Good Japanese food goes beyond flying shrimp and rice volcanoes
9 February 2013
Flames spit from shiny steel grills. Chefs' knives dance across hot tables. Customers breathe in the smell of rosemary and garlic.
This is teppanyaki cooking like you'll find it in few places in America.
Although Japanese grilling has been popular in the United States for several decades, most teppan restaurants feature cooks who juggle forks and toss shrimp into people's mouths. The chefs at Tetsu Teppan Grill at the Aria, however, have introduced a calmer, more traditional feel to the cooking technique.
"People come in expecting volcanoes out of food, people throwing shrimp in your mouth, playing with the eggs," said Bonifacio De La Cruz, executive chef at Tetsu, which is inside the barMasa sushi restaurant. "But we're not doing shows. They're really disappointed, but after they eat the food, they understand. This is a little more traditional here."
Teppanyaki cooking is steeped in hundreds of years of Japanese culture. Japanese families centuries ago cooked on plates over an open fire to prepare meals they shared. In Japanese, teppan means "iron plate" and "yaki" means "grilled."
In 1945, a restaurant in Tokyo began offering food cooked on open grills to the public. Japanese diners were unimpressed, but American GIs loved it.
Rocky Aoki, the son of a restaurant owner, launched the teppanyaki trend in America in 1964 when he opened the first Benihana in New York. His chefs made the flamboyant cooking style popular. The chain today includes more than 70 restaurants, including one at the LVH. Several copycats followed.
But classically trained teppan chefs say the food suffers when chefs clown around.
"It's all about the timing," De La Cruz said. "Let's say I have four customers. Everyone is having a steak. Everyone wants it cooked differently. You have to make sure they're all done the same time. You need to know how to balance it so the food doesn't get overcooked."
The teppan grill heats up to 400 degrees at its edges and 500 degrees in its center. Meat cooks well done in six minutes. Garlic can cook in a second or two. Chefs have to be trained to know where to place food so it is perfectly cooked.
Tetsu isn't the only place raising the stakes on the technique. The restaurant inside the new Nobu Hotel at Caesars Palace also includes a more traditional teppanyaki grill, the first run by famed Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa.
De La Cruz worked as a teppan chef for three decades before putting away his knives to work for a local taxi company. The focus in most restaurants on showmanship turned him off.
Six years later, he heard barMasa was planning to open a more traditional teppan grill and signed on as head chef.
De La Cruz learned his craft in the 1980s in Guam.
"When I came to America, it took me three weeks to learn how to do the flipping of the spatulas and all that," he said. "But teppanyaki is a very authentic, very family style of dining."
De La Cruz pours a thin circle of pancake batter to keep food separate and prevent the flavors from mixing. He picks fresh herbs from pots.
The grill he's cooking on, which is made of stainless steel rather than iron, fills most of the space between him and his customers.
"Here you can't make a mistake," he said. "The customer is always watching."
At Tetsu, chefs went a step further, ditching their forks and spatulas to use only knives.
Even the experienced chefs needed training to learn the technique. Having no forks to stab the food made plating more difficult.
"The two knives, they become like scissors," De La Cruz said.
The knifes also mean the chefs likely won't adopt a flashy style anytime soon. It be dangerous to customers, and playing with food doesn't fit Tetsu's high-end atmosphere.
"When you're tossing something in here, it can end up in a suit jacket or a $5,000 dress," De La Cruz said. "I don't think our customers would appreciate that."
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