It takes some daredevil chutzpah to throw a knife into the air. It takes skill to catch it. Chef Brandon Yenglin has both.
A teppan master at the recently opened Benihana at the Fashion Show mall on the Strip, Yenglin has been snagging flying shrimp and building dramatic onion volcanoes for wide-eyed customers going on 13 years. When he started, Yenglin was just shy of 18 and determined to learn the tricks of the trade. Not every aspiring chef has the same dedication. For the less committed, Benihana’s “Be the Chef” package teaches guests how to make the restaurant’s signature fried rice, shrimp and steak while learning some of those iconic, theatrical chef tricks in as little as an hour. I volunteered to get behind the hibachi grill for a one-on-one lesson with Yenglin.
It starts with a fire engine-red chef’s hat and a brown, sturdy leather belt with a holster for my tools. I glance down at my feet. Heels. I overlooked the part about wearing flat, non-slip shoes. Looking at the two knives secured at my hip, I’m not sure who should be more scared, me or the chef.
Yenglin introduces himself to an imaginary crowd in front of our table, says the customary Japanese greeting, konnichiwa, takes a bow and instructs me to do the same. Next, he sets up the sauces—mustard for steak and chicken, and ginger for seafood and veggies. You know the drill.
“It was intense,” Yenglin says of his journey to hibachi chef. “Especially being how young I was … you have to think about your food, your show, your comedy. Then, you’ve gotta have fun with it.”
That’s a lot of pressure for someone who can barely cook eggs, but Yenglin believes in me. We coat the grill with safflower oil—a Benihana staple—and begin cooking onions and carrots for the fried rice. Spinning the egg on the flat side of his spatula like a Harlem Globetrotter, Yenglin quickly turns the spatula on its side, cracking the egg in half. “I do things a little different,” he says. “You’ve got to be yourself. If I’m not having fun, the customer’s not having fun.”
He makes “train tracks” out of zucchini strips, a “train” with a steaming onion and, of course, the legendary volcano, built from thick rings of onion spouting flame fueled by generous squirts of cooking oil. A gig where you’re paid to play with your food? It’s every kid’s dream.
A New York strip with colossal shrimp is the main course. We put the steak to the hot grill, fat side down, to coat the surface. The trick to sealing in the flavor: extremely high heat. “The hotter, the better it is. It traps the juice inside.”
Normally, after a session like this, the chef-in-training would return the following day with unsuspecting family and friends, duck out to put on the uniform and return ready to impress (or terrify) loved ones with these new skills. That’s not my style. There’s no one in this world who deserves the pain of watching me try to juggle eggs and catch shrimp tails in my shirt pocket. Not all of us can be as sharp as a Benihana chef. After my behind-the-scenes look, I’m pretty sure most can’t.
And yet, we’ve all wondered how those teppan masters land that perfect spatula flip every time. It takes months of training to make sure the experience stays fun, safe and delicious. Did I become a hibachi expert overnight? Not a chance. But I did get to keep my hat and apron, and that’s a good start.