- Hiroaki "Rocky" Aoki opened the first Benihana restaurant in mid-town Manhattan in 1964, based on the unique cooking style of teppanyaki.
- Rocky knew the odds were stacked against him in a post-WWII America, so he focused on making the menu as American as possible.
- He deliberately banned any foods that might seem slippery, slimy or fishy, which were stereotypes Americans harbored about Japanese cuisine.
- Watch the video above to learn how Benihana became a multi-million dollar restaurant chain.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: When you think of Benihana, you probably think of their spatula-flipping chefs and flaming onion volcanoes. Or maybe DJ Steve Aoki, son of Benihana founder, Rocky Aoki. What you might not think of, however, is how much Benihana transformed America.
Today, Benihana is a household name. But when Rocky Aoki opened the first Benihana in 1964, most Americans wouldn’t even think about touching Japanese food. World War II wreaked havoc on America’s relationship with Japan. There was a fear that Japanese Americans were loyal to Japan and would somehow try to sabotage American war efforts resulting in the internment camps.
The paranoia and propaganda against Japanese Americans cultivated a hostile and racist environment for anyone associated with Japan. In 1944 the Japanese internment camps were marked unlawful by the Supreme Court. But just because the Japanese Americans were free to return home didn’t mean they’d have a warm reception.
So when Rocky Aoki emigrated from Japan to America, with a dream to open a Japanese restaurant for Americans, it was a long shot that his dream would come true. And yet, it did. Benihana was the brainchild of Aoki’s parents, Yonosuke and Katsu Aoki. His father Yonosuke was famously descended from Samurai, and was the one who came up with the name Benihana, named after the red flower he found while walking through the rubble of war-torn Tokyo. Rocky famously wrestled for Japan in the 1960 Olympics, before moving to America where he would become a world champion until 1962. While attending college, Aoki worked odd jobs and scooped ice cream until he was able to rent out a restaurant space in mid-town Manhattan.
Jeannie Means: And his thinking was that Americans would love the traditional proteins, shrimp, chicken, fish, steak, but cooked on a steel grill, which is called teppanyaki, and it is a unique cooking style to Japan.
Narrator: The rise of teppanyaki is uniquely rooted in World War II. In 1945, a Japanese chef began using the cooking style to grill steaks for homesick American soldiers. It seems fitting that a Japanese cooking style, used for Americans deployed in Japan, would eventually make its way across the Pacific, to bring Japanese food to the States.
Rocky Aoki knew what he was up against when he opened Benihana of Tokyo in mid-town Manhattan. He deliberately banned any foods that might seem slippery, slimy or fishy, which were stereotypes Americans harbored about Japanese cuisine. Instead, Aoki focused on making the menu as American as possible, offering American-friendly entrees like steak and chicken that were done grilled with Japanese-style sauces. He added live entertainment by chefs to make the meal even more appealing. Food was flipped through the air and jokes were served up with every entree.
Despite Aoki’s efforts, the restaurant struggled during its first year. Aoki reportedly slept on the restaurant’s bathroom floor for six months as the restaurant continued to lose money. At the time, Japanese restaurants in America mostly catered to Japanese people, while Americans didn’t seek out Japanese restaurants. So as a Japanese restaurant looking to cater to Americans, Benihana didn’t really fit into any existing equations.
However, everything changed after a rave review by Clementine Paddleford in the New York Herald Tribune. The review ushered in locals, tourists, and even celebrities. Everyone from Muhammad Ali to the Beatles ate at Benihana of Tokyo on West 56 Street.
People were fascinated by this concept of a chef cooking food right at your table. And Aoki soon opened a second location a few blocks away to handle all of the demand.
Ad Presenter: If you think our Benihana chef is good, wait till you taste the food.
Narrator: Rocky Aoki continued expanding his empire, opening new restaurants around America. By 1972, there were nearly 20 Benihana restaurants in America bringing in 12 million dollars a year. Ten years later, there were 50 Benihana locations. At this point, Rocky Aoki also added previously banned items like sushi to Benihana’s menu.
Rocky Aoki has been credited as the first person who made it accessible for non-Japanese people to enjoy the Japanese experience. However, Aoki has also been criticized for watering down Japanese cuisine and culture for commercial success. Rocky Aoki famously said that "the minute I forgot I was Japanese, success began." To be fair, it’s exactly what he did. Although Aoki preserved parts of his Japanese heritage, for example, designing Benihana’s interior to be simple and reminiscent of Japanese inns, Aoki built Benihana to cater to Americans.
Means: And it’s interesting to remember that in 1964, we weren’t that far after World War II. So again I think, to think that all things Japanese would be interesting to Americans in that day and time was pretty bold on his part. But yes, we’re the original, the first, the only national Japanese restaurant chain in the country.
Narrator: Simplifying Japanese dishes and playing on theatrics, might not have been the most culturally prudent route, but it was successful. When Rocky Aoki died in 2008, Benihana was estimated to be worth over a hundred million dollars. Today, there are 70 Benihana locations and the brand has expanded to include two sushi chains, Haru and RA.
Japanese food has become pretty popular in the United States and it’s not all because of Benihana but the chain certainly helped pave the way.
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