Matthew Chiang twirled a large knife and spatula over a hot grill, juggled some eggs that landed in his hat, and turned an onion into a flaming volcano that spouted flames several feet into the air.
And that’s just his warm-up routine.
Chiang — a 26-year-old, second-generation Hibachi chef — has been dazzling dinner guests at Wasabi Japanese Steakhouse on Candlers Mountain Road for the past five years. Unlike most chefs — who work behind closed doors in a kitchen — a Hibachi chef entertains guests during the entire food preparation process with seemingly impossible coordination, skill and humor.
“I love interacting with people,” said Chiang, a native of Taiwan who has lived in the Lynchburg area for about 20 years. “I would 110% pick what I do over cooking in the back. That interaction is what makes this job so much fun.”
I’ve developed a fascination with Hibachi chefs since my first visit to a Japanese steakhouse — a particularly memorable experience for me because the entire restaurant erupted in laughter when I ran from the table after the chef set the vegetables on fire.
Fortunately, I’ve toughened up a little bit since my 40th birthday dinner.
I love cooking for my friends and family but my culinary skills are lacking an entertainment factor. I’ve been told I’m actually a pretty good cook, but watching me brown ground beef or boil noodles doesn’t really draw an audience. Chiang recently agreed to give me a crash course in what it takes to become a Hibachi chef to help me draw in a crowd at the next dinner party at my house. I figured it couldn’t be that difficult. Right?
About the time Chiang went into his warm-up routine, I started to get the feeling I may have bitten off a little more than I could chew. No pun intended.
Chiang said Hibachi chefs spend their first six months behind the scenes learning skills including how to prep the food, how to season by eye, the order of operations (which food is cooked first), and the different zones of a hibachi grill, because different foods are cooked at different temperatures and rates, and the chefs need to serve the different entrees at the same time. Further training includes learning basic skills like twirling the knives and spatulas or catching shrimp tails in a bowl.
“Cooking for 10 people at once is a big challenge,” Chiang said. “It takes time to work up to that. The first six months is like basic training. It takes a lot of practice.”
After seeing Chiang’s onion volcano erupt on the grill, I decided conquering my fear of flaming produce could wait until another day and I decided to focus on my spatula work, the most basic Hibachi chef skill and how chefs start out each dinner performance. I quickly realized chefs spend six months out of sight because continuously dropping spatulas on a searing hot grill does not inspire a lot of confidence in customers.
The — what I would assume to be sarcastic — thumbs-up I received from people sitting at a nearby table was a little discouraging, but Chiang told me to stick with it.
“Everyone drops them at first,” he said. “Maybe not on the grill, but we all drop them at the beginning. After you get the hang of it, you start adding some stuff of your own in there and kind of develop your own routine.”
Chiang said each chef also has to develop a show to go along with dinner.
“You can’t just go out there and cook food,” he said. “That would be boring. However, it takes time to develop your own routine. It takes a lot of practice.”
To entertain his dinner guests, Chiang will catch lemons on the tip of his knife, juggle eggs and fool guests with a fake bottle of sauce, which often is a great icebreaker, he said.
“I tell a lot of jokes, too,” Chiang said. “It’s a lot about just getting the food cooked right when we’re starting out. But after a while you start to get comfortable and you’re able to laugh and joke around and entertain everyone. That’s when it starts to get fun because sometimes people are having a bad day and you can really cheer them up and show them a good time along with a great meal.”
However, Chiang said he doesn’t take his work home with him.
“I have a microwave to cook with when I’m at home,” Chiang said, laughing. “Microwave food is better for me when I’m not working.”
Chiang said chefs often choose to take their shows on the road as well, travelling to work in different restaurants across the United States to work.
“There are a lot of different fan pages that post different places you can go and work,” Chiang said. “A lot of chefs can pick up and move around if they want to.”
Chiang — who also sells real estate on the side — said he plans to keep cooking and entertaining for at least a few more years.
“I got a few other things going so I don’t know that I will do this forever,” Chiang said. “I will always be able to go back to this if I want to though.”
As for me, my culinary journey is just beginning. I spend at least a few minutes at night dropping spatulas on the floor of my kitchen, futilely trying to perfect my juggling skills. I may never work up to creating an onion volcano but at least now I draw an audience.
My children think it’s hilarious when the spatulas fly out of my hand and go sailing across the room.