Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | The legacy of Rocky Aoki and his Benihana restaurants
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The legacy of Rocky Aoki and his Benihana restaurants

Erin, Jared and I ate at a Benihana restaurant recently, and then learned just a couple of days later that Rocky Aoki, the founder of the Benihana chain, had died.

I wrote about my experience growing up eating at Benihana for special family occasions, and how in recent years, the restaurant only has one connection to being a Japanese eatery: its food. The staff at the one we go to, for instance, used to have one Japanese woman chef, which was a rarity in the entire company, but she’s been gone a couple of years now. The waitstaff and cooks are all non-Japanese, and as far as I can tell, the chefs are all Latino. They love to tell jokes about how they serve “Teri-juana” sauce (get it? Tijuana, teriyaki?).

They no longer are sent to Japan to train with master chefs like they used to decades ago. But they are all trained well as entertainers, and come up with some amazing tricks with their knives, throwing food around and catching the morsels. The food’s still good, which is why we go from time to time… probably once a year, if that. (YouTube has a lot of videos of dinners at Benihana, including the one above, of a birthday celebration. Most evenings at the restaurants are interrupted by the clatter of multiple birthday celebrations.)

The diners likewise are no longer Japanase or JA families. The diners are almost all white; a couple of weeks ago, we were the only Asians in the room.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it gives us a chance to explain a little more about our culkture to some people who may not be familiar with it. For instance, we were seated with two white couples, one young, who wanted desperately to visit Japan and had some passing interest in the culture. The other was a middle-aged couple who looked more like they’d be at home having burgers and a sirloin at a steakhouse chain (yeah, I know, I’m making assumptions based on racial and social stereotypes; I’m trying to make a point here, so cut me some slack…).

Erin and I interrupted the table a few times, inserting points like how chopsticks shouldn’t be placed standing up in the rice bowl (that’s only done at funerals an connotes death), and giving the history and background of various Japanese customs and foods.

On the way home, our son Jared said he was embarrassed by us, because we were being obnoxious Japanese know-it-alls. He thought we were forcing our culture down the throats of the other diners, like a born-again Christian might push his religion on someone when it wasn’t invited.

So we talked it out. I pointed out that when people prosetlyze their religion, they’re not in their church, but trying to convince people outside the church to come inside. These dinners were already interested enough in Japanese culture (or what they thought would be Japanese culture) to eat at Benihana, so they’re already primed to learn more. Since we’re probably more knowledgeable than the other diners and staff there, it seemed appropriate to help educate.

Now, I admit to having know-it-all tendencies, but I wouldn’t be proselytizing about Japanese culture at a Mexican restaurant. In fact, we’re culturally curious enough to be asking staff at ethnic restaurants all about their cultures.

It’s part of our mission these days t help break down stereotypes and educate people about our Asian values, Japanese heritage and our Japanese American identities. It’s who we are, and we’re proud of it.

In a way, although it turns out Rocky Aoki had a rocky personal life and his family fortune may be contested, his restaurant did the same thing: Benihana was proud of its Japanese roots and even today, as it gets less and less Japanese on the outside (like generations of Hapa families can attest), the core remains proudly Japanese, and pourdly presents Japanese cuisine in an entartining way to non-Japanese all over the world.