The story of Benihana has its roots in Japan and begins when Yunosuke Aoki—a samurai descendant and a popular Japanese entertainer—together with his wife Katsu, opened a small coffee shop in Tokyo. A red safflower found in the neighbourhood streets gave the Aokis the inspiration for the restaurant’s name: Benihana, or ‘red flower’ in Japanese.
The family’s four sons grew up with the coffee shop, which later became a full-service restaurant. Each of them understood the restaurant business from the ground up—the importance of absolute cleanliness in the kitchen, using the freshest ingredients and the very best cooking tools money could buy.
The eldest son, Hiroaki also internalised the important lesson of offering guests something out of the ordinary and inherited his father’s appreciation for the theatrical. There was something magical about this combination and the thought stayed with him as he completed college in Japan.
Hiroaki later earned a place on the Japanese Olympic wrestling team, which brought him to America. By the time Hiroaki arrived in the US in 1960, he had already begun to form the idea that this country might be ready for a marriage of a different kind of food, presented with flair.
Adopting a name that would be easier for westerners to pronounce, Rocky—as he now called himself—began to make his dream a reality. He worked seven days a week selling ice cream in New York City and studied restaurant management at night. Through saving and borrowing, Rocky scraped together enough money to finance his first four-table restaurant on New York’s West 56th Street.
With an authentic Japanese farmhouse interior, and food prepared right at the table by highly trained chefs showcasing ‘teppanyaki’ style cooking (teppan meaning ‘steel grill’ and yaki meaning ‘broiled’), the Benihana dining concept gradually came into focus.
Rocky believed that because the restaurant was near Broadway, the showmanship of the chefs was extremely important. Beef, chicken and shrimp would be the stars of the menu, all prepared ‘hibachi-style’ (an American term for teppanyaki cooking). Guests would place their orders with the chef and watch in amazement as these items were sliced, diced and flipped in the air. The timing in cooking was critical and all the ingredients had to be ready to serve simultaneously.
In 1964, despite all the preparation and planning, Benihana was only serving one or two guests a day and Aoki family members were moonlighting at other restaurants just to pay the bills. But six months after the restaurant opened, an enthusiastic review by Clementine Paddleford, legendary restaurant critic of the New York Herald-Tribune, reversed the trend for good. New Yorkers flocked to the four-table Benihana and Rocky Aoki suddenly found he was having to turn diners away.
By bringing Japanese food into the mainstream and pioneering an entertaining style of presentation, Benihana has paved the way in America and beyond for the popularity of other Japanese cooking styles and food products. Sushi is now a favourite all over the world and soy sauce has become a staple in numerous international kitchens, all thanks to Benihana.