The utensils flipped through the air.
Above his head.
Around his back.
Over his shoulder.
One hand twirled a fork like a baton, while the other juggled a spatula.
Jimmy Yan, the head chef at Fuji hana in York, has worked in front of a hibachi grill for more than 12 years. His movements looked innate.
He put an egg down on the grill and spun it like a top. He snapped the spatula underneath it and tossed it into the air. He caught it softly on the end of the spatula and threw it back up.
Thirty-two times without breaking the egg. He made it look as simple as playing paddleball.
Being a hibachi chef is part cooking technique, part entertainment. Like a discontent actor, Yan criticized his performance in front of a video camera.
"I usually do much better in front of customers," he said through a translator.
We recently caught up with Yan and talked to him about his training and the tricks he performs for customers. Here is some of what he had to say:
Question: Why did you want to come to America?
Answer: To find better opportunity, for a better life. That's why all Chinese come here. Many of my family members were here before I got here (in 1992).
Q: How did you learn to be a chef?
A: For two years, I went to a hibachi school in New York, Queens.
Q: What are the teaching methods?
A: They taught me how to do the different tricks, like the volcano and how to flip the spatula. They also teach you how to cook the food. With hibachi, it's not just the show; it's also the quality of the food. They taught me how to cook the food, how not to get burned and how not to burn anything.
Q: What's different about hibachi cooking compared to other Asian styles of cooking?
A: It's different from traditional Asian cooking using the wok. On the hibachi, it's grilled. It tastes fresher. That's the main difference. You cook it from raw. And when it's done, you eat it right away. It's different than when it comes from the kitchen because it sits there at least for a couple minutes.
Q: Are the sauces and ingredients the same or are they different, too?
A: The sauces are very, very different from traditional Asian cooking. In Asian cooking they might use soy and MSG (monosodium glutamate) and salt. In the hibachi sauce, they use many, many different kinds of ingredients. In the sauce, they might put apples in there and like mayonnaise. In (traditional) Asian cooking, they use MSG as the main ingredient to make it tasty, but hibachi we like butter. It's more close to American cooking instead.
Q: Do you make the sauces here?
A: Yes. ... We have saki soy sauce and a chicken basting sauce (made with saki -- Japanese liquor made from fermented rice). The sauce is made from chicken bones and vegetables boiled down and then you put in soy sauce and then the boiled saki and then a few other ingredients.
Q: And then do you put that on the meat when your grilling it?
A: Yeah, and then I squeeze a little lemon over the top (after juggling it with his spatula, of course).
Q: What's your favorite sauce to make?
A: We have a ginger sauce, just like A.1., tastes like it and everything, but a little bit different.
Q: What do you like to cook at home?
A: I don't like to cook at home. I cook a hamburger. (laughs) Or maybe some noodles.
Q: But you don't twirl the knife around before you cut the hamburger, do you?
A: (laughs) I do that enough at the restaurant.
Q: I know it sounds like a silly question, but do you ever try to show off to friends how you can do all these tricks?
A: Sometimes. I have a small grill at home. I cook on it sometimes, like the weekends, my off days. I cook for my son and daughter.
Q: Do you have a trick that's your favorite?
A: Probably the volcano. Not all hibachi chefs do it right. Not all do it with the soy sauce. (Yan will also fill the stack of onion with soy sauce, which bubbles up like lava). That looks easy, but you need experience to do it right. You have to know how hot the hibachi table is otherwise the soy sauce probably won't come out.
Q: When you first start learning are there tricks they won't show you at first, because they are dangerous?
A: Fire. If you don't do it right, it is very, very dangerous. If you don't do it careful, the fire would spread too much, like spread into customers. ... They used to have hibachi tables that are flat. Now they have edges on the side. It keeps the vodka from spreading to the table, but still with inexperience you might do something wrong like even burn yourself.
Q: Did you ever burn or cut yourself doing tricks?
A: No, but it happened to my friend. He burned himself trying to light the fire. The fire is very dangerous; you have to be very careful.
Q: Did he burn himself in front of customers?
A: He was by himself practicing. It was in the beginning when he was trying to learn.
Q: Is there any trick that's the hardest?
A: Once you know them, they are all the same. It's not that difficult.
hibachi grill: the flat metal surface heated by gas on which chefs cook and perform tricks.
saki: Japanese-style liquor made with fermented rice and used to make hibachi cooking sauces.
volcano: a hibachi chef trick in which rings of onion are stacked on top of each other, filled with oil and vodka and set on fire, sending an intense column of fire shooting out of the stack of onions.
ABOUT CHEF JIMMY YAN
Birthplace: Fujian Province, China
Position: head chef at Fuji hana in York
Hibachi experience: 12 years
WHERE TO GO
Here are some places you can go for hibachi cooking in York County:
Fuji hana: 935 Loucks Road (Northwest Plaza) in York
Tokyo Diner: 2300 E. Market St. in Springettsbury Township
Wasabi Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar: 1070 Carlisle St. in Hanover
Ginza Japanese Restaurant: 616 Shrewsbury Commons Ave. in Shrewsbury Township