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Top 10 Untold Truths of Benihana

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the teppanyaki style of dining would know that Benihana is the king of tableside cooking. Their chefs put on a show for diners, while also preparing some truly delicious food. The restaurant also has some interesting history behind it. These are the top ten untold truths of Benihana.

10. The founder used to wrestle

Most people who get into the restaurant game start out as cooks, clerks, or even sometimes just opportunistic businessmen. Just look at Ray Kroc: he went from being a semi-successful milkshake machine salesman to basically stealing a business right out from under two brothers’ noses. It makes sense, after all. If you work in the restaurant industry, then you probably know a thing or two about how to make a restaurant successful. However, it might surprise you to learn that the founder of Benihana was not actually a businessman or even a restaurant worker in his early days. In fact, he was doing something very different with his time. Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki, the founder of Benihana, was actually a professional wrestler. We’re not talking about WWE style wrestling, either. Aoki was a serious athlete, earning a spot on Japan’s national Olympic team in 196o. He was headed to Rome to compete in the games that year, but due to the fact that he was above the weight for his class, he was unable to compete. Instead of returning home, Aoki headed to the United States, where his talent for wrestling allowed him to win several titles over the next few years. It just goes to show that you don’ necessarily have to start out as a cook to make it big in the restaurant game. All you need is a vision, and maybe some solid grappling skills.

9. He also used to drive an ice cream truck

Of course, you can’t really make it in the restaurant business if you don’t have a little bit of seed money. Starting a business takes time and an investment that most people simply can’t afford. When Aoki made the decision to get into the restaurant business, he knew that he would have to do something in the meantime to make money in order to fund his dream. The solution to that problem was one that probably drives down your street every day in the summer: an ice cream truck. Aoki had moved to New York and was studying restaurant management at New York City Technical College. He was already chasing his dream, and he was determined to make it happen. In order to raise money to invest in a new venture. Aoki started driving a Mister Softee ice cream truck in Harlem. Aoki was determined to make his dreams happen, and this was the best way to do it. He put his own spin on the ice cream by serving it adorned with tiny Japanese umbrellas. Of course, during the early 1960s, Harlem was a much more dangerous area of the city, and the crime rate in New York was already very high. To deter any would-be robbers, Aoki posted a message on his truck letting them know that he was a wrestling champion, so anyone who wanted to steal from him would be in for a pretty intense fight. In the end, Aoki managed to gather up $10,000 for himself, enough to make a serious investment in starting a business.

8. It is named after a special flower

Benihana might not have made it without that name. Just like the way Ray Kroc idolized the name ‘McDonald’s,’ there’s something about the way Benihana just rolls off the tongue. It sounds exotic, and yet welcoming at the same time. That’s obviously the kind of thing that Aoki was going for. However, most people probably don’t even realize that Benihana actually is a Japanese word and not a proper noun.  The name actually comes from something very personal to Aoki and tied into Japanese history all at once. When Aoki was young, his parents owned a coffee shop that was also named Benihana, and where they got the name for their coffee shop originally is both sad and beautiful. The shop was open during World War II, when Japan was fighting against the Allies. After the bombing of Tokyo, Aoki’s parents looked out at the remains of the city. There, in all of the destruction, Aoki’s mother and father saw a single red flower growing out of the rubble. It was taken as a symbol of endurance, and it became the inspiration for naming their shop. Benihana is actually the word for Japanese red safflower, which was the plant that had grown through the rubble. By naming his restaurant Benihana as well, the young Aoki was carrying on the tradition his parents started.

7. Muhammad Ali was an early fan

Anyone who has watched any episodes of Restaurant Makeover or Kitchen Nightmares knows that starting a restaurant is a risky venture. There is absolutely no guarantee that your business is going to succeed instead of others. It’s always a big step to give everything up and start a restaurant because the initial investment is so high, that you might even end up losing money for months before actually making any of it back. That was the problem facing Aoki, whose first Benihana location struggled, just like any other restaurant. It was not attracting the kind of attention that he wanted, and a lot of what made the restaurant memorable to crowds for years was what was keeping people from going there. You couldn’t blame them, really. The idea of having a chef cook for you and a bunch of strangers right at your table was not something that American diners were prepared for, or really all that thrilled about seeing. However, some really good early press eventually turned things around, as a review in the New York Times raved about the restaurant. Another big boost to Benihana was the fact that Muhammad Ali was a huge fan of it. Considering just how famous the boxer was in the 1960s, this was an amazing endorsement for the fledgling restaurant. 

6. So were the Beatles

As if having Muhammad Ali endorse Aoki’s restaurant wasn’t enough of a boost in the 1960s, he also got some help from the Fab Four themselves. That’s right, the Beatles were huge fans of Benihana as well. George, John, Paul, and Ringo often ate at the restaurant when they were in New York. Just to put this in perspective, if the Beatles were eating at your restaurant in the 1960s, that meant that you had pretty much made it. They were the most famous people in the world at that point, enough so that John Lennon once said the band was “bigger than Jesus.” This celebrity endorsement gave Aoki a ticket to ride all the way to success. His business was making money eight days a week. All it took was a little help from his friends. Of course, Benihana only started getting bigger from there. It was a revolution in dining. People wanted to come together and experience just what this restaurant had to offer. People would come to Benihana for dinner even if they had just been there yesterday. Quickly people discovered that settling in at Benihana for a great dinner and some tableside entertainment was the perfect way to unwind from a hard day’s night. Hopefully, we’re conveying just how big of a deal this was.

