Our very first experience with Japanese food was not, to our great shame, at a dockside omakase counter. It wasn’t even a spicy tuna/California combo at a corner sushi joint. It was teppanyaki chicken - hacked, seared, hacked again, flipped into the chef’s hat and then onto our plate - served hot off the hibachi at a Benihana restaurant in Oakbrook, Illinois. The man who made that happen? Rocky Aoki, who died last Friday at the age of 69.
While the Benihana experience was novel when Aoki introduced it in the mid-60’s, teppanyaki is about as authentically Japanese as a piece of chicken with a can of salsa dumped over it is authentically Mexican. It’s considered western food by most Japanese, and there is no doubt much snickering over American stupidity that we flock to it as an “ethnic” experience.
Rocky Aoki was as controversial as his restaurants: he was infamously combative and chauvinistic, had three wives (at least one a former mistress with whom he had a simultaneous family with the first wife), innumerable girlfriends, and proudly admitted that in one calendar year he had fathered three children by three women. He was the subject of a scathing story in New York magazine in 2006, with which he cooperated fully - even with the realization that he might not be painted in a positive light:
A celebrity chef who couldn’t cook a dish, Rocky became a star by mastering the fine art of cheap publicity stunts. He posed for photos in the hot tub in his stretch Rolls-Royce and drove a cross-country race in a stretch Volkswagen bug. (“I also have stretch Corvette.”) He cameoed on Hawaii Five-O, won a national backgammon championship, and set a world record when he became the first person to cross the Pacific in a hot-air balloon (stamped with the Benihana logo, of course).
He was also on Japan’s 1960 Olympic wrestling team (he didn’t compete), survived a horrific speedboating accident in 1982, and often threatened to disinherit his children if they didn’t live up to his standards of wealth and fame (his favorites: daughter Devon, who is an actress/model, and son Steve, who is a DJ with questionable facial hair).
Whether or not he will be missed is up in the air, but his contribution to America’s culinary landscape - for better or for worse - is indelible.
[Photo: The Benihana experience, via Are Nold Rob Bore’s Flickr]