Benihana celebrates 50 years of interactive Japanese cuisine dining

Benihana is a restaurant with a flavor and a flare all its own.

Benihana means flower in Japanese - apt for a restaurant that has grown to 95 locations around the world.

It started with just one restaurant in New York 50 years ago this month by a man who figured out how to sell Americans on a whole new way of dining.

Rocky Aoki started Benihana in 1964 at a location in midtown New York.

He was a young Japanese immigrant who quickly developed a reputation for loving fast cars and beautiful women.

"Every time he had an event he'd just call me at the restaurant, 'Tony, you better be here in a few hours, bring this much food,' and I'd have to drive like three hours to be there," said Benihana executive chef Tony Nemoto.

Nemoto was just 17, working as a short order cook in Hawaii when Aoki hand-picked him to be a chef and gave him a front-row seat to the chain's meteoric rise.

"His vision was basically great food, great entertainment and great experience with Japanese cuisine," Nemoto said.

Teppanyaki, the style of cooking on an open hibachi grill, has long been a part of Japanese tradition.

But Aoki revolutionized it by asking chefs to do tricks. He wanted the meal to be part of an elaborate show, so waitresses wore kimonos, servers wore tuxedos, and chefs had tall, colorful hats.

In the process, Aoki introduced Japanese food to Americans.

"This is a guy who didn't know how to cook. He was a celebrity chef who couldn't cook a single dish; he could barely boil water. But his idea was that he was going to make the brand with publicity stunts," said Logan Hill, one of the final people to interview Aoki before he died in 2008.

Aoki credited his father for Benihana's success.

"Nobody was coming into the restaurant. He was distraught and gets on the phone with his father, who had been a hoofer, a tap dancer back in Tokyo, and said, 'Dad, I don't know what to do here.' He said 'Rocky, you got to show them some showmanship. Showmanship is what the Americans are going to appreciate,'" said Hill.

And it's that showmanship that set Benihana apart.

"It's what you see right now when you go into a Benihana and they chop up the onions, and they make a volcano with steam. They wanted to show off and make it entertainment," Hill said.

By 1979, Benihana was a multi-million-dollar company. Newsweek called Aoki an immigrant success story.

CBS News interviewed him in 1984.

"Americans always want to try something new and something different. And at Benihana, same way we brought Benihana-style cooking 20 years ago," Aoki said at the time.

But the company's growth came at Aoki's decline.

A conviction for insider trading forced him to step down as CEO of the company. He had three marriages and six children, which led to battle over his estate.

"He ends up being sued by several of his family members. Counter-suing and fighting and a legal battle over the company -- in a way it's a classic American story in all kinds of ways because not only is it a story of immigrant success, it's a story of what happens when a family gets wealthy in America," said Hill.

Despite Aoki's struggles, the Benihana brand continued to thrive.

Today, every chef does five tricks during the course of a meal and every time they draw an almost identical response of laughing and amazement.

Benihana's menu has grown over 50 years - but Nemoto said the restaurant will always have Aoki's signature style.

"I tell all the chefs to go out there, this is your stage," Nemoto said. "You make sure the guests' experience, every single visit, is the same way, so treat them like you're inviting the guest to your home."

Comments

Follow Us

The Newsroom