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The art of the hibachi chef: Carbondale's Fujiyama Steakhouse a unique experience
Larry Saliri, a hibatch chef at Fujiyama Steakhouse, lights up a Japanese birthday candle to celebrate a customer's birthday. (Pamela Kay Schmalenberger, The Southern)

Larry Saliri had a big smile on his face as his pushed his cart into the hibachi dining area of the Fujiyama Steakhouse in Carbondale.

"Is it somebody's birthday in here" he asked as he began to unload his utensils and cooking supplies and get settled in behind the grill. A man seated in the middle of the group of nine people raised his hand.

Saliri went through each customer's order, making sure he could match a face with the menu item. He then poured out two different dipping sauces, ginger sauce and "yummy" sauce, which would more commonly be known as shrimp sauce.

"You can taste it with your fork and figure out which you like best," he said.

Owner Justin Qiu opened the Fujiyama Steakhouse this past May. His family has had hibachi restaurants in West Virginia and Ohio. He also owns the Wok n Roll in Marion.

The idea for a hibachi restaurant was natural to Qiu, since the closest ones are in Paducah or St. Louis.

"There are so many Chinese restaurants now, but not many of original Japanese food," he said.

A hibachi restaurant uses a traditional Japanese way of preparing food over an iron grill at the table in front of the customers.

After distributing the sauces around the table, Saliri pulled out a long two-pronged fork and spatula. He immediately started to tap out a rhythm on the grill with the spatula, eventually adding in the fork. Suddenly, he flipped the spatula in the air, catching it and resuming the same rhythm without missing a beat.

As Saliri finished, the table applauded.

The skill of a Hibachi chef is not just measured in the way the food is prepared. They must be an entertainer as well. Because of this, Qiu said that the training process takes about six months.

A devilish grin spread across Saliri lips as he doused the grill with sake. He touched the beginning of the trail of liquid with a match that quickly spread along a small line until it sent a huge flame to the ceiling, compelling "oooh and ahhs" from the onlookers around the table.

Saliri looked at the man across from him. "Where is your hair," he jokingly exclaimed.

It's been seven years now since Saliri trained to become a hibachi chef.

"It was really hard," he said. "I didn't even know how to cut (properly)."

The first time he actually fixed food was in front of co-workers. The second time was in front of customers, on a weekend where the restaurant he was working at in St. Louis was short on chefs.

"I had to cook for ten people," he said. "I told the customers, honestly, that it was my first day and they supported me."

To begin making the rice, Saliri brought out a few eggs. He spun one faster and faster on the grill, then flipped it in the air with the spatula a couple of times, finally cracking it on grill. After frying the eggs, he unloaded a tray of vegetables on the far right end of the grill: mushrooms, broccoli, carrots, and zucchini.

While he cooked, Saliri would joke with the people at the table, his smile making sure everyone knew that it was all in fun and that it was all part of the experience.

He took several thick slices of onion, piling them on top of one another in an hour glass shape. The people at the table seemed confused until he brought out the bottle of sake, squeezing it in the middle of the onion slices.

Saliri began singing "Happy Birthday" and lit the sake. Flames began shooting up from the onions, making it into a small volcano. As the fire raged, he led the entire table in song around what could be considered a very large candle.

Now, it was time to get down to business. The rice and lo mien were placed on the grill. Saliri seasoned and fried each until he used the spatula to distribute it on the plates around the table.

Then he brought out the tray of meat: chicken, steak, scallops, shrimp, and salmon. The grill steamed and sizzled as he slid the meat off the tray and covered it with lemon juice. As the meat was cooked, he scooped it on to the corresponding plate around the table.

When the vegetables were finished, they were also placed on the plates as well. The meal was finished.

Saliri loaded his cart back up and left the table to eat what he had prepared.

"They not only come to have the food, they come for entertainment," he said.

"Maybe a customer comes here in a bad mood. But when they get here and they are entertained they become happy and they forget why they were in a bad mood."

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