Food & Drink » Food & Wine

Japanese Television

Nagasaki Inn's number-one hibachi chef puts on a show.



"When I am doing a show, I tell people that I have two names," says Harold, the senior hibachi chef at Nagasaki Inn, the 23-year-old Japanese steakhouse and sushi bar on Summer Avenue.

"When I am here cooking, they call me Harold," he crows, looking like a culinary Ninja with his razor-sharp knife slung low in a black leather holster at his hip. "At my other job," he adds with a sly grin, "they call me John Holmes Jr." This little joke is a winner with the customers, he says. And when it comes to the hibachi experience, the jokes, the goofy sight gags, and the acrobatic knifework are almost as important as the butter and the spices.

"All the best jokes have something a little dirty about them," Harold says conspiratorially, like he was giving away his secret recipe. "But you have to know your customer. You can't tell the dirty jokes to the church women. They don't like it."

To watch a hibachi chef at work slicing shrimp, beef, chicken, and vegetables in mid-air while keeping up a running dialogue with the diners is to assume that they have trained for years in some secret dojo run by a Jedi master. Each piece is perfectly chopped for fast cooking and easy chopstick handling. The sengiri (shreds), wagiri (rounds), arare (dice), and hangetsu (half moons) fly like edible confetti and come down sizzling on the hibachi.

"I learned how to do it in maybe three weeks," Harold brags. "I would come early and practice. I never thought I couldn't do it."

Twenty-three years ago, Harold, then a diminutive ex-agriculture student from Vietnam, had just arrived in America. He spoke no English and had 10 brothers and sisters to support. He worked doing anything he could: landscaping, bussing tables, stocking groceries. Though he had no background in food service, he started working for Nagasaki Inn two months before it opened. It was a bottom-rung position, but he approached it with curiosity, absorbing everything that was going on around him. Eventually, he started cooking, and when a chef's slot opened at Nagasaki he was asked to fill it.

"You just have to practice," Harold says. "And you have to keep changing how you do your show so that you have something new. Today I feel bad for the rookie chefs because sometimes they will be doing their show, and nobody will be watching them because they are watching me."

The name hibachi, taken from the words "hi" and "bitsu," literally translates as "fire pot." In China, the hibachi was an ornate brazier, usually made of bronze and perched on carved wooden legs. In the beginning, they were used primarily for heating and for light, but just as Chinese Buddhism transformed itself into the idiosyncratic practice of Zen after reaching the islands, so too the hibachi, which was remade into something distinctly Japanese.

The first Japanese hibachis were roughly hewn tree trunks -- often cypress -- hollowed out and lined with clay. Over time, they evolved into artfully crafted cabinets of carved, lacquered wood, porcelain, and metal. Water was kept warm on the hibachi for tea. Incense was thrown into the embers. In the wintertime, the hibachi became the centerpiece of Japanese family life, with the most important guests and family members seated closest to the fire. It was, from its earliest incarnation, something like Japanese television, and it's easy to see how hibachi cuisine has come to be as much about good theater as it is about fresh food.

"The whole time I have been here I have never asked for a raise," Harold says, explaining that he has been duly rewarded for his years of service. But it's not the financial rewards that keep him so satisfied. It's the fans. It's the fact that his product combines food and laughter, two of the most satisfying commodities imaginable.

"There aren't many people who can go home from work and really relax because they know they have done something good," Harold says. "I can relax because I know that I've made people happy."

And just how far is Harold willing to go to make his customers happy? A long, long way.

"I have two names," he says, explaining that his birth name is a little difficult for the average Westerner. "When I started working here, I had long hair, and in the [chef's hat] it looked like a crown. [A customer] said, 'Hey, you look like King Henry,' and another one said, 'No, Henry's not right. He looks more like a Harold.' So I said, 'Okay. I am Harold." n


by Sonia Alexander Hill

Sausage biscuits and breakfast burritos at Back Yard Burger? Sound strange? Not for customers in the Little Rock area, and now the newest location at 7780 Hwy. 64 East will test the breakfast menu in the Memphis market.

