The Truth About Being A Chef At Benihana

A meal at Benihana is more than just a bite — it's dinner and a performance. That's exactly what Benihana founder Rocky Aoki had in mind when he envisioned a chain of restaurants that would bring a trend that was already popular in Japan to the U.S.: Wowing customers with artful presentation while serving them delicious teppanyaki-style (also now known as "hibachi-style") food. "At that time, in 1964, Americans were looking for something new, something different," Aoki told Forbes in a 2007 interview, a year before his death in 2008. "There [was] no entertainment in the dining room." It was about giving people a show, he explained. "Cook right in front of the customer ... Put the chef right in front of the customer."

How does Benihana find chefs for its nearly 80 locations who can dice and chop with swift precision, set food impressively aflame without burning the place down, and charm guests with corny jokes while doing it? Like any other job, most people simply apply and, if accepted, go through weeks of training. This is followed by actual trial-by-fire where they're put behind the grill in front of hungry patrons. Once hired, perks can include decent pay, impressive knife skills, and, perhaps, a boost in their social lives. On the downside, they could find themselves at the center of a multi-million dollar lawsuit over a shrimp toss gone awry (via the New York Post). What's the truth about being a chef at Benihana? Here's what we found out.

In the beginning, Benihana chefs just winged it

According to The Hustle, Benihana founder Rocky Aoki — who was previously a wrestler and an ice cream man — was known as a pretty eccentric guy. It made sense that he wanted his restaurants to have some extra pizzazz. Aoki reportedly couldn't even cook himself, but that seemed to be beside the point. In an effort to win over American diners, he banned any food that was "slippery or slimy," and made a point of hiring, per Mental Floss, Japanese cooks who had learned how to speak English and knew how to bring showmanship to their cooking. As The Hustle reports, he firmly believed that American diners would be drawn in by his new restaurant's flair for the dramatic.

Aoki had some ideas early on, but there was by no means a formal script for chefs to follow. He simply asked them to "throw in the bells and whistles," as they cooked, crack jokes while cracking eggs, and set things ablaze here and there. As First We Feast notes, the loud, loose dining format was "tailor-made for large groups and birthday parties, and the built-in noise level made it safe for parents to take a passel of unruly kids without the fear of getting shushed."

There's now a screening process and formal training

These days, if you're looking to become a teppanyaki master behind a Benihana Grill, you can start by applying online via the Benihana website, which lists all current job openings, including those for chefs. If you're selected after your in-person interview, there is a five-week program that shows you some of the basics, including, per the website, "advanced knife skills, scratch cooking mastery, and showmanship." Those with zero experience are out of luck — Benihana's not looking for complete newbies. A minimum of one year in a professional kitchen setting is required.

What are some of the tricks you might learn? While there doesn't appear to be an exact format each chef must follow, Keaton Patti, writing at Medium, broke down the most common moves we've come to expect from a Benihana chef, including clanking spatula-play, flashy egg-cracking, and fried rice served in the shape of a heart. There is also, of course, the celebrated onion volcano, in which a heap of "volcano oil" (don't worry, it's just canola oil mixed with a little Japanese kerosene) is poured into the center of a pyramid-style stack of onion rings. The chef lights a flame down the middle and, voila, Benihana's answer to Mount Vesuvius erupts into flames to the applause of impressed and hungry customers.

The real experience comes from being on the job

Like most careers, you don't truly get the hang of things through training alone. It comes from real-life, on-your-feet practice. "I'm a hibachi chef! The only way to practice is to do it, when you start you cook employee meals every day," one Redditor attested. "The heat zones and the portions are the hardest part to get down. When it comes to tricks and throwing stuff, I just took my fork and spatula home and practiced. The eggs we throw in our hats are hard boiled too, so they don't break."

In a separate thread, another Redditor backed up that claim, posting: "It's really a lot of on-the-job training. You have to do a lot of practicing on your own time. And honestly, you learn a lot from making mistakes in front of customers." It's worth noting that the Benihana training program isn't the only way to get a shot behind the grill. Some staffers start at the bottom rung of the kitchen ladder and work their way up. One Redditor shared that he began working at Benihana as a dishwasher and was finally getting ready to start cooking on his first day as a chef, proudly posing in his white coat and red chef's hat.

