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 regionalfor 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.
Old and new favorites
What are some new items?
Tuna steak is now on the permanent menu. So is mango salsa salmon, and avocado tartar salmon steak. That’s a regular grilled salmon steak with asparagus and shiitake mushrooms on the side and a little sautéed udon noodle, and our own original avocado tartar sauce made with mayonnaise, avocado, onion, etc. It’s a very popular item now.
We have also changed our vegetables. We used to cook them in parchment paper, but now we use dim-sum-style steamers. We bake some of them and boil some and grill some, and then put them all in the double-decker steamer and steam them in front of the guests. Then we dish them onto their plates very nicely and finish with balsamic vinegar spray on top.
What are your most popular dishes?
The original Rocky’s Choice [New York strip loin and chicken breast] is still one of the most popular. And also Benihana Delight, which is a chicken and shrimp combination.
Now, as you know, noodles are getting very popular, especially ramen noodles.
And that’s your background.
Yes, that’s my background, so we have already come up with two types of ramen noodles. I’m just waiting for my boss to say, ‘OK, go.’
Would you offer the ramen as an appetizer, or would you serve it according to Japanese style at the end of the meal?
If they [customers] want to order it at the table with the group, they can, but we want to do it in the lounge area for early dinner or late night.
Right now a popular item in the lounge is Seafood Diablo. It’s seafood with all kinds of vegetables grilled in our special Diablo sauce and served with udon noodles.
What’s in the Diablo sauce?
We have a Benihana sauce made with ichimi togarashi, beef bouillon, honey, etc. For the Diablo, we mix mayonnaise with that hot sauce. That’s very popular now, and so are our sushi items and our Chili Shrimp Roll.
What else are you working on?
A couple months ago in Miami the other regional chefs and I tried lamb chops. I came up with a lamb chop coated in panko breadcrumbs and finished with orange sauce. Then, after we slice it and dish it up on the plate, we pour a sauce of balsamic reduction. When I made it for the restaurant they all liked it. We want to come up with some pork dishes, but for the sushi kitchen, not for the grill.
Why not for the grill?
There are a lot of cultures who don’t want the pork in the same place as the other food, so we don’t want to do anything with pork on the grill. It’s going to be a special lounge item that will come from the back of house.
What pork dishes do you have in mind?
Ginger pork Benihana style, Benihana-style curries — Japanese traditional stuff with a touch of Benihana fusion.
How long does it take between the time you and your regional chefs come up with an item and when it is tested as a monthly special?
Sometimes the CEO goes with it immediately and sometimes it takes a few months. Then we have to put together a storyboard to send to each restaurant showing step by step how to make it. That takes a week or two with our training group in the Miami office. Then, once those directions are done, we ship them out about two weeks before launching it so they have time to train.
So from when they say, ‘Let’s go,’ to when we actually do it in front of the guests is about a month. I have to think about how our more than 1,000 chefs can do it exactly the same. If it’s too difficult then we’re not going to succeed with it. So I have to come up with easy steps so that every chef can do it exactly the same. That’s the difficult part.
This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: Jan. 17, 2014 This story has been updated with the correct number of Benihana locations and the types of chefs working under chef Nemoto.