5. Aoki sued four of his kids

Even though Benihana exploded in popularity, and became the go-to place for birthday parties and all other kinds of celebrations, not everything was perfect in the Aoki family. In fact, behind the scenes of the onion volcanoes and the shrimp tails in the chef hats, things were actually quite turbulent for the Aoki family, especially much later on in the founder’s life. During his time as the owner of Benihana, Aoki embarked on several other business ventures, though none of them were ever as successful as his restaurant (one of these ventures was a “gentleman’s” magazine called Genesis. Let’s just say that it wasn’t exactly the next Playboy). Aoki also sponsored boxing matches and even independent plays that were taking place in New York at the time. However, Aoki’s business dealings were not always exactly legal, and in the 1990s, he was arrested and pleaded guilty to charges of insider trading. This forced Aoki to step down from his position and put all of his Benihana shares into a trust. The story only got more complicated, as in 2005, he sued four of his children, claiming that they were trying to steal his money away from him. Of course, things were a lot more complicated than that, as the kids claimed that Aoki’s wife, their stepmother, was the one who was actually trying to take control of all his money. It just goes to show that with success comes complications, especially when family is involved. 

4. And he used to race power boats

Back to the lighter side of things, we’ve already mentioned how Aoki was a little bit eclectic when it came to everything he did in his life. From wrestling to driving an ice cream truck to starting a magazine and, of course, founding Benihana, there was just no stopping this guy. Once his restaurant got big, and he no longer needed to take part in any wild stunts in order to get customers in the door, Aoki decided to settle down. Just kidding. He actually sought out even more thrills, this time in the form of racing powerboats and cars in order to promote his restaurant. Just add it to the list of the many things that Aoki did throughout his life, including being a bassist in a rock band! Of course, doing all these things could sometimes get a little bit dangerous. After winning a race off the coast of New Jersey in 1979, Aoki took his powerboat out for a test run in San Francisco Bay. That time, things did not go well, and Aoki could have very well lost his life. After the boat lost control and crashed, Aoki suffered from various injuries, including “a ruptured aorta, a lacerated liver and a leg broken in four places,” according to the New York Times. Aoki, of course, survived these injuries, and even though the things he did were often dangerous, it just showed his adventurous spirit, the same one that made him such a success in the first place.

3. Chefs go through intensive training

Anyone who has had a meal at Benihana knows that part of the experience is watching the chef pull off all of those amazing culinary tricks. We’re talking spatula flipping, onion volcanoes, jumping shrimp, and the beating fried rice heart. You might think that becoming a chef at Benihana would be really hard and that there would be a lot of intense training that goes into learning the craft of cooking and entertaining at the same time. Well, you would be right! Being a chef at Benihana is no joke, and the training regimen for new recruits is a full-time job in itself. Five days a week, eight hours a day, chefs are trained in the methods of cooking table side while also putting on a show for the customers. How long does this training go on for? Up to six months! Imagine the amount of work and effort that you would have to put into this training program. There are professional chefs who trained like crazy so that they could specialize in a bunch of different cuisines, and maybe even become bakers in addition to all of that. These guys are training for this long just to work at one restaurant. But that’s all just part of the appeal of Benihana. Having a chef who really knows what they are doing and can offer up entertainment as well as delicious food is part of the whole thing.

2. The founder’s son is a famous DJ

We’ve mentioned the founder of Benihana, Rocky Aoki, several times throughout this article, and while you’ve been reading it, you might have thought to yourself, “you know, that name sounds kind of familiar, but I’m not really sure if I can put my finger on it.” Well, unless you’re a fan of electro and pop music, it might have gone right over your head that Aoki’s son, Steve, is a famous DJ. Steve Aoki has worked with artists from all over the pop music spectrum, including Lil Jon, Blink 182, Linkin Park, LMFAO, and Aoki has also done remixes of various different artists, including Kid Cudi. Taking after his father’s own humanitarian and environmentalist efforts, Steve Aoki founded a charitable organization called the Steve Aoki Charitable Fund. As an accomplished musician, Steve Aoki has been recognized for his work with a Grammy nomination for his album, Wonderland.  In addition to his son being famous, Rocky Aoki’s daughter, Devon Aoki, is also a famous model. Apparently, ambition is a familial trait, as these two kids have just as much drive to succeed as their hardworking father.

1. There is one secret ingredient that makes the fried rice so good

One of the main attractions at Benihana is their famous fried rice, which chefs will often form into various shapes. You might think that wouldn’t be very entertaining, but come on! Have you seen them do the beating fried rice heart? It’s pretty awesome. The best part of the whole thing though is that after the chef plays with the fried rice for a bit, you get to eat it. And that fried rice is so, so, so delicious. It’s like there’s a little extra magic in the process that makes it taste extra delicious. You might think that it comes from the fun of seeing the chef do all kinds of tricks with the food like the whole experience is psychosomatic or something. However, there is actually a little extra ingredient that goes into the fried rice to make it taste so good, and it’s simpler than you might think. The key to Benihana’s fried rice tasting so delicious? Nothing more than garlic butter, which, if you’re a fan of garlic bread, you know can make anything taste a million times better.

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