Power of Food

One of many popular “Japanese steakhouses,” Todoroki specializes in serving sushi and perhaps more interestingly, hibachi. “Hibachi” in the United States refers to a fried rice entrée prepared through a flamboyant cooking performance by a trained chef. On the contrary, “hibachi” in Japanese has a completely different meaning, referring to a traditional heating container. According to “The History of Hibachi/Teppanyaki,” “teppanyaki” more accurately describes the style of cooking on a “teppan” or flat griddle which American hibachi chefs utilize while preparing the fried rice. Teppanyaki-style food originated in Japan in 1964 with the creation of the restaurant Misono, and was meant to bring together both Japanese and non-Japanese with its easily palatable flavors which were more mild than other traditional Japanese foods. Since then, Japanese steakhouses have grown in popularity in the United States as a destination restaurant for special occasions or large parties. However rather than unifying people through food, Todoroki’s representation of Japanese culture through their environment, staff and “hibachi style” food all work to further alienate Asian/Americans from the rest of society.

The physical layout of Todoroki immediately Orientalizes Japanese culture. Most the restaurant utilizes waist-high tables with elevated chairs which society deems as “Western style.” Only a small fraction of Todoroki imitates the low tables and floor-seats commonly seen in Japanese culture. Because of this layout, Todoroki draws attention to the Japanese seating area, isolating it from the rest of the restaurant and making it distinctly separate from other seating options. The décor in Todoroki clearly attempts to Orientalize the restaurant by imitating the minimalist Japanese style. Bamboo screens randomly scatter the restaurant, and the entrance to the kitchen is separated by a door curtain with an Oriental tapestry. One room contains two portraits of Buddha, implying the assumption that most Asians practice Buddhism. These stereotypical images of “Asian-ness” prove Todoroki’s attempt to make its environment feel exotic and different while still making their target consumers comfortable with familiar seating arrangements. However, in their attempt to introduce customers to a different culture, Todoroki’s juxtaposition of Eastern and Western elements ultimately underscores the foreignness of Japanese culture.

Todoroki’s choice of staff also displays the hegemonic intersectionality between Asian/American race and class. All of Todoroki’s hibachi chefs are ethnically some type of Asian and speak, whether naturally or purposefully, with an ambiguous Asian accent. In contrast, the waiters and waitresses, who interact directly with the customers, are all Caucasian.  Because upper-middle class Caucasians are Todoroki’s target consumers, Todoroki ensures they feel comfortable in the restaurant by having familiar Caucasian waiters and waitresses who customers can freely speak to. The fact that all the hibachi chefs are Asian, speak with Asian accents and are the ones to prepare the food emphasizes the image of Asian Americans being foreigners and laborers. It is as if having an Asian chef somehow makes the food and experience more genuinely Asian. Furthermore, the entertainment aspect of the chefs cooking the food is a defining characteristic of hibachi. By having all Asian hibachi chefs, Todoroki depicts Asians not only as laborers but also entertainers for the white upper-middle class.4f5bf951118f2-image

Todoroki’s presentation of hibachi style food demonstrates how Asian food must be “Westernized” to be accepted. Todoroki’s hibachi entrée includes “hibachi soup, house salad, and fried rice with grilled vegetables and choice of meat.” The hibachi soup consists of a salty, thin broth with a few slices of mushrooms and scallions with a very mild flavor reminiscent of French onion soup. The house salad contains the standard “classic iceberg” salad mix found in any grocery store covered in a sweet, slightly citrusy dressing they deem as “ginger dressing.” And the fried rice has very basic rice, vegetables and meat cooked in butter and seasoned with the typical soy sauce and teriyaki sauce. Moreover, Todoroki serves the fried rice with the famous “Yum Yum Sauce,” a creamy mayonnaise-based dipping sauce. Each element of the hibachi entrée contains a very distinct “Western” element to it such as the soup flavor, salad mix, butter and mayonnaise, and it is these parts that make hibachi popular in the United States due to its familiar, palatable flavors. Todoroki serves each part of the meal in black and red Oriental dishware including an Asian soup spoon to give the meal a more exotic feel, however they choose to set all the hibachi tables with forks rather than chopsticks. They reserve chopsticks for customers who are feeling “adventurous,” even offering little chopstick helpers for those who do not know how to use them. Through isolating the availability of chopsticks, Todoroki emphasizes the exotic element of chopsticks, labeling them as a foreign experience for their customers. The popularity and desirability of hibachi lies in its ability to take Japanese food and culture and market it for a “Western” audience.

Todoroki’s hibachi demonstrates the inherent problem with cultural appropriation in a capitalist society. Ethically, it is wrong to reduce someone’s identity, life and culture into a marketable product to sell for a profit. Moreover, restaurants like Todoroki reinforce pre-existing Asian stereotypes in which the hegemonic dominant group utilizes to limit a subordinate group’s agency. In their attempt to expose people to Asian food and culture, Japanese steakhouses ultimately end up labeling Asian/Americans as exotic foreigners considered separate from American culture.

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