Rocky Aoki; Flashy Founder of Benihana
Saturday, July 12, 2008
Rocky Aoki, 69, a flamboyant businessman who parlayed his savings from an ice-cream truck into the international chain of Benihana Japanese steakhouses, known for the showmanship of their knife-tossing chefs, died July 10 in New York. In recent years, he said he had suffered from diabetes, hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver.
Mr. Aoki was an improbable success story who came to the United States from Japan on a wrestling scholarship and got his start in business by renting an ice-cream truck in Harlem, N.Y. He saved $10,000 from his ice-cream sales to open the first Benihana on New York's West 56th Street in 1964. He quickly built it into an international corporation that, at its peak, had about 100 restaurants worldwide.
Although not a trained chef, Mr. Aoki combined traditional Japanese cooking with a theatrical flair that made Benihana enormously popular. He seated customers around a steel-top grill -- a style of cooking called teppanyaki -- and trained his chefs to throw their knives in the air, add seasonings with a flourish and toss shrimp onto their hats.
He also borrowed from the vaudeville showmanship of his father, who had been a tap dancer and actor in Japan before opening an American-style jazz club and coffeehouse before World War II.
"My father was an actor and I was just about weaned on grease paint and the sound of applause," he told the Atlanta Journal.
Mr. Aoki also turned to his father for the name Benihana, which means "red flower" in Japanese. According to family legend, Mr. Aoki's father was walking through Tokyo after a U.S. bombing during World War II and saw a single red flower amid the rubble. He named his new restaurant after that small symbol of hope.
In the 1970s, Mr. Aoki turned to other pursuits, sponsoring powerboat races, Broadway plays and boxing matches and spending lavishly on antique cars and houses. He became a top-ranked speedboat racer, backgammon player, hot-air balloon pilot and driver in long-distance auto rallies.
He was almost killed in 1979, when his boat crashed in the San Francisco Bay, leaving him unconscious in the water with a lacerated liver, ruptured aorta and broken bones.
"I always say, you afraid of dying, you afraid of living also," he told Sports Illustrated in 1982. "Death and life are next to each other anyways."
Mr. Aoki led a complicated personal life, with multiple mistresses and illegitimate children. He once boasted that he had three children the same age, born to three different women.
His business dealings were sometimes questionable, and in 1980 he was charged with insider trading before settling out of court. In 1999, he pleaded guilty to insider trading and was fined $500,000.
His conviction forced him to step down as chairman and chief executive of Benihana. In recent years, he had a protracted legal feud with four of his children, who he said were trying to seize control of his businesses. A series of suits and countersuits were not resolved at the time of his death.