Benihana founder Aoki dies in New York

Obit Aoki
Rocky Aoki, center, is shown in a 2001 photo with  co-owner Barbara Matsumura and the restaurant architect Chris Smith, celebrating the opening of one of his ventures, Haru, in New York. Aoki, who strived to offer diners a sense of magic and entertainment at his Japanese steakhouse Benihana, died Thursday.Richard Drew / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Rocky Aoki, who sought to offer diners a sense of magic and entertainment at his Japanese steakhouse Benihana, has died after complications from cancer. He was 69.

Aoki, whose Benihana empire includes more than 100 restaurants worldwide, died Thursday night in New York from pneumonia, surrounded by his wife and six children, company spokeswoman Nancy Bauer said Friday.

Born Hiroaki Aoki, he worked in the family business, a coffee shop in Japan, and wanted to offer diners "something out of the ordinary," along with their food. Aoki also inherited his father's love for theater, according to the restaurant's Web site.

Aoki held a spot on the Japanese Olympic wrestling team, which eventually brought him to America. He served ice cream by day and studied restaurant management at night, dreaming of opening a restaurant that would blend entertainment and food.

He opened his first restaurant in New York in 1964, naming it Benihana, which means "red flower" — the same name as his parent's coffee shop.

Designed to look like an authentic Japanese farmhouse interior, food was prepared "teppan-yaki" style at the table on a steel grill, where specially trained chefs performed knife tricks while cooking up the restaurant's signature shrimp, steak and chicken dishes.

In 1999, Miami-based Benihana purchased a majority share in Haru, an upscale, New York sushi restaurant, and eventually opened nine others. The company later acquired the RA Sushi restaurants, which bloomed to 19 locations nationally.

The Benihana empire has grown to 5,000 employees.

"Rocky's legacy is much greater than Benihana; he was also a well-known sportsman, philanthropist, environmentalist and author," Benihana chairman and CEO Joel Schwartz said in a statement.

Aoki was an avid wrestler, balloonist and backgammon player. Family members said Aoki crossed the Pacific Ocean in a balloon with his Double Eagle V crew on a flight from Japan to California in 1981.

The Rocky H. Aoki Foundation has benefited Juvenile Diabetes, the Leukemia Society and the National Foundation for Cancer Research.