In 1964 Rocky Aoki, a Japanese immigrant, created hibachi restaurants in America when he opened his first Benihana. Rocky later said that he based his concept on the idea that "Americans enjoy eating in exotic surroundings, but are deeply mistrustful of exotic foods.” The restaurant took off, but Rocky's legacy is complicated. In this week's show we hear from people who knew Rocky, and we talk with a hibachi chef who's one of the more daring performers you'll find. We also hear from a former hibachi chef who says he was pushed to act "more Japanese" — and how that affected the way he thought about himself. And we answer the question of why certain cuisines are seen as “perpetually foreign” with the help of Professor Robert Ku.
This episode originally aired on March 11, 2019. It was produced by Dan Pashman, Anne Saini, Ngofeen Mputubwele, Gianna Palmer, Jared O’Connell, and Harry Wood. The Sporkful team now includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Nora Ritchie, and Jared O'Connell.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Rooftop Instrumental" by Erick Anderson
- "Clean" by J.T. Bates
- "Pong" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Nice Kitty" by Black Label Productions
- "Stay For The Summer" by Will Van De Crommert
- "Still In Love With You" by Stephen Clinton Sullivan
- "Summer Getaway" by Stephen Clinton Sullivan
- “Soul Good" by Lance Conrad
Photo courtesy of Florida Keys Public Library.
Dan Pashman: Let's see, the egg now. Right?
Tony Nemoto: Scrambled egg.
Dan Pashman: Scrambled egg. Okay.
[CRACKING AND COOKING AN EGG]
Dan Pashman: Oh, I think I got some shells in there ...
Dan Pashman: I’m at Benihana’s flagship restaurant in Manhattan, living a dream of mine — to be a hibachi chef. And my teacher is the executive chef of Benihana — Tony Nemoto. Tony’s been cooking hibachi for 40 years.
Tony Nemoto: You want to move quickly, so that the egg doesn't burn.
Dan Pashman: Got it.
Tony Nemoto: You want to keep the yellow egg color.
Dan Pashman: Right. All right, let's make some noise here, too.
Tony Nemoto: Yup.
Dan Pashman: All right the sizzle …
Dan Pashman: I didn't get to try any tricks that day, but of course, the tricks are a big part of hibachi — bouncing the raw egg on the spatula, flipping shrimp tails into your chef’s hat, and, the onion volcano. That’s when the chef builds a tower of onion slices, fills them with oil, and lights the whole thing on fire.
Dan Pashman: In lieu of real tricks, I did my best to imitate the more percussive elements of hibachi...
Dan Pashman: All right, chicken ...
Dan Pashman: This is the sound of mixing chicken!
Dan Pashman: Oh ... But see, I got over zealous ...
Dan Pashman: And I just sprayed onions everywhere. All right, that's okay though — it's a show. All right ...
Dan Pashman: What I learned as I worked with Chef Tony is that, when you go to a hibachi restaurant and watch the chef cook, there is so much more going on than I ever realized.
Dan Pashman: There’s a system for everything, an exact thickness to slice the chicken, an exact number of shakes of the salt shaker. And if you have to get all that right without cutting yourself, which I failed to do. I finished my cooking with one finger wrapped in a paper towel. Don’t worry, it was only a flesh wound.
Dan Pashman: So Tony, give me so feedback. What did I do well? What can I improve on?
Tony Nemoto: You did a pretty good job but you need everything to improve.
Tony Nemoto: Cutting that chicken and as you can see you always have a lot of white steam rice left.
Dan Pashman: I didn't mix the soy sauce in very well? Yeah.
Tony Nemoto: Mm-hmm. But you know, you did a sound effect very well.
Dan Pashman: Okay. [LAUGHS]
Tony Nemoto: So we need to learn some effort from you and I keep teaching you how to cook.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. This week on the show, a window into the world of hibachi. We'll hear about Rocky Aoki, the savvy showman from Japan who created hibachi.
CLIP (ROCKY AOKI): You know, you could always take a little bit of truth and spin it into something more fantastic.
Dan Pashman: And we’ll hear why Rocky's legacy is so complicated
CLIP (ROBERT KU): For the history of Asian restaurants, restaurants in the United States, exoticizing one's own background was an important part of selling their product
CLIP (ROCKY AOKI): Well as a matter of fact, I came here 1959 with a Japanese wrestling team and I went to school here in New York City.
CLIP (ROCKY AOKI): We cook everything right on a table right in front of customers’ eyes. I think today's restaurant, we have to have showmanship.
