Hibachi chefs use sophisticated manual labor with knives and spatulas, like flipping food in their hats or lighting a volcano of onions on fire.
Hibachi grills originate from China.
The Japanese adopted hibachi braziers in the 8th century. Their original use was for heat, not for cooking.
As crowds gather around the Tokyo Grill’s hibachi, Terry Bi of Dandong, China prepares for a culinary spectacle.
Grabbing a set of knives, spatulas, and a rolling table of sauces, spices, vegetables and rice, Bi welcomes hungry customers with their orders of scallops, tuna, steak, shrimp and chicken.
With every turn and stroke of the spatula, Bi delivers a bit of tricky comedy, waiting for the laughter to erupt from the table.
“I like to make customers smile. It’s fun and it makes me happy,” said Bi, 24, who is still learning English.
He throws the cooked meat into his customers’ open mouths, then forms a choo-choo train with a stack of grilled onions.
It’s all part of the chef’s job, he said.
“I love hibachi. I want to someday own my own Japanese restaurant,” he said.
Bi lives full time in Houston and works at Restaurant Victoria four or five days a week.
Like other hibachi master chefs, 43-year-old Jackie Chen from China; and Ayi Chien, 43, from Taiwan.
Each of the chefs wanted to move to the United States from their home country years ago.
And now that they’ve settled in Texas, working as hibachi chefs in South Texas, they don’t want to live anywhere else.
“I want to be an American citizen. I love America – everything here,” Bi said with a cadence in Mandarin. “The first time I came here, I thought I would like my house better. But Texas is good. People are good too.”
Chen agrees that he does not want to return to China. The opportunity for a better life is in the United States
And there’s something America is offering that he can’t go home.
“There is freedom here. It means everything to me,” Chen said.
But they still manage to return to their home country to visit family and friends every few years.
“I’m settled here,” said Chen, who has a wife and daughter in Houston. “Every two years we go back, but I don’t want to live anywhere else.”
Each of the master chefs hopes to continue Japanese cuisine for many years to come. And they are eager to meet more clients in Victoria.
“I like that we are friends with the customers. I don’t want them to just come and eat, but to enjoy the show and talk to me,” Chien said. “They should come in and have fun and enjoy the show. It makes me happy.”