A college student finds success as a hibachi chef by combining fun and humor with creative cooking skills.
His best trick — the volcano — amazes his audience each time he demonstrates it. But don’t be mistaken: this is no seventh-grade science project or magic show.
This volcano lets out a fierce puff of smoke and bubbles up like a miniature Mount Fuji. It erupts into a ball of fire and lava spills over the top.
So what’s the kicker? It’s also edible.
First, he slices a large onion into rings and stacks it into the shape of a cone. Then he pours cooking oil and vodka into the center of the onion as it sizzles on a hot, flat hibachi stove surface. Once he lights the top with a lighter, flames burst up into the air like a rocket launch.
He pours soy sauce inside, which bubbles and spill over like lava erupting out of a volcano. And finally, he sprinkles black pepper into the flame, which makes it flicker and spark up like cinders in a fireplace.
A simple trick, but he tells his audience not to try this at home.
His name: Chun Auyeung.
“But everyone calls me ‘Chika–Chika’ John,” he says as he slides his hand back and forth in the air on imaginary turntables.
John, a 23-year-old Chinese-American from West Palm Beach, who majors in food science at the University of Florida, works as a chef at Yamato Japanese Steak House & Sushi Bar in Gainesville.
Besides his famous volcano, John performs other tricks for his customers while he’s cooking.
He starts out his routine by pouring oil on the hibachi stove in a zigzag trail pattern. Then he lights the stove with a match, and it becomes a huge blaze of fire that blows everyone back from the table and warms their faces.
Then he juggles his cooking utensils and hits them together and against the stove, making clicking sounds as if he were hitting a cymbal or empty mason jar.
“Watch out, it’s my second day on the job,” John says, joking, as he flips a knife.
Before he makes the fried rice, he takes three eggs, one by one, and spins them on the stove. As they spin, he quickly scoops them up on his spatula, flips the egg up and down, and catches it on the spatula a few times, simulating a bouncing rubber ball attached to a string and paddleboard.
He hits each egg with the side of the spatula and cracks it in half, and the contents pour onto the stove.
“This trick is for you,” John says to a blue-eyed, strawberry-blonde-haired little girl who can barely see over the table where she sits with her family.
John tosses the last egg up and it disappears inside the top of his chef hat, which resembles the high, black top hat Abraham Lincoln wore.
After the fried rice is cooked, he serves it to each customer. When he gets to the end of the table, John drops a few grains of rice on the plate of one of the twin boys. The boy and his family laugh as he holds out his plate looking for more rice.
“Whoops!” John says, giggling, and then spoons the rest of the rice onto the little boy’s plate.
John takes out the meat and vegetables and slices and dices them with precision. His hands move in a rhythmic pattern like a drummer in a rock ‘n’ roll band.
Once everything is cooked to the customer’s standards, John serves the meat and vegetables to the family.
“Bigark!” John shouts, imitating the sound of a chicken, as he drops the chicken pieces onto the children’s plates.
The little girl looks up at her parents when John puts the vegetables on her plate.
“You want vegetables? They’re good for you,” John says.
The little girl stares blankly at the vegetables, and her mother tells her that she doesn’t have to eat them.
“You can eat this,” John reassures the little girl. “They’re like Chicken McNuggets.”
One of the twin boys also picks at his food, because he doesn’t like different kinds of food to touch on his plate. “He’s weird like that,” his father explains to John.
John dishes out the rest of the food onto the little boy’s plate and meticulously separates each item with his spatula.
These moments highlight just a few of the things John does at Yamato for his customers. Be it a great show, great food, or great customer service, John’s customers appreciate and support his work.
“It’s very entertaining,” says Kim Cabrera, a 22-year-old UF student eating dinner with her parents who came to visit her for the weekend. “I always liked the volcano, because they do it different every time. The fire was good too, especially for kids to see. I’d bring my godchildren to see it.”
Kim’s mother says she also enjoyed the food as well as John’s show.
“He interacts with the customers and that’s a plus,” she says. “He makes jokes and makes it fun to watch.”
Cooking is not only his part-time job. It’s more like a passion than a hobby, John says.
“I like to cook for people,” John says. “It’s kind of like art.”
John has been in the restaurant business for nine years, working as a busboy, server, and cook. Yamato was the first restaurant John applied to and worked for in Gainesville. At first, he was a server, then he worked in the kitchen, and now he is a chef. He’s worked at Yamato for about four years.
John says he used to feel nervous when he started cooking in front of people, and it took him about a month to get over it and feel comfortable.
Cooking and performing tricks may come easy to him now, but John wasn’t always so smooth.
When he was first starting out as a new chef on the job, John twirled a spatula to show off his technique to his customers one unforgettable evening. As it spun in the air, John lost control of the spatula and it dropped into a dish full of sauce, splashing the sauce onto a woman.
“It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to notice it on her shirt,” John recalls. “She wasn’t upset about it. I thought she was drunk, because she was laughing the whole time and she had a lot of sake to drink that night.”
After that minor mishap, John now looks like a natural – a class act. It seems as if he could hang with the professionals on the Iron Chef cooking show.
John says he had no formal training on learning how to cook – it was all on-the-job training. The owner-slash-head-chef taught him the basics, but his unique cooking style is something that he picked up along the way from watching other chefs and developing his own techniques.
“It’s not required, but customers come in to see that,” John says about his cooking tricks. “If they just wanted a meal, they would’ve gone to a regular restaurant. But when they sit at a hibachi table, they come to see a show.”
And what a show it is.
“I like to be unique,” John says. “I don’t want to be like regular chefs.”
John also stands out among the other chefs because he is the youngest chef at Yamato. The next person close to his age is in his 30s.
“I can relate to the customers better,” John says. “This is a college town. The other chefs are older, don’t speak English very well and don’t communicate that well with the customers.”
His manager at Yamato, Leslie Cainas, agrees. She says that John gets tons of requests because the customers love him.
“He’s really funny,” she says. “He’s a people person. He’ll do anything to make you laugh, and he’s easy to work with.”
Leslie says that she really likes to watch John’s cooking techniques because he has character.
“He adds his own flare to it and makes it that much more entertaining,” she says. “Not to point out the other chefs, but they don’t do that.”
John says he cooks about nine to 10 times each day and sometimes gets exhausted, but he loves his job. “My back hurts sometimes from standing crouched over the stove all day,” John says.
He also says that all the smoke and fire in his face can feel like a steaming facial. “That’s why our eyes are like this,” he says, pointing to his small, almond-shaped eyes.
But overall, John just enjoys cooking, talking to customers, and making them laugh.
“It’s not just about cooking for me,” he says. “It’s about the relationship between the chef and the customer.”