The Untold Truth Of Benihana

If you've ever been to a Benihana or even seen one of their commercials, then you know what it's all about. While the food is decent enough, the restaurant is not about fine dining so much as tableside theatrics, fancy knife work, and occasional grill pyrotechnics. The style of cooking they're best known for is called teppanyaki, and according to the Benihana website, it might date back as far as 200 years ago when families used small hibachi grills to make meals. The Ringer, however, says that teppanyaki as we know it is a more modern invention, popularized in post-WWII Japan as a way of cooking steaks to appeal to the occupying American troops.

No matter its pedigree, teppanyaki was introduced to the U.S. in the 1960s by Rocky Aoki, a 25-year-old Japanese immigrant who'd go on to found America's best-known Japanese(ish) restaurant chain. The secret to his success? Meeting Americans halfway, feeding them old favorites (steak, chicken, etc.) dressed up with slightly (but not too) unfamiliar Asian seasonings in a glamorous, exotic setting. While Benihana restaurants are to this day far from authentic, they still arguably paved the way for the more widespread acceptance of such foods as teriyaki and even sushi. It's just possible that, had there never been a Benihana, we would today be living in a country devoid of Wagyu beef, Yum Yum sauce, Kewpie mayo, and even Pocky. (Nooo!!)

Benihana was founded by a Mister Softee truck-driving ex-wrestler

Rocky Aoki had a pretty interesting backstory for a future restaurateur. He was born in 1938 in Tokyo, a city that was devastated by large-scale bombing when he was only 6. His father, a tap-dancing descendant of samurai warriors, found a single red flower blooming in a pile of bombed-out rubble and decided to open a coffee shop that he'd name after that flower – benihana, Japanese for safflower (via The Ringer).

Some 15 years later, young Hiroaki would travel to New York to study at C.W. Post College (now known as LIU Post) on a wrestling scholarship. It was in the Big Apple that he changed his name to "Rocky" (years before the moniker was popularized by a certain Italian Stallion) and got his start in the restaurant industry by selling "Japanese" ice cream (not mochi, just regular soft-serve fancied up with a paper parasol) from a truck. With his savings and a loan from his dad, he opened his first steakhouse in 1964 and named it after his family's coffee shop. It was not a resounding success at first, but one glowing review in The New York Herald Tribune changed all that. Soon the tiny four-seat restaurant would expand into an international chain with nearly 80 locations throughout the Americas (South as well as North) and make its founder into a multimillionaire.

Benihana's founder had two famous kids

Great success and fortune often provide the fuel for some pretty heated family squabbles, and the Aoki family was no different. A 2006 article from New York magazine (via Logan Hill) reports on how Rocky Aoki wound up suing four out of his six kids over control of the company, and Thrillist reveals that the legal wrangling continued long after Rocky's death.  

The two kids who weren't named in the lawsuit were probably spared Rocky's wrath because they managed to prosper on their own and didn't need a piece of the Benihana Empire. Devon Aoki started modeling at age 13 and has been the face of Versace. She's also an actress – you may have seen her in 2 Fast 2 Furious, Sin City, DOA: Dead or Alive, or Mutant Chronicles (via IMDb). Even more recognizable, however, is her brother, DJ/record producer/music exec Steve Aoki. The New York Post says this EDM superstar didn't inherit a dime from his dad, but he managed to scrape together $55 million or so of his own assets by 2016, so, yeah, it looks like samurai great-great-great(etc.) grandson Steve did alright for himself, after all.

Benihana featured in The Wolf of Wall Street

Remember The Wolf of Wall Street? If not, here's a clip (via YouTube) that not only shows a Benihana restaurant but also features a rant by Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort blaming both "Beni-f*ckin'-hana" and founder Rocky Aoki for his downfall (there's even a brief shot of an actor playing Rocky being hustled into a police cruiser). So did any of this actually happen?

Steve Aoki, Rocky's son, says that's a big nope. TMZ spoke with him shortly after the film was released to do a quick fact check, perhaps hoping for some kind of irate reaction from an offended famous family member. While Steve said that Scorsese was slicing and dicing up a big old heap of prime poop since the elder Aoki wasn't connected to Belfort in any way, he wasn't a bit bothered by the shout-out. He thought it was "really cool...just funny," and enhanced his dad's status as "a legend."