"All of our Little Rock locations offer breakfast," says Michael Myers, president of BYB. "It's easier when you go into a new town. You start from the beginning. We've been in Memphis for almost 18 years, and a lot of people don't think of us for breakfast, so we have to look at it from a marketing standpoint. Just because you offer breakfast doesn't mean you'll make a profit."

One reason the company is testing its breakfast menu in this area is because some new venues require it. The company plans to add two locations to the soon-to-be-expanded food court at Memphis International Airport. Also, the company opened a location at a 24-hour family travel center in Arlington.

Breakfast is not the only thing that makes the Hwy. 64 restaurant that opened July 9th stand out from other locations. This BYB is not in its usual stand-alone building but in a strip mall.

"Back Yard Burger's headquarters is in Memphis, so you'll see innovation in this area," says Myers. "Our franchisees offer questions. We try to test in our corporate locations. If you look at other parts of the U.S., real estate can be a challenge, especially if you want to go into a mature, existing area. Land and building costs aren't going down, so we continue to look at other venues."

Ben & Jerry's Germantown Scoop Shop opened at the Village Shops of Forest Hill in May.

After 28 years with FedEx, Marc Tate traded in his suit for jeans and a tie-dyed T-shirt. Tate joined his father, also retired from FedEx, to open the first Ben & Jerry's in the Memphis area.

"I don't think anyone can make ice cream better than Ben & Jerry's," says Tate. "My responsibility is to come up with the best environment. We want a place where friends and family can come in and sit down without feeling rushed."

Tate plans to make Saturday karaoke night and hopes to add an open-mic night. But on any evening of the week novices from 2-year-olds to musical maestros can have a go at the piano in the vibrant purple and yellow dining room.

The 2,000-square-foot store features seating for 40, making it one of the largest Ben & Jerry's locations, says Tate. It is one of the only ones to feature an open-dip display counter that offers a look at nearly 30 flavors, like Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey.

The menu also features the usual assortment of sundaes and fresh-baked waffle cones, as well as Ben & Jerry's newest flavor, Half Baked Carb Karma, with two to five net grams of carbs, and many Splenda-sweetened alternatives.

The corporation that operates Abuelo's Mexican Food Embassy restaurants opens a location at 8274 Hwy 64. on August 9th. Food Concepts International has 20 locations and plans to open 50 by 2007.

"For us, quality control, the complexity of the menu, and the type of service standards that we require make it necessary to retain control over operations," says Bob Lin, president of Food Concepts.

The servers undergo rigorous training for three weeks prior to the opening. On the weekend preceding the opening, training continues with lunches and dinners served free to family, friends, and others. While the mock meals are invitation-only, 100 percent of bar sales are donated to a local charity.

"Through the course of the last three openings we raised $15,000 for each of the charities," says Lin.

Although the concept was first developed in Amarillo, Texas, in 1989, the founders of Abuelo's, James Young and Chuck Anderson, steered away from Tex-Mex to re-create the style and ambience of upscale Mexican seaside restaurants.

"People often don't realize the cuisine served in the interior and seaside restaurants of Mexico is actually continental cuisine with Spanish, French, and European influences," says Lin. "We are very different from Don Pablo's or On the Border in that our food is not the typical tacos, burritos, and enchiladas. One portion of the menu has Tex-Mex fare, but one portion has grilled mahi mahi served with a creamy sherry sauce. Our signature dish, Los Mejores de la Casa, features filet medallions and grilled bacon-wrapped shrimp."

The décor also works to emulate the fine restaurants of Mexico with stone statues, fountains, subtle colors, and a painted dome ceiling.

After 22 years, Formosa closed the Summer Avenue location but will continue to operate the restaurant at 6685 Quince. The restaurant, which serves an array of Asian dishes, including Hunan, Szechuan, and Mandarin, has been named "The Best Chinese Restaurant" by readers of Memphis magazine since 1990. The former location has been sold to new owners and reopened as Panda Garden.

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