Aaron has a starring role in culinary theatre

Aaron Zhao, chef at WasabiSabi
Aaron Zhao, chef at WasabiSabi

WASABISABI opened up new horizons for Sheffield diners when it became the city’s first Japanese restaurant in 2004.

Seven years on, it has paved the way for another four offering sushi or teriyaki. But it remains the only one with a teppanyaki room – and that is booked up weeks in advance.

This specialised form of cuisine takes place on an iron hotplate, with guests sitting around the outside.

Chefs take on the role of entertainer, cooking food with a flourish, tossing titbits for guests to catch in their mouths, juggling eggs and utensils and creating flaming towers of onion rings.

The man in charge of the WasabiSabi hot plates is Chinese-born Aaron Zhao, one of the restaurant’s longest-serving staff, who revels in this specialised form of culinary theatre.

“It’s been a great experience so far,” he says. “I like the fact that there’s a nice mix of people who eat here, along with a few regulars who visit quite often. Plus, I really enjoy cooking on the teppanyaki tables and entertaining the guests.”

WasabiSabi, in London Road, was set up by Sheffield-based Rita and John Pham, who were fed up with having to travel to Manchester, Leeds or Nottingham to indulge their passion for Japanese food.

The restaurant was modelled on those they had experienced in Hong Kong and Tokyo but local artists were brought in to give it a contemporary Sheffield twist.

One of its quirky attractions is the ‘wish on a fish’ tradition, where guests write their dream on a paper fish and hang it from a net.

Desires range from the the pragmatic: ‘to be pregnant’; to the fantastic: ‘I wish I was a mermaid’ and the downright daft: ‘I wish the world was made of chocolate.’

Over the years WasabiSabi has been regularly nominated for awards, winning Eat Sheffield’s Best Oriental Restaurant in 2008 and reaching the finals again last year.

The campaign is now under way to impress judges this year, not least by taking part in the Sheffield Food Festival (July 4-10).

The restaurant is planning a special £15 tapas menu for the occasion, giving new customers a taste of Japan, from gyoza dumplings and sushi to soft shell crab and udon noodles.

“Many places around the country already have established food festivals, so it was about time we had our own festival to celebrate the Sheffield food scene,” says Aaron.

“We need people to come together, work together and celebrate what we have.

“It’s also good to let people know that there are great things happening in the city when it comes to food.”

Find out more about Sheffield Food Festival: www.sheffieldfoodfestival.com