Rocky Aoki, Who Created Benihana Chain, Is Dead at 69
Published: July 12, 2008
Rocky Aoki, who founded the theatrical Benihana chain of steakhouses, where Japanese chefs with flashing knives double as performers, died Thursday night in Manhattan. He was 69.
Edward Keating/The New York Times
Rocky Aoki in 2000.
The cause was pneumonia, said Nancy Bauer, a spokeswoman for the family.
In 1964, when Mr. Aoki opened his first Benihana steakhouse, on West 56th Street in Manhattan, he introduced New Yorkers to dining as theater, and chefs as culinary acrobats. Seated around a flat steel grill, customers watched chefs sharpen their knives, toss them in the air, drizzle the grill with oil, sizzle the chicken, shrimp or steak on the grill, and flip the food onto the plates. Children stared goggle-eyed.
Benihana’s style of food is called teppan-yaki. Eating there is “equal parts restaurant, magic show and performance art,” said David Rockwell, the founder of the Rockwell Group, a Manhattan architecture firm that has designed more than 75 restaurants, including Nobu. “It was way ahead of its time.”
Mr. Aoki also introduced many Americans to Japanese food. “He was the first one who made it accessible for non-Japanese people to enjoy the Japanese experience,” said Drew Nieporent, whose Myriad Restaurant Group runs a number of restaurants including Tribeca Grill and Nobu. “The key thing was he made it fun,” he said.
Before Benihana opened, most Japanese restaurants in New York were styled only for the Japanese population, Mr. Nieporent said. Mr. Aoki changed the environment.
Hiroaki Aoki was born Oct. 9, 1938. From an early age, he was familiar with the restaurant life; his parents owned a coffee shop, which later became a full-service restaurant, according to the Benihana Web site.
Mr. Aoki came to the United States from Japan when he was 19, and several years later he opened the first restaurant with $10,000 he had earned selling ice cream out of a truck. Within seven years, he had expanded his empire to 15 restaurants.
Mr. Aoki resigned from the company in 1998 after learning that he was under investigation for insider trading. The next year, he pleaded guilty to charges that he had used an illegal tip to buy stock in Spectrum Information Technologies when he heard that John Sculley, then the chairman of Apple Computer, was negotiating to join the company. Mr. Aoki sold the shares after the appointment was announced, making hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was fined $500,000 and given three months’ probation.
Mr. Aoki was as theatrical as his restaurants, and enjoyed “flirting with death,” as Mr. Rockwell put it. He raced boats, and flew in hot-air balloons. In July 1979, he raced a 38-foot Cougar catamaran in his own race, the $50,000 Benihana Grand Prix offshore powerboat race near Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., and won. Later that summer, in San Francisco Bay, he had a near-fatal accident on a 38-foot powerboat. During a test run at 70 miles an hour, the boat lost its trim and dived into a wave. Mr. Aoki suffered a ruptured aorta, a lacerated liver and a leg broken in four places, according to an article in The New York Times.
In September 1982, he was piloting a 35-foot Active Marine racer in the Kiekhaefer St. Augustine Classic in Florida. He suffered leg injuries when the boat, going 80 miles an hour, hit a swell and shattered.
His love life was as tumultuous as his racing. He had six children by two women, and two of his children, Steven, a son of his first wife, Chizuru Kobayashi, and Echo, a daughter of Pamela Hilburger, who was his mistress while he was married to Ms. Kobayashi and later became his second wife, are the same age. Ms. Bauer, the spokeswoman, said that Mr. Aoki’s third wife, Keiko Ono Aoki, survives him, along with all of his children, who include Grace, known as Kana; Kevin; Kyle and Devon.