Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki was born on October 9, 1938 in Tokyo, Japan. He was the first born son of Yunosuke Aoki, a samurai descendant and his wife Katsu Aoki. Rocky’s parents met at Yunosuke’s dance class where he taught tap. Yunosuke taught himself to tap dance watching Fred Astaire movies. They married and opened a Jazz coffee shop, which they named Ellington after their favorite jazz musician Duke Ellington. Yunosuke changed the theme of the coffee shop to a sweet shop specializing in desserts during the war. There was a strong demand for sweets and Yunosuke knew how to seize the moment. Yunosuke met a talented chef, Fujisake, who inspired him to open a full service restaurant.
The duo traveled all over world to find delicious sauces. The restaurant became well known for its mouth watering sauces. Yunosuke named his restaurant Benihana after a red safflower flower he saw in the rubble of war torn Tokyo. Rocky and his three brothers all learned the restaurant business from the ground up through their mentor, their father. Yunosuke taught them the importance of a clean kitchen, using the freshest ingredients and showmanship.
In high school, Rocky and his friends started a rock and roll band called Rowdy Sounds. He played bass but soon after abandoned music for athletics. Rocky attended Keio University where he excelled in athletics competing in track and field, karate and wrestling. He became captain of the Keio wrestling team. In 1959, he became the alternate on Japan’s 1960 Olympic wrestling team. He later toured with the team to the United States. Aoki decided to move to the America where he went on to win the World Champion AAU Flyweight title in 1960 through 1962. He was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1995.
Rocky was offered wrestling scholarships from several different colleges. He decided to attend Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts and later transferred to CW Post College in Long Island. He was dismissed from Post after getting in trouble for fighting. He settled down at New York City Community College and earned an associate’s degree in management in 1963.
After graduating from College, Rocky was presented with the opportunity to realize his dream by opening a restaurant in America. The owner of an unsuccessful Chinese restaurant offered Rocky his midtown Manhattan location for a nominal rental fee. Rocky had saved $10,000 from various jobs including selling ice cream in a Mister Softee ice cream truck in Harlem, borrowed the rest and opened his first four table “teppan –yaki” restaurant on New York’s 56th street in May 1964. Food was prepared right at the table on a steel grill with chefs providing the entertainment. After an enthusiastic review by Clementine Paddleford, a legendary restaurant critic of the New York Herald Tribune, Benihana became a fashionable eatery with stars like Sean Connery, Mohammad Ali and Lawrence Welk quickly becoming regulars.
Rocky kept up with demand by expanding, opening a second location in Manhattan in 1966, then Chicago in 1968 and San Francisco in 1969. Benihana continued to expand and its popularity soared. Benihana was voted the most popular restaurant in America by Restaurant & Institutions Magazine in 1985, 1988 and 1989. There are now over a 100 Benihana restaurants worldwide serving over 8 million meals a year.
Rocky uniquely combined his love of adventure with his love for his restaurants. He gave Benihana the publicity it needed through his many successes and good natured personality. He loved power boat racing and won five US offshore races. He sponsored the “Benihana Grand Prix” in Point Pleasant, New Jersey from 1975-1982. In 1979, he won the race there in a 38foot cougar catamaran. Later that summer, Rocky was seriously injured in a boating accident in the San Francisco Bay when his boat lost its trim, dived into a wave and disintegrated. He suffered a ruptured aorta, a lacerated liver and left leg and right arm were each broken in four places. In 1982, he piloted a 35foot active marine racer in the Kiekhafer St. Augustine Classic in Florida and suffered more injuries to his leg when his boat hit a swell and shattered. Rocky knew he couldn’t continue racing with his injuries so he adventured into Ballooning.
Rocky crossed the Pacific Ocean in a helium balloon with the Double Eagle V crew on a record setting flight from Japan to California in 1981. The Double Eagle V crew had planned to go all the way around the world but due to a powerful storm over the Pacific coast (the worst since 1962) and two other bad weather encounters the crew was forced down into a redwood forest. He remained an avid hot air balloonist flying and racing Benihana Balloons at many festivals.
He tried his hand at car rally racing and won the first Milan to Moscow Road Rally in 1987, a grueling road rally challenge across a 1300 mile route driving his vintage Rolls Royce Silver Wraith.
Rocky was also a champion Backgammon player. He won the 1974 World Leisure Backgammon championship in Las Vegas and the NYAC Backgammon championship 3 times. He was an avid backgammon player for the rest of his life.
Rocky began mellowing with age and turned his attention to philanthropy. He started the Rocky H. Aoki Foundation and promoted a global philosophy of “One Planet-One People”. Rocky’s fundraising efforts have benefited various organizations including Juvenile Diabetes, the Leukemia Society and the National Foundation for Cancer Research. Rocky was also a dedicated environmentalist and was recognized by the United Nations Environmental Program Directorate for sponsoring then New York Times environmental supplement, Imagine. He established a Green Arts Program promoting international art exchanges.
In 1993, Rocky sponsored art exhibits in Japan, the United States and England showcasing the work of environmentally concerned Japanese Artists. He authored 11 Japanese business motivational books and 2 books in English, ‘Making it in America’ and ‘Sake, Water from Heaven’.
He was a firm believer in the value of cultural exchange, co-sponsoring the Japanese Folk Festival at Carnegie Hall where more than 500 musicians, dancers and singers from Japan performed.
Rocky’s amazing drive to do everything to the best of his abilities and never give up made him a hero to so many. His down to earth and friendly nature made everyone feel at ease. He gave from his heart and loved many. He was married three times and had seven children. His family continues to keep his extraordinary legacy of Benihana and the memory of its founder Rocky Aoki alive.