Dan Pashman: The fact that a Japanese restaurant could take off the way Benihana did is pretty remarkable when you consider the history. Rocky opened his first location just 20 years after World War II, when America was at war with Japan. The U.S. government had put 140,000 Japanese-Americans in concentration camps.
Robert Ku: Prior to the war and during the war, the Japanese were subject of the most horrendous kinds of racist caricaturing,racist depictions because that's part of the war effort.
Dan Pashman: This is professor Robert Ku. He teaches asian and asian american studies at Binghamton University. After World War II, the Cold War began and the American government decided that maybe, the Japanese could help us.
Robert Ku: And so the image of the Japanese changed drastically almost overnight as the good Asians are supposed to now the bad Asians who are the communists, mainly in China and in North Korea and so forth. So the image of the Japanese by the 1960s, I would say, was somewhat positive. And Japan becomes almost a playground for Americans with some means to go and visit and the whole exotic Japan, you know the geishas and the samurai, takes takes on a different level. So I think when Rocky Aoki opens up Benihana, there is all this fascination about Japan.
Dan Pashman: Rocky passed away in 2008, so we can’t get the story of Benihana’s creation from him. But he told it to just about anyone who would listen. Including Chef Tony, who you heard training me earlier. Rocky personally recruited Tony back in the 1970s.
Tony Nemoto: Soon as I join he said, "Do you know do you know how I'd start this restaurant?" I said, "I heard little bit about it. You saved some money selling ice cream." He said, "That's right!"
Logan Hill: The ice cream truck is one of my favorite parts of Rocky Aoki's legacy and myth, right? You know, like talking about self mythologizing.
Logan Hill: He did get a sizable amount of money from his dad. But the myth that you hear is this guy came here with nothing. Pure immigrant success story. And he's like I'm a wrestler. So he laminates a newspaper story of himself with a picture of him in kind of crouch wrestling pose, slaps it up on the side of the Mr. Softee Truck.
Dan Pashman: The ice cream truck.
Logan Hill: And then starts playing Japanese music on the loudspeakers, putting little paper umbrellas in the Mr. Softee ice cream, and now he's got like the gimmick, and he's got to sort of sign on the side of the truck that says, "Don't mess with me, man. I'm a wrestler."
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]
Logan Hill: And so, what the myth behind that is, you know, that he used that money — that was the the only seed money to create Benihana, which is totally not true but it's a great story. And he did have the ice cream truck, like you know, so he, you know, could always take a little bit of truth and spin it into something more fantastic.
Dan Pashman: That skill that Rocky had — to take a little bit of truth and spin it into something more fantastic was at the core of Benihana’s creation. Years later, in a Harvard Business School case study of Benihana, Rocky said, “What I discovered is that Americans enjoy eating in exotic surroundings, but are deeply mistrustful of exotic foods.”
Dan Pashman: So Rocky built out the restaurant with Japanese wood and other decorations from Japan. For the food, he turned to a style of cooking known as teppanyaki, where you cook meat on a flat top griddle. Teppanyaki was created in Japan after World War II, when the U.S. was occupying the country. It started in a restaurant that catered to American soldiers. So in Japan it’s perceived as western, but in America it’s perceived as Japanese.
Logan Hill: Yeah, that's the whole thing. Right? I'm going to grill you the three meats that I found that everybody is most comfortable with — you know, beef chicken shrimp. And I'm not really gonna spice anything terribly heavily. It's gonna taste a whole lot like what you get at other restaurants but it's gonna feel thrilling. But I think that in that environment he made this kind of savvy calculation which was I don't want to be threatening.
Dan Pashman: Within six months of opening, Benihana was turning a profit. Within 8 years, Rocky had locations across the country, and he was becoming a celebrity himself. He always understood the power of a good gimmick. He got into hot air balloons and speedboat racing — whatever he was driving always had the Benihana logo splashed all over it. He set a record for the longest hot air balloon ride, got knocked unconscious during the landing. The record stood for 34 years.
Dan Pashman: Later in his life, he commissioned a manga, a Japanese style comic book, to tell his own story.
Logan Hill: I remember him telling me once, most Japanese businessmen — very straight list. They were all black suits. They're very simple. I'm a colorful guy, man. I'm a colorful guy. I like to be colorful in every way. I like to be different. And in this — in his manga biography, he talks about the decision to Jheri curl his hair. You know, there's a whole scene in the manga comic, illustrated with photos of him with the ...
Dan Pashman: Like, the origin story.
Logan Hill: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: How his hair became Jheri curled.
