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Hibachi chef at South Side steakhouse makes dinner spectacular

Luke Bercik likes to play with fire.

As one of the most in-demand hibachi chefs at Nakama, a Japanese steakhouse in South Side, Bercik spends more than 40 hours each week flipping eggs, juggling spatulas and igniting fires to entertain -- and feed -- his guests.

"I spend my days playing on top of a 500-degree grill with sharp objects," said Bercik, 28, of South Side. "But it's taken me from the bottom to the top."

Before donning his tall, black chef's hat and white jacket, Bercik grew up in a small family in the same neighborhood. His father, a chef, died when he was 3. Bercik became close with his mother and extended family.

After dropping out of Pittsburgh Public Schools as a teenager, he worked to earn his GED at 17 -- a year before he was supposed to graduate -- and pursued basic education classes at Community College of Allegheny County.

He started working at Nakama more than five years ago as a busboy. Co-owner Becky Gomes met Bercik during a South Side Street Spectacular while he was making sandwiches at a deli.

"After a while as a busboy, we got him trained as a chef and he just went crazy on his own," said Gomes of McCandless. "Now he's one of our most requested chefs. It's been a fun few years."

Nakama -- which means "place for friends" in Japanese -- is one of several hibachi-style restaurants in the region. Chefs cook shrimp, chicken, steak and vegetables at large tables that generally seat eight. Cooks are trained to perform "tricks" ranging from flipping shrimp tails into their hats to igniting an onion "volcano."

Bercik has a few favorite tricks -- particularly one he dubbed the "Geno roll" after Penguins superstar Evgeni Malkin, a regular customer who picked up the trick himself. In that maneuver, Bercik juggles an egg on his metal spatula before tossing it in the air and cracking it with the side of the spatula.

Because of the flames and sharp objects involved in his job, Bercik works carefully. He knows from experience the pain associated with slip-ups.

"I once fell on the grill, bare-handed, after losing my footing while serving food," he said. "You learn to be careful."

One of his favorite things is interacting with customers, many of whom are strangers when they sit down at the family-style tables.

Yet, away from Nakama, Bercik describes himself as a quiet family man. He wouldn't divulge his salary but said his pay and tips are "pretty good," and the job enables him to bring home enough money to help his family.

Being a chef is conducive to another passion of his: hockey. As a season ticketholder for Penguins games, he works his cooking schedule around the team's schedule.

He has cooked for the big names -- among them, Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Sergei Gonchar -- and several out-of-town players such as Tampa Bay Lightning forwards Vincent Lecavalier, Ryan Malone and Martin St. Louis. After the Penguins won the Stanley Cup last month, he created a cup-styled onion volcano.

Hockey players aren't the only superstars for whom he cooks. Bercik said he has served "a handful, maybe two handfuls" of celebrities. Some, such as singer/guitarist Gene Simmons from Kiss, he didn't recognize until someone told him.

He'd love to open his own hibachi restaurant one day.

"I came from a small family, with a lot of troubles," Bercik said. "I've struggled growing up, but now, it's nice being successful."

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