Forget for a moment that the late Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki was a heavy-drinking playboy who once boasted of impregnating three different women at the same time. Forget that his Benihana empire turned his family into some Japanese-American version of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. And try, too, to forget that trademark jheri-curled head of his.
Rocky Aoki helped change the way America looked at Asian food and, in his own special way, how Americans dined.
The cultural confusion displayed in this commercial shows us just how far we, for the most part, have come in our acceptance of “Oriental” Cuisine– a term which now seems quaint, even racist. Before Mr. Aoki opened the first Benihana Restaurant in New York City in 1964, “Oriental” food meant, to most Americans, chop suey and fortune cookies– both, incidentally, American inventions.
Despite its Japanese trappings, Benihana is a distinctly American restaurant. Named for Mr. Aoki’s parents’ coffee shop, which was itself named after a little red flower discovered surviving the fire-bombing of their Tokyo neighborhood, the concept behind the new, Japanese-style dining-experience was brilliant.
Take American ingredients like steak, shrimp, and chicken, cook them up in a setting heavy with paper screens and lacquer work, pipe in some hypnotic shamisen music, and have it all served up by, not waiters, but cleaver-juggling chefs.
It didn’t seem to matter that the food wasn’t exactly Japanese. Mr. Aoki’s success lay in the fact that he persuaded American to think it was.
And his idea could not have come at a better time. Benihana was born just months before the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act was passed, reversing decades of exclusionary policies against immigrants from Asia, as well as other non-Western nations.
Though Aoki’s concept of a Japanese Steakhouse was, at the time, anything but authentic Japanese food, by getting Americans used to the idea of Asian cuisine through the dressing up of essentially non-threatening foodstuffs in vaguely exotic-yet-accessible dishes, the road ahead was made clear for the advent of later Asian food crazes, like sushi in the 1970’s, Thai in the 80’s, and Vietnamese in the 90’s.
Benihana, too, was instrumental in moving the theatrics of dining away from the waiter, with his twin, dying arts of Caesar salad-tossing and Crêpes Suzette-flaming, and over to cooks with samurai-like knife skills and their lightening-fast slicing of animal flesh. There was (and hopefully still is) always an element of danger and surprise when dining teppan-side, as though one might wind up finding a finger, curled and sizzling, among the scampi.
Mr. Aoki died last week of undisclosed causes, plagued by hepatitis C, diabetes, and cirrhosis of a liver once sliced in two. He lived the American dream of fame and fortune, and died amid the nightmare of litigious children and bitter ex-wives. He lived fast and died quietly. He was a source of both outrage and outrageousness. And he was as American as apple pie or, more accurately, a Japanese Steakhouse.
Sayonara, Mr. Aoki.