Being a Benihana chef could be good for your love life

If you're seeking romance while working as a Benihana chef, the job could be ripe with opportunities. "I was propositioned a few times, but never followed through," one chef who said he "worked at a famous hibachi restaurant" claimed on Reddit. "The city I worked in was a vacation city, so there were a lot of lonely ladies who wanted to have fun with the chef." That user also posted that a co-worker even moved to Japan to live with one of the restaurant's female customers, where she became the chef's wealthy benefactor. How's that for a generous tip?

Still, they do need to watch it when it comes to flirting. There's no doubt that Benihana chefs want to avoid crossing the line and starting a potential fight in their place of business. "I had a coworker (he had a big mouth) almost get beat up because he was flirting with a girl who's [sic] boyfriend was sitting right next to her," the same Redditor recalled. "One time a lady asked me to throw a shrimp [down her shirt]. I kept refusing, but she kept insisting, so I obliged. Immediately her husband stood up and was like "What the hell?!?!?!"

Going rogue could get you fired

Benihana chefs are known for making guests laugh while whipping up their meals. They just can't take things too far. Humor is appreciated – inappropriate behavior will get them shown the door. Take, for example, the incident described by a former Benihana employee on Reddit. Rather than fashion the fried rice into a heart, as is one of Benihana's signature moves, a chef decided to mold it into a much ruder shape while cooking for some elderly women. "Needless to say he was immediately fired."

While such errors in judgment can get a chef terminated, innocent mistakes made by teppanyaki chefs are generally forgiven. Accidentally staining or damaging a customer's clothing while tossing food is one example. The "famous hibachi restaurant" chef we mentioned above confirmed this, saying, "Most people are really cool about it and don't make a fuss. If I've made a mistake like that and the customer is cool about it, I'll usually give them some free food. The managers are always quick to offer free drinks and things like that to customers too." The chef, who admitted to once accidentally knocking a birthday celebrant's cocktail all over the place, adds that if the diner does get upset, restaurants have been known to pay for dry-cleaning as well.

Benihana chefs' mistakes have led to lawsuits

Accidents are usually taken in stride, but Benihana was once sued when a former customer claimed that an incident turned deadly. Jacqueline Colaitis had been dining at a Benihana in Munsey, New York, in 2001 with her husband, Jerry, when, she asserted, Mr. Colaitis ducked to avoid being hit by a flying piece of shrimp. According to The New York Times, she alleged that the evasive maneuver resulted in a neck injury, which then required surgery. Post-surgery, he later died from blood poisoning. She sued Benihana for $16 million in damages for pain and suffering. 

Per NBC News, the plaintiff's attorney argued that "Benihana and only Benihana set in motion the forces ... that led to his death." Benihana's legal team, however, asserted that there was no substantial proof of that. The jury, for their part, reportedly took less than two hours to reach a conclusion, deciding against Mrs. Colaitis and in favor of Benihana. Benihana was sued again in 2010 over a fatal reaction to seafood suffered by a customer at a Memphis location, but prevailed in that case as well (via Justia).

The pay isn't bad, but tips aren't always guaranteed

According to ZipRecruiter, hibachi chefs are paid, on average, a little over $18 an hour. Certain Benihana locations may also pay chefs a percentage of the revenue from the tables they cook for. "Working on a table to table basis at 7% you can make really good money if you are motivated," an Indeed user posted in 2019. "If you work at a unit that pays you for the amount of tables you cook you will be better off." But it's the bartenders who really clean up, one former employee revealed on Reddit, with some making as much as $100,000 a year thanks to tips.

As we've written before, Benihana chefs also make money from tips. Again, policies seem to vary, but according to one comment on the career website Glassdoor, chefs at an Alaskan outpost of the chain made 9% of the bill in tips per meal. Even if the customer didn't tip them directly, servers were required to share that amount to ensure that the chefs didn't end up getting stiffed. As you can imagine, this type of scenario can lead to plenty of resentment. So much so that, in 2016, one server filed a class action lawsuit against Benihana, claiming that because they were forced to share tips with the chefs, which they alleged violated labor laws, they suffered over $30,000 in lost wages (via TMZ).

