Restaurants across the country have come to realize that customers look to restaurants not only for good food and service, but also for entertainment.

Benihana has provided all three for 50 years, since Rocky Aoki founded the restaurant in New York City in 1964.

The teppanyaki chain now has 78 restaurants and a crew of more than 1,000 chefs who slice, chop, grill and flip food to the delight of guests.

Heading up the culinary side of the business is Toshiya “Tony” Nemoto, who was hired by Aoki himself 36 years ago to cook at what was at the time one of the chain’s three New York City restaurants.

Instead, Nemoto ended up at Benihana’s Bethesda, Md., location before opening restaurants for the chain in San Francisco, Denver and elsewhere. He later was promoted to regional chef for the East Coast, overseeing operations in 10 restaurants. Four years ago he became the chain’s corporate executive chef, a new position overseeing all culinary operations and creating new menu items.

A native of Yokohama, Japan, Nemoto moved to Honolulu when he was 12 years old and started working in Japanese restaurants. By 13 years old he was managing a ramen shop. He went on to work in sushi and teppanyaki restaurants, where Aoki discovered him and invited him to the mainland.

Nemoto recently discussed his job with Nation’s Restaurant News.

What does the job of Benihana’s corporate executive chef entail?

I work with my six regional chefs and three regional sushi chefs to create menus, new ideas, sanitation, food handling, etc. The regional chefs visit each of their restaurants once a month to see that the restaurant is following exactly what we expect. Then I will visit each restaurant once a year.

I don’t really do an inspection; that’s what the regional chefs do. Basically I visit to meet all the employees and ask, ‘How’s everything? Is Benihana treating you all right?’ They know I’m the executive chef, but I try to be more close with the employees, so they feel comfortable and like they are part of our family. That sort of relaxed communication I think is my job — to see that all the Benihana employees are being treated properly.

Does Benihana’s menu change very often?

Before I got this job we didn’t change the menu. Period. The main office [in Miami] said directly, ‘We’re going to do this.’

Then the COO asked me to be the executive chef for the entire company. I said, ‘I’m not sure I can do it.’ I was one of the bottom regional chefs. A lot of the others had been with Benihana a lot longer. He said, ‘Everyone will respect you. Try. Take a chance.’ I said, ‘Let me think about it.’ A week later they announced, ‘We have a new executive chef,’ so I had to do it. But I had a lot of support from the CEO and executive vice president and head of marketing. The first six months were very stressful, but we’ve all gotten closer and now I work with the regional chefs very well.

Since then, have you made a lot of changes to the menu?

Recently we’ve been able to do more monthly specials to introduce new items. Anything we succeed with in a monthly special goes on the [permanent] menu.