Logan Hill: And it's literally because he's getting confused with other Asians, and it's branding. So it's, who am I? I'm a Japanese guy with Jheri curls. Right? Like you're not going to forget me when I'm on late night talk shows.
Dan Pashman: And he was on late night talk shows. But he saw himself as a businessman first and foremost. Logan says there was a line Rocky used over and over: “Money isn’t everything — just 99 percent.”
Dan Pashman: And he did make some smart decisions. He recognized that because he was cooking the food at the table, the kitchen could be smaller, which meant more seats for customers, more potential profit. Plus, the meals are quick. You’re usually in and out in 45 minutes. And yet, you’re paying 25 or 30 bucks an entree. Not many restaurants can get you to spend so much money in so little time.
Logan Hill: He liked to just joke about all these smart decisions he's made along the way. And one was knowing like chicken is really inexpensive, and they serve a whole lot of just basically grilled chicken not so different from like a fajita. Right? But they serve for like a lot of money because they can add the sizzle, right, which is the whole thing, right? It's like the steak doesn't matter so much as the sizzle is what he was selling.
Dan Pashman: Benihana became a party place, a special occasion restaurant. You know, the place where you go for an experience. By the mid-'80s, Benihana was a household name in America ...
[CLIP BENIHANA TV AD FROM 1985]
CLIP (NARRATOR): This man is responsible for the most successful Oriental restaurants in America. For 20 years, if you wanted great Oriental foods, you'd go to him …
CLIP (ROCKY AOKI): Now, I have time for you.
CLIP (NARRATOR): With eight Benihana frozen Oriental restaurant classics ...
Dan Pashman: That’s Rocky in a 1985 TV commercial for Benihana's line of microwave meals. Rocky died of cancer in 2008. Within his family, he left behind a total mess. He was married three times and was not a faithful husband. He had six kids, including the DJ Steve Aoki. Towards the end of Rocky’s life, a huge fight broke out over his money. Rocky ended up suing some of his kids. After years of litigation it was settled.
Dan Pashman: Despite those issues, Benihana today is going strong. There are 70 locations across North and South America.
Dan Pashman: And hibachi in general is everywhere. Now there are mom and pop hibachi restaurants all over the U.S. And the chefs are no longer exclusively Japanese, or even Asian-American. Coming up, we’ll meet a Mexican-American hibachi chef who’s the kind of showman I think Rocky would have liked.
CLIP (RICKY BOBBY): I sometimes, I have my spatula and my fork on fire when I'm doing the whole spatula work. In the same times, I'll light my chef coat on fire as extra show. You know, just extra show.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Wait, wait. You light your coat on fire while you're wearing it?
CLIP (RICKY BOBBY): Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Clearly, this guy loves his job. But later on, I’ll talk with a former hibachi chef who feels very differently about the work. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Hopefully by now you know that we just launched a new podcast: Deep Dish with Sohla and Ham! Sohla and Ham are chefs, YouTube stars, and a married couple. You’ve heard them here on The Sporkful before. In Deep Dish, Sohla and Ham do deep dives into the surprising stories behind foods, then head home to see what those stories inspire them to cook up. And sometimes, in the heat of telling these stories, they get a little sidetracked …
CLIP (SOHLA EL-WAYLLY): Our biggest pushback when we had a restaurant was complaints about the price. But, uh, everything was market, local, [00:35:00] organic, made in house. We made our cheese.
CLIP (HAM EL-WAYLLY): Yeah.
CLIP (SOHLA EL-WAYLLY): Who makes their cheese? [LAUGHS] We almost got a divorce because you were spending too much on french fry potatoes.
CLIP (HAM EL-WAYLLY): And lettuce.
CLIP (SOHLA EL-WAYLLY): And lettuce. Oh my gosh, so much money on lettuce.
Dan Pashman: We’ve got two episodes of Deep Dish up right now. One is about the history of Korea, as told through a rice cake, and the other starts with a police detective in Mississippi getting called to the scene of a car wreck and finding two dead bodies and a trunk full of tamales. Both episodes are up now right here in The Sporkful feed. Check them out, you’re going to love them. Thanks.
Dan Pashman: Okay, back to the show…
Dan Pashman: This is the sound of Chef Ricky Bobby in action. Ricky’s been cooking hibachi for 20 years. He worked at Benihana early in his career, but most of his time has been spent at the kinds of local hibachi places you now see all over the country.
Ricky Bobby: This, right here, is kind of like my signature triple volcano, which is one volcano on top of another.
