On a daily basis, he does a fair amount of flashy juggling with knives or spatulas. He can spin eggs around a sizzling grill with a flourish — skillfully tossing them up into the air, while at the last minute repurposing his chef’s hat as a culinary catcher’s mitt of sorts.

Hibachi chef Chungda Lama is better known by local diners at Sea40 as “Peter.” He’s developed a sharp aim while putting on his choreographed grilled meals for up to 14 customers at a time. With patrons gathered up around a hot grill roughly the size of a small table (about 4 feet wide by 2-1/2 feet deep), Lama swiftly taps his spatula, catapulting little bits and nibbles of zucchini through the air — hopefully to land straight into the mouths of his hungry diners! He’s also great at aiming long streams of saki into the (hopefully wide open) mouths of any and all good-natured, willing customers.

Admitting the analogy is not in the least connected to cooking, he compared his hibachi grill showmanship to the strategy involved in a game of football — his role would be that of the quarterback and the diner’s would be that of a wide receiver.

Lama came to the United States from Sikkim, India, when he was 22. Since he had no sisters in his family, he became the designated chef in his family — taught basic cooking skills by his mother at the age of 8 or 9. He said he was lucky to have learned English at the Catholic missionary schools he attended, which, with a knowledge of American currency, helped him land a job in America.

He first began his restaurant career as a server in a Japanese restaurant in Bartonsville, Pa. He said he owes his hibachi skills to Mr. Lee, owner of the restaurant, who shared his grilling expertise with Lama shortly after being hired. That’s how most hibachi skills are passed on, Lama said. After six to eight months of practice and apprenticeship, hibachi became Lama’s specialty.

When it came to learning the showmanship of hibachi grilling, he said, “There was no class. No school.” All of his tricks were gained “by watching the other guys,” he said, “and practicing in my room.” In the years since, he has invented several tricks, such as springing a lemon off the tabletop with his spatula and dramatically catching it midair on the tines of a fork.

Lama seems to know his hibachi grill better than the back of his hand. He knows the center is the hottest spot to cook, and he knows to not put soy sauce in that particular area — because it will smoke too much and not add the proper punch of flavor the food requires. He knows the section of the grill immediately above center is used for cooking chicken — a more medium temperature that allows the chicken to cook a bit more slowly and slightly longer, in order for it to cook through completely.

Hibachi meals at Sea40 run the gamut, from shrimp, scallops and salmon, to a super-tender filet mignon, chicken or vegetable medley. And if you can’t decide on just one selection, the hibachi chefs will put together almost any combination plate you want. Prices range from $14 to $28; smaller portions are available during weekdays at lunchtime.

According to Lama, hibachi has its roots back in the 13th century, when Mongolian warriors cooked meat over fire using their shields as a frying pan of sorts. It was called teppanyaki, teppan meaning “iron plate” and yaki meaning “grilled, broiled or pan fried.” Around 1880, he said, Japan started using grills — hibachi — heated by charcoal stacked up under the center of the grill. It was during the mid-1900s when America borrowed the idea, and upgraded the concept by using either gas or electric grills. While authentic hibachi grilling is traditionally done over an open, grated grill design, Lama said, most people in the United States have, over the years, come to use the terms teppanyaki and hibachi interchangeably.

Over the 18 years that Lama has been a hibachi chef, he has worked in numerous states and has traveled his way up the East Coast. He’s had the opportunity to cook for several celebs including Queen Latifa, John Travolta and Tony Hawk.

Lama has been at Sea40 since it opened in 2012, and so far he has liked living and working in Maine. He happily refers to his customers as “very nice people!” (At times being one of those customers, I was quite pleased to hear this!) He said his ultimate goal is simple: “We always try to give them good service and good food.”

Sea 40’s mango chicken

Step 1: Prepare chicken

Take 1 pound of chicken and slice into long, thin strips. Coat chicken (about 30 minutes prior to cooking) with approximately 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and set aside. If desired, start cooking rice at this time.

Step 2: Make mango sauce

Put the following ingredients into a blender and pulse until blended. When done, set aside.

1/2 mango, peeled and de-seeded

A small handful of green onion

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

8 ounces water (you can adjust to create desired consistency)

Step 3: Prep vegetables and mango

Chop 2.5 to 3 cups of vegetables into long strips — your choice of onion, zucchini, green pepper, pea pods, asparagus, mushrooms and carrots. Peel one whole mango, remove seeds, and cut into long thin strips, similar to the vegetables.

Step 4: Prepare mango chicken

In hot skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil; add chicken strips and stir-fry quickly, until nearly well done. Remove chicken from pan and set aside on a plate. Add all vegetables along with the sliced mango strips to the pan; stir-fry gently until tender, but still bright in color and slightly crisp (approximately 5 minutes). Add back the cooked chicken. Cook chicken briefly (an additional two to three minutes) on low temp. Add the mango sauce and quickly toss together. Serve over cooked rice.

40 East Ave.

Lewiston, Me.

795-6888

www.sea40me.com

Go ahead: Try this at home!

Yes, teppanyaki or hibachi grilling can certainly be attempted by the do-it-yourself chef, says Sea40 hibachi chef Chungda Lama.

“First thing is you don’t need a huge grill,” said Lama, who goes by “Peter” to customers. The reason: You probably won’t be cooking for 14 people. Gas is nice if you have it, he adds, but an electric griddle is OK to use at home, too. Or the well-seasoned, tried-and-true wok.

You should know how to control the temperature of your griddle or pan. “Because, if not, your food will be burned!” Lama says, noting that burnt oil won’t taste good, and it will make your food ugly.

Grill temps are usually set to high for beef, seafood or vegetables. As for chicken, Lama makes sure it is cooked through thoroughly (he calls it “well done”) and kept away from other foods on the grill to prevent any bacterial contamination. For that reason, he tends to cook chicken a bit slower, on medium heat.

Consider the oil. “Better taste and quality is not due to the difference in oils,” he says. This is definitely a case of “simple is better” — Lama uses a very basic vegetable oil. Corn oil works well, too, he says. Use as little oil as possible. After a minute or two, the food will create its own juices, which help with the cooking process.

Make sure to run the ventilation fan over your stove, if you have one, to remove smoke created by the oil and to help clean the air of grease smells.

What not to try at home: Any teppanyaki tricks that involve open flames!


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