Once you're a Benihana chef, you've got a skill set for life

The good news? Once you're a Benihana chef, you've got a pretty valuable set of skills, tricks, and showmanship abilities to bring with you anywhere else you may cook in the future. You can always return to your old gig at Benihana, too. One former Benihana chef, a 70-year-old woman named Ly, returned to hers due to the shortage of chefs caused by the Covid pandemic, SFGate reported. Former chefs were even offered a $250 signing bonus to come back.

The reason Benihana is extra motivated to woo former chefs back rather than hire new ones has everything to do with the amount of time it takes to train one. With the worker shortage in the restaurant industry, places like Benihana — whose chefs need to be as well-trained in entertaining as they are in meal preparation — are more in demand and harder to find than ever, according to The Takeout. So if you've ever been a Benihana chef and you're looking for work right now, check with your local Benihana outpost because chances are, you're in luck.

Many chefs are happy to share their secrets

For all those aspiring or amateur teppanyaki chefs at home, good news. There's plenty of advice from current and former chefs to be found on the Internet. On Reddit, useful AMAs (Ask Me Anythings) abound. Among some of the most widely-asked questions are requests for the sauce recipes, which one hibachi chef helpfully provided, listing the ingredients with instructions. Requests for the fried rice recipe are also quite common.

Others want to know just how to master those impressive tricks and where to buy the right kitchen tools. "Metal holsters are probably going to be really hard to find. I'd try a restaurant supply store," another teppanyaki chef advised. "They're kind of a weird item and I can't think of any other restaurants that would use them besides hibachi places." Many more just want to know what it's really like to work in a hibachi-style restaurant. That chef had only praise. "I loved it. My co-workers were so awesome. It also helped me to come out of my shell a little. When you're forced to be funny and make conversation, it eventually starts to become a little more natural."

They sometimes meet celebrities

Benihana has loads of famous fans, including comedian Tracy Morgan, who has waxed utterly rhapsodic about it in his own endearing way. "This is my family," he told New York Magazine's Grub Street in 2012. "These people know me. This is fancy, man. They cook the food right in front of you." The midtown Manhattan location in particular, he added, is popular with his well-known group of pals. "Everybody comes here. L.L. comes here, Busta comes here. The Rock comes here. Everybody comes to this Benihana."

Like the rest of us, celebrities have been quick to catch on that Benihana is a great pick if you're dining with small children. Before their 2016 split, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie brought their own small brood while in London (via PopSugar). And while Benihana will cater to the stars, it doesn't kowtow to alleged rude or ridiculous behavior. When Tori Spelling sued Benihana over a 2014 visit with her family in which she claims she slipped on a grill and injured herself, requiring hospitalization, Benihana shot back. According to the Daily Mail, the restaurant sniped that Spelling had failed to "conduct herself as a reasonable guest" and demanded she pay Benihana's legal fees for the trouble. The two parties later agreed to mediation.

Benihana chefs may be asked to train total amateurs

For Benihana chefs, patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to the restaurant's Be the Chef program. For a few hundred dollars, a trained Benihana culinary expert will teach their student tricks of the grill, including how to pull off Benihana's widely beloved fried rice (or you could use our copycat recipe for free). After that, the student will have the chance to cook a meal for their friends, finishing the program with their own apron, chef's hat, photograph, and teppanyaki chef's certificate to commemorate the occasion. As for the cheesy jokes, they probably have to improvise their own.

Throughout the process, your Benihana teacher is right there to help get you out of trouble. Many who have completed Be the Chef have only wonderful things to say. One proud parent, who gifted her son the program for his 16th birthday, said on TripAdvisor, "[The chef] "worked with him for over 2 hours teaching him how to cook hibachi style. When I arrived for dinner with the family 2 hours later, I was handed a picture, and my son was dressed in full chef clothing with the big red hat included. I was amazed that he was given so much attention."