Dan Pashman: Ricky’s one of the best. He travels across the south and midwest, working 6 months or a year at a time at different hibachi restaurants, and training the chefs there in the process. He promises owners that if they hire him, he’ll increase their profits by 20 percent. And he’s a popular figure in the Facebook groups where hibachi chefs share tips and post videos of their latest tricks.
Ricky Bobby: [HIBACHI SOUNDS] The Alabama Choo Choo!
Dan Pashman: Ricky lives in Huntsville, Alabama now. I spoke with him as he finished up the lunch rush at a local hibachi restaurant there. First off, I wanted to understand his strategy with a table.
Ricky Bobby: Well, I'll come up to the grill, right? And in the way I do my style, I'm already coming in up to the grill, like, I've known you for the past 20 years. And so I go up to them and I said, "Okay, how are you all doing? My name is Ricky Bobby and I'll be your chef for today," you know? How we doing today? And anybody celebrate anything? Any birthdays? Any divorces? You know?
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Ricky Bobby: Anybody passed away? [LAUGHS] You know, just trying to break the table with a little humor.
Dan Pashman: Jokes are a big part of Ricky’s performance. Then there’s the tricks, which Ricky practices on days off to stay sharp. He says every chef begins the night with a few warm ups — some spatula twirls or knife moves.
Dan Pashman: Ricky grew up in South Texas. In his early 20s, he was a prep cook on a cruise ship. A senior chef there liked his sense of humor and offered him the chance to train to be a hibachi chef. But it took Ricky eight months of official training, plus another year on the job, before he started getting good.
Dan Pashman: So you're getting more and more into hibachi. You're getting better at it. What did you like about it?
Ricky Bobby: The stage. I got addicted to the stage.
Dan Pashman: Right, because of on top of cooking, you're also putting on a show.
Ricky Bobby: Yeah. And you have to talk and you have to be smiling. You have to be presentable. And people will want to get to know me. You'll want to get to know me, what places have I've traveled, where I'm from, how the hell did I get into Japanese style cooking — you're Hispanic, you're Latino. I started to use that, you know, as my stage.
Dan Pashman: A decade into his hibachi career, Ricky was making his living traveling around from restaurant to restaurant, as a sort of hibachi consultant. He's worked in restaurants all over the south.
Ricky Bobby: Memphis, Louisville Kentucky, Florida, Louisiana — all over Texas.
Dan Pashman: And where do most hibachi chefs, especially the ones who are traveling around, where do they live?
Ricky Bobby: Usually, you can work out a deal. You can work out a deal with some of the owners. Some of the owners will provide a house. So you have a house with like three bedrooms two bathrooms and you have like 10 people living in that house.
Dan Pashman: And who are those people living in that apartment? Are they all hibachi chefs?
Ricky Bobby: Hibachi chefs, cooks, back in the house cooks, servers managers — they're all there.
Dan Pashman: These days, Ricky is retired from the traveling hibachi circuit. But he still keeps his skills sharp, working at local places around Huntsville on the weekends. He loves coming up with new tricks. He says hibachi chefs are always competing with each other, trying to one-up each other. Customers expect more and more daring maneuvers.
Dan Pashman: That’s why Ricky prefers to work at the mom and pops. Benihana has to be a little more cautious with tricks, because they’re a big corporation, a target for lawsuits. Tony Nemoto, the Benihana chef who trained me at the start of the show, he's still bummed that the chain made him stop juggling knives.
Dan Pashman: But the local joints around the country, they're a different story. And Ricky, he likes to push the envelope. He says whenever he feels like he’s losing his table’s attention, he has a simple solution: Light something on fire.
Ricky Bobby: I do a lot of tricks in my hat as well — the flaming bowls. The flaming bowls in my hat ...
Dan Pashman: What the flaming bowl?
Ricky Bobby: The flaming bowl — the bowl is basically a little bowl. I'm pretty sure you've seen some chefs use a bowl to mix the eggs after you crack them.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, like the little metal bowl. Yeah.
Ricky Bobby: The little metal. And the little bowl, you can do two things. You can put a little piece of like a oil lamp wick in side of it. Right? To light up. Or you can put a — if you're brave enough, you can put a little bit of drops of Everclear inside of it and you light it up so you start kind of like flipping around your spatula and then from there, throw it up on top of your hat, so the hat goes up in flames and lands on top of your hat while the flame is still burning up there.
Dan Pashman: Wait, so you light the fire in the bowl with a bowl right side up?
Ricky Bobby: Yeah. Correct.
