'm sure I looked like a little girl, playing dress-up in a chef's hat and apron, clapping my hands and giggling as Ramon Montelongo, my personal chef trainer who has five years of cooking under his belt, taught me the tricks of his trade. Both Montelongo and the manager of Benihana Salt Lake, TJ Chagzoetsang, were friendly, encouraging and sincere about the restaurant for which they work.
Montelongo told me that chefs bow to the guests at their table as a way of "showing respect." Because the guests are important. Because they are what makes his job most exciting.
"If we are doing good or not doing a good job, you can tell," he said. "They (the guests) motivate you to do your best job. It helps when the customers try to enjoy it, then they have fun and we have fun.
The restaurant is offering a gift package for this Father's Day that includes a tutorial, like the one I attended, and an opportunity to cook a Benihana-style meal for four guests of your own choosing.
When it comes to the food itself, cooking takes on a more basic and organic form at Benihana, where everything is cooked on large, flat, heated tables and made with simple ingredients such as salt, pepper, butter and lemon that go a long way to create clean flavors.
One Benihana favorite, Hibachi Chicken Rice, is included in the tutorial, because, according to Chagzoetsang, it is an oft-ordered side dish and something of an Asian meal staple.
"It's like French fries with a burger," he said. "With a good burger, you have to have fries."
This rice is made by mixing and grilling chopped onions, carrots and green onions, then grilling chicken seasoned with butter, salt and pepper and mixing it into rice along with cooked egg, soy sauce and sesame seeds. Take it from someone who knows, though, the mixing looks easier than it is.
Montelongo demonstrated that safflower oil and salt often make the base on the griddle, safflower being the oil of choice because, according to him, it has "no cholesterol or trans fats." I also learned that garlic butter is the "secret ingredient" that adds a kick flavor to the simple meats.
I practiced slicing the tails off shrimp in one deft motion and then splitting the tops to butterfly them. But when it came to the complicated skill of flipping them into the chef's hat, I couldn't quite master the "flick of the wrist" that came so easily to Montelongo.
More embarrassing than that attempt, though, was when Montelongo talked me through building the onion volcano and then said that to make it erupt, you fill it with "volcano sauce." The conversation continued something like this: Me: "What's volcano sauce?!" Montelongo: "Water." Me: "Oh. Right. Obviously."
The class, overall, was a mix of instruction and hands-on training, and on the whole, Montelongo said I did a good job. He said that being willing to try things is half the battle, even if I did spill the entire rice bowl in my hand while trying to flip it and made a mess of the salt and pepper shaker rhythms.
I don't know what was more fun, trying my hand at all the tricks or handling the ingredients and tools to make a meal I had often enjoyed but never created. It was a rare opportunity to stand on the other side of the table and see the skill and humor it takes to cook on the spot the way these chefs do day after day. It really was like learning the secrets behind the magic, and I know I'd love to see my own dad try to build that onion volcano.
The Be a Chef Package is $140 for four. Additional guests are $35, or a table of 8 costs $250. For more information, call Benihana at 801-322-2421 or visit the Web site at benihana.com/fathersday.