The ultimate birthday meal for me when I was growing up was a trip to Benihana, the great Japanese-American chain restaurant that introduced tableside teppanyaki cooking to America. To this day, that style of cooking strikes a deep chord for me: the sheer kinetic energy of the chef, the thrill as a diner of being so close to the physicality of the act of cooking. A teppanyaki restaurant turns the normal dining model on its head: Normally, cooking takes place behind closed doorseven in so-called "open kitchen" restaurants, or restaurants where you dine at a kitchen bar, it's rare that chefs work while looking the diner in the eye. But with teppanyaki everything is stripped bare, and the very process of cooking is as important to the dining experience as the food itself.
It's a lot harder than it looks, though. The teppanyaki is a finicky heat source, like a standard restaurant griddle station taken to extremes: it's blazingly hot in the center while the edges are relatively cool. As a result, the types of dishes you can use it for (and the quantity in which you can make those dishes) is fairly finite.
Which brings us to tonight's episode: add to that the fact that the chefs didn't just have to cook for their diners but perform for them, and teppanyaki-style cooking becomes a true exercise in leaving your comfort zone. The chefs were handicapped by time (ten minutes at a cooktop is barely anything), unfamiliarity with the grill, and for some of them, simple stage fright.