Dan Pashman: And then you flip it up and have it land on your head like upside down, so the fire is extinguished on your head?
Ricky Bobby: No, no. It doesn't get extinguished. It stays on lit.
Dan Pashman: Oh, so you say you flip it so the bowl lands on your head right side up and the flame is still coming out of the ball on top of your hat.
Ricky Bobby: Correct. And nowadays ... Nowadays, a lot of my friends where they're doing it, is like they're or spatulas on fire. You know, I sometimes, I have my special on my fork on fire when I'm doing the whole spatula work. In the same times, I'll light my chef coat on fire like a cross. You know, as a extra show. You know, just extra show.
Dan Pashman: Wait, wait. You light your coat on fire while you're wearing it?
Ricky Bobby: Yeah. Sometimes I'll light it it was some sort of like, I don't know, like some sort of X-Men. Just a big X across my chest and go set on fire for a little bit and it just comes out.
Dan Pashman: Ricky, that sounds very dangerous.
Ricky Bobby: It is dangerous, but it's fun. It's what you gotta do nowadays. You've got to push yourself up to the limit.
Dan Pashman: So you're not just a would be stand up comedian, you're also a bit of a daredevil.
Ricky Bobby: Very, yeah. I'm a daredevil. I mean, who doesn't wanna play with fire and throw food at people and play with knives? [LAUGHS] Who doesn't want wanna do that?
Dan Pashman: Ricky clearly loves every part of hibachi. But not all the chefs feel that way.
Perry Saito: I'm a redneck from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Dan Pashman: This is Perry Saito. He basically grew up in the hibachi restaurants around Myrtle Beach. His dad came from Japan in the '70s to work as a hibachi chef, and met his mom, a white American, at the restaurant. That’s where they worked for years.
Dan Pashman: When Perry was 19, his first son was born. And Perry needed a good-paying job, fast. So he turned to hibachi. He thought it would be a stepping stone to his dream of being a professional chef. But he struggled with the performance part of the job.
Perry Saito: They'd be like, "Oh, where are you from? You know, you don't have an accent." I'd be like, "Oh, I'm — my mom's American. You know, my dad's Japanese. That's why I look like this." You know and now would always get a really big laugh and that — I remember the first time I said that, a table was kind of like a — it was kind of just on the spot. I was like, "Yeah, I'm Japanese, that's why I look like this." And everybody laughed really hard and I was like, "Damn, why did everybody laugh so hard at that?" You know I mean? Is it that — it wasn't that funny, you know? But ...
Dan Pashman: And what was it? What was the makeup of the table that laughed so hard?
Perry Saito: Oh, it was all white, man. All white. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: And why do you think they laughed so hard at that line?
Perry Saito: I think that cause — you know, I don't know. You know, I guess, they saw an Asian dude making fun of himself. I'm definitely not a politically correct person by any means but it definitely made me think a little bit. Like, hmm, you know, what are these people thinking about me while I'm doing this? You know what I mean?
Dan Pashman: Perry kept asking himself that question as he looked around the dining room, and he saw more chefs joking like he had. The other chefs were a mix of Asian and Latino immigrants, who often made cracks about the food being cat or dog, they’d meow as they sliced up the chicken. One chef in particular liked to use a fake Asian accent in front of customers.
Perry Saito: One guy loved singing, that was his whole gimmick. And he would sing like, you know, Lady Gaga songs and he would sing it — and he didn't even have an accent but he would sing it and this is terrible accent. And anytime you got behind that guy — you know, because the table sit back to back to each other, you know, any time you got behind that guy, man, it was torture. It would get to the point where I'd almost give into it and I probably did more times I'd like to admit, you know, and just, you know, "Okay, I play — you know, I'll play this little guy and then just be goofy.
Dan Pashman: So Perry was trying to go with the flow. At times he even pretended to have an Asian accent when he talked with customers. And he says there was pressure from bosses to play up these kinds of stereotypes. One restaurant owner, a Japanese woman, approached him after a shift ...
Perry Saito: I walked to the back and I get to the back and she's like, "You don't look like you're Japanese." And I'm like what does that mean. You know? What do you mean I look like I'm Japanese? She say, "You don't carry yourself like a Japanese man," and so this is a Japanese woman. She says, "You need to be more Japanese and show your culture better and have more pride in your culture." And I'm like thinking of myself like, you mean, like have more pride by acting like I'm something that I'm not? I don't even know what that means. You want me to act like you? Is that what you want me to do? You want me to talk like you? I don't know. So that was always hard for me.
