The story behind the beginnings of the Japanese steakhouse in America reads like a Hollywood movie script: a young Japanese immigrant comes to New York City, sells ice cream in Harlem to fund his first teppanyaki restaurant, gets a rave review in the paper, expands his empire nationally, becomes a multimillionaire, fathers children from two ex-wives and marries a third partner, almost dies in a speed boating accident, gets caught in an insider trading scandal, and sues four of his children before dying.
Yet, it’s the very real rags-to-riches backstory behind Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki, the ostentatious founder of Benihana, the first Japanese teppanyaki restaurant in the United States. Before his death at age 69 in 2008, the Benihana fortune was estimated at over $50 million . How Aoki accumulated, and almost lost, is the stuff of legends.
A childhood wrestler in Japan, Aoki immigrated to the U.S. on a university wrestling scholarship in 1957. The tenacious wrestler and hospitality management student would sell Mr.Softee ice cream adorned with colorful mini Japanese parasols during the week in Harlem to earn money on the side. By the age of 25, he soon collected $10,000, enough to co-fund the first original restaurant on West 56th Street with his father who was himself a restaurateur in Tokyo. The chosen name—Benihana—was a homage to the namesake of the Tokyo café owned by Aoki’s father, Yunosuke, named for the Japanese word for blossom flower. It was also the elder Aoki that convinced his son to incorporate the histrionics—the flashy knife work and chef theatrics—into the teppanyaki restaurant concept that would later be popularly known to serve the “holy” steak, shrimp and chicken trinity on a grill in front of hungry audiences seated communally at one table.
Though the first few months sputtered along, the restaurant soon took off in popularity after a glowing review from legendary food critic Clementine Paddleford from the New York Herald Tribune. Aoki opened several more Benihana restaurant across the nation (currently with over 60 operating restaurants in the U.S., but none in North Carolina). The money started rolling in, and so did Aoki’s troubles.
As the story goes, according to a New York Magazine profile in 2008, Aoki’s first wife, with whom he had fathered three children, met his mistress (who would later become his second wife) in a hospital room. Aoki, who was quite fond of speedboat racing, had gotten in a near catastrophic boating accident and suffered severe injuries. Aoki survived, and continued his flashy raconteur-ish ways, fathering more children with his second wife and continued his pursuit of boat racing. He relentlessly promoted the Benihana brand, and compared himself in the past, coincidentally, to the present-day presumptive Republican nominee:
I was like Trump,” brags Rocky, whose hair is still as distinctive as the Donald’s: a tightly permed Jheri curl he says he adopted in the sixties so that white people could tell him apart from other Asians. “Anything to promote my company, I did it. Richard Branson? He copy me.
Aoki continued his lavish rock star life up until his death. He partied, he gambled, he snorted cocaine, he cheated on his wives, he gambled on backgammon games, he broke hot air balloon records, he sold diet pills, he produced Broadway plays, and he continued to race speed boats. He even funded the porn magazine Genesis in 1973.
In the late 90’s, Aoki became embroiled in an insider-trading scandal—a legal matter that would have devastating effects on his brood of six children. During the case in 1998, a large portion of the Benihana of Tokyo trust was placed in the hands of Aoki’s children to protect its assets, and as a result, the teppanyaki scions used the control to protect themselves against Aoki’s third wife who became a threat to the multi-million dollar inheritance. Aoki sued four of his six children before his death claiming that his kids had breached their fiduciary duties.The two kids not named in the lawsuit, Devon Aoki, a model and an actress, and Steve Aoki, a popular EDM DJ, remained on good terms with their father.
Aoki died in 2008 at the age of 69 from pneumonia.
In 2014, according to Page Six, the children gained control of the Benihana trust, but cannot receive their fortune until they each turn 45. Aoki’s third wife, Keiko, remains the trustee of the fund that holds all the stock in the company.
Despite the Japanese steakhouse’s salacious past, the state of the present day Japanese steakhouse restaurant comparably is quite tepid. For better or worse, not much has changed over the years at the Japanese steakhouse.
My first exposure to Japanese steakhouses was in the early 1990’s, from a birthday party trip to Kanki at Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh. At age nine, I was mesmerized. The tricks–the onion volcano, the vegetable oil smiley face, the Flaming Shrimp toss, the fake-out squeeze bottle, the egg acrobatics, the fried rice Pac-man joke–they all worked on nine-year-old me. The fancy knife-work legitimately impressed me.
At age 33, I’m less impressed than ever on the rare occasions that I visit a Japanese steakhouse. It’s always the same rote routine: limp salad doused in gobs of ginger dressing, melamine bowl of Miyabi onion soup, followed by tubs of “yum yum” sauce, and chunks of meat shellacked in soy sauce, butter, and lemon juice cooked teppanyaki-style served over fried rice. The amount of sodium in each serving is probably high enough to have you reaching for your blood pressure meds. Yet, the crowds keep stampeding through the doors.
A photo posted by Isabella Vigilante (@kankirestaurant) on
These days, hardly anyone is even remotely Japanese anymore at the Japanese steakhouses (most of them are Chinese-owned in the Triangle). I don’t think I’ve even seen one Japanese chef cooking at any of the places I’ve been to (I always hear them speaking Mandarin). The tricks haven’t been updated in decades, which is baffling to me. Wouldn’t you want to standout more amongst the competition with fancier knife work and tricks? At the grill, your “Asian” chef will feign a small modicum of enthusiasm to cook for you, especially if there are kids in your party, but otherwise the performance always seems to err on the side of general apathy.
On any given Saturday night, crowds flood into Japanese steakhouses around the Triangle eager to catch dinner and a show. Rocky Aoki may have landed in New York and not California, but he struck gold by bringing the teppanyaki concept to the United States. The American Dream continues to live on through the onion volcano, hibachi steak and Flaming shrimp. Isn’t America great?