Rocky Aoki, the colorful Tokyo-born founder of the Benihana steakhouse chain, where chefs entertain diners with acrobatic knife performances, has died. He was 69.
Aoki died Thursday in New York City, according to media reports. No cause of death was given. Aoki suffered from diabetes and cirrhosis of the liver as well as hepatitis C that he said was contracted from a blood transfusion.
A wrestler on the Japanese Olympic team, Aoki discovered New York City on his way to the 1960 Games in Rome, where he could not compete because he was over the weight limit. He moved to the United States that fall.
With $10,000 in profits, mainly from selling ice cream out of a truck, Aoki opened the first Benihana in New York City in 1964. His parents and three younger brothers came from Japan to help him get started.
The concept for the restaurant was derived from specialty restaurants he knew of in Japan where patrons sit around a communal grill as chefs prepare meals with a flourish. He chose to serve food Americans were familiar with, such as chicken, steak and shrimp.
The Miami-based Benihana Inc., with Aoki as chief executive and chairman, grew to run or license about 90 restaurants worldwide. At least a dozen are in Southern California.
Aoki resigned from the company in 1998 amid a federal investigation of his personal investments. In 1999, he pleaded guilty to insider trading, acknowledging that he made illegal gains on Spectrum Information Technologies Inc. stock. He was sentenced to three years’ probation and fined $500,000.
In 2000, Aoki told the New York Times he was worth up to $40 million, yet he couldn’t say why he had broken the law to make less than $350,000.
“I’m a risk-taker to start with,” he said. “I’m not a professional so-called investor.”
An adventurer, Aoki crossed the Pacific Ocean in a hot-air balloon in the early 1980s. He drove in the 1970s underground cross-country race known as the Cannonball Run and competed in offshore powerboat racing, resulting in serious injuries in 1979 and 1982.
Aoki married three times and said three of his seven children were conceived in a single one-year span by different women. A 2006 New York magazine article on the family’s legal battle over money reported that he had long kept a mistress hidden from his first wife, and other girlfriends hidden from both women.
Hiraoki Aoki was born Oct. 9, 1938, and adopted the name Rocky after moving to the U.S. In Japan, his parents ran a coffee shop named Benihana after a red flower that survived the bombing of Tokyo during World War II.