Are you familiar with Katsu Aoki? He is not only the father of Rocky Aoki, the creator of Benihana, the renowned Japanese restaurant chain renowned for teppanyaki-style cooking and live chef entertainment but also an individual with a rich history. Katsu Aoki was a descendant of samurai, a World War II survivor, and the visionary behind the name and concept of Benihana.

The Origin of Benihana

Born in Japan in 1908, Katsu Aoki hailed from the Aoki clan, a samurai family devoted to the Tokugawa shogunate for over 250 years. Embodying the samurai principles of loyalty, courage, and honor, he also inherited a deep-seated passion for food and hospitality as his family managed a coffee shop in Tokyo.

World War II brought devastation to Tokyo through air raids and fire bombings, claiming Katsu Aoki’s coffee shop and home. Faced with the daunting task of rebuilding, he drew inspiration from a safflower, or benibana in Japanese, blooming amidst the war’s ashes. Touched by its resilience and beauty, he chose to name his new restaurant after it—Benihana, translating to “red flower” in Japanese.

Established as a quaint eatery, Benihana showcased traditional Japanese fare like sushi, tempura, and sukiyaki. Katsu Aoki’s vision was to share his culture and culinary delights, creating a welcoming atmosphere for patrons. Moreover, he aspired to forge a lasting legacy for his children, notably his son Rocky, born in 1938.

The Legacy of Benihana

Rocky Aoki, a dynamic and ambitious individual, left an indelible mark on various arenas. Representing Japan in the 1960 Olympics as a wrestler and showcasing his musical prowess by playing saxophone in a jazz band, Rocky embarked on a journey to the United States in 1959 with a compelling dream—to introduce Japanese cuisine to Americans. Saving diligently, he secured a space in Midtown Manhattan in 1964 and christened his restaurant Benihana of Tokyo, paying homage to his father and hometown.

Recognizing the unfamiliarity and misconceptions surrounding Japanese food among Americans, Rocky aimed to alter these perceptions, making Japanese cuisine both attractive and accessible. His ingenious solution was to spotlight teppanyaki, a cooking style involving grilling food on a large iron plate. Employing skilled chefs capable of flipping, chopping, and providing entertaining displays, he incorporated American-friendly ingredients like steak, chicken, and shrimp with Japanese-style sauces. The iconic onion volcano, a flaming eruption of stacked onion rings, added a dramatic flair.

Benihana of Tokyo achieved instant success, drawing in celebrities, politicians, and fascinated tourists captivated by the culinary showmanship. Rocky expanded his business globally, opening branches across the country. Venturing into diverse interests, including publishing, music, and sports, he became a charismatic figure known for his flamboyant lifestyle and adventurous pursuits. Generous and philanthropic, Rocky supported various causes and charities.

In 2008, Rocky Aoki passed away at the age of 69, leaving behind a legacy of innovation and excellence. His father, Katsu Aoki, had passed away in 1974 at the age of 66, establishing a legacy of courage and resilience that birthed the Benihana brand. Both descendants of samurai, Katsu and Rocky transformed Japanese cuisine in America, seamlessly integrating it into the fabric of American culture. Together, they embodied the spirit of Katsu Aoki—the red flower of Japan.