Dan Pashman: It was also hard because there were strong economic incentives for Perry to play that part. The chefs who hammed up their accents and cracked Asian jokes made bigger tips. Perry wasn’t into that and customers noticed. More and more, when people started coming back in, Perry started hearing this ...
Perry Saito: What's the kind of big guy — you know tall guy's name? He's got a shaved head and you know he's real quiet, he doesn't do a whole lot? They're like, oh yeah, Perry. Yeah, can we request and not have Perry?
Perry Saito: I think a lot of it comes from that expectations set by the customer's — comes in, he's looking for that fresh off the boat Asian man with an accent, who's got funny little quips and makes onion volcanos and, you know, whatever
Dan Pashman: Well, and I think ... I think you make a really good point, Perry, about the expectations of customers. It's easy to point fingers at the chefs or to point fingers at the restaurants for encouraging the chefs.
Perry Saito: Right.
Dan Pashman: But if customers are walking in and expecting that and if they're requesting the chefs who act that way and giving bigger tips to the chefs who act that way, that's not to excuse it.
Perry Saito: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: But you know, I think it makes it more complicated
Perry Saito: For sure. And it puts the pressure on, you know, whoever that chef is, you know, to decide whether he's going to really, at the end of day, give the people they want. And I don't — I don't know if it's a problem though. You know, I don't know if it is or if it isn't. But to me, it definitely is something that people are taking a lot of liberties with.
Robert Ku: For the history of Asian restaurants in the United States, exoticizing one's own background was an important part of selling their product.
Dan Pashman: Here again is Robert Ku, the Professor of Asian and Asian American studies that we heard earlier in the show.
Robert Ku: You know, you go to a Chinese restaurant you've got to have the dragon. You got to have a gong, right? You've got to have the trappings because restaurants in America — well, maybe everywhere, is in some sense a substitute for the actual travel to that place. It's a quasi touristic experience. What the phrase I like to use is: Give the audience what it wants. I think Rocky Aoki knew that by combining just the ambience of exotic Japan paired with food that is somewhat Japanese-y, because it has things like bean sprouts and soy sauce and rice, but it's not as sort of freaky as a raw piece of fish might be. So he combined the two in a very, I think, smart way. And what made it more complicated is that the performers were themselves Asians who had to sort of exoticize their own Asianess for the customers. And I think the self-conscious performance had to be consistent with the understanding that the Americans already had of Orientals.
Dan Pashman: Professor Ku points out that this issue extends beyond hibachi chefs. Asian-American actors who were born here and have no accent, are often pushed into roles playing Asian people with accents.
Dan Pashman: And this play acting, this ethnic play acting overtime, what is the effect of that?
Robert Ku: Well, I think the effect of it is that it keeps Asians in America as perpetually foreign.
Robert Ku: If you're of European ancestry, you can easily be considered an American without any kind of friction. But if you happen to be brown or yellow, then suddenly your first impulse is to say you must be, you must be an alien. You must be an immigrant — when that person could be fourth, fifth generation American. For instance, if you look at the food analogies the hot dog and the hamburger and the pizza — all those foods originated in Europe. But very quickly it gets incorporated into this diet of Americans and no one ever questions whether a hot dog is American. But in fact, the Chinese food, the wonton soup for instance, has been in America longer than the hot dog and yet the wonton soup is seen as perpetually foreign even though it's been around for over 150 years. And even though Chinese in America has been here since 450 years, so this struggle to be seen as American, as legitimately American, is a challenge that Asian Americans can continually face.
Dan Pashman: As for Perry, the hibachi chef and self described redneck from South Carolina, after growing up in a hibachi family and doing the job himself, he left it ten years ago. Now he’s opened his own food truck in Charlotte, called Katsu Kart Sando Shop.
Dan Pashman: How do you feel about hibachi today?
Perry Saito: I still love it. I love eating it. I take my kids to it. My kids love it. I'll probably eat it, you know, couple times a year now. You know, that's always gonna be a part of my life. You know, whether or not the stereotypes or whatever we're gonna keep playing up, I don't know. But you know I still ... I still love, but I definitely couldn’t see myself ever doing it again.
Dan Pashman: Hey, have you heard that I’m taking The Sporkful on a huge U.S. on tour? When my cookbook comes out, I’m doing a series of live podcast tapings and book signing, hitting New York, Chicago, the Twin Cities, Atlanta, Miami, D.C. and many more. Go to sporkful.com/tour to see if I’m visiting your city and get your tickets today.