“My daughter Grace is telling me, Daddy, your wife is going to poison you to death. Be careful what you eat,” says Rocky Aoki with an odd, amused grin.
Rocky hasn’t been much inclined to listen to Grace lately. Sitting in an Olympic Tower conference room a few floors below his apartment, dressed in a crisp, pin-striped suit a shade darker than his blue-tinted sunglasses, the trim, 68-year-old king of Benihana is attempting to explain why he’s suing her and three more “disloyal and incompetent” children for attempting to wrest control of the companies he founded. It doesn’t take him long: “Basically, they think my wife is, like, gold digger,” he says, referring to his third wife, Keiko Ono, 51, whom he married four years ago. Then he cracks a joke. “But money not everything,” he says, winking behind his shades. “Just 99 percent.”
Rocky giggles. It’s his second-favorite joke, one of many he’ll blurt out, often at surprising moments, as if afflicted with a kind of comedic Tourette’s. No wonder he’s such a lady-killer, such a charmer. No wonder he’s in such a mess. And no wonder his favorite joke, the one he most likes to tell, is the long, ridiculous story of how this whole feud with his family began.
Some families are so thoroughly and mysteriously dysfunctional that no amount of therapy will determine exactly where and when everything went wrong. The Aokis are not one of those families. Their problems, according to Rocky, began on September 14, 1979, in a San Francisco hotel.
Back then, Rocky was rolling. In 1964, just two decades after World War II, he had struck gold with a Japanese gimmick as American as the fortune cookie (invented by another Japanese guy, in San Francisco): the Benihana restaurant on West 56th Street, which popularized Japanese food by juggling it in the air. By 1979, Benihana was a multi-million-dollar company with locations across the world, and Rocky was on his way to the cover of Newsweek, the poster boy for immigrant success. “I was like Trump,” brags Rocky, whose hair is still as distinctive as the Donald’s: a tightly permed Jheri curl he says he adopted in the sixties so that white people could tell him apart from other Asians. “Anything to promote my company, I did it. Richard Branson? He copy me.”
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). By 1979, he was obsessed with speedboats. So on the warm, windy morning of September 14, Rocky was with his 3-year-old son Kyle in a San Francisco hotel room, preparing for the Benihana Grand Prix. Then Rocky heard a knock on the door.
He was surprised to find two unexpected guests: 11-year-old Kevin and toddler Steve, Rocky’s two sons by Chizuru Kobayashi, his wife of fifteen years. Rocky had expected Chizuru and the kids to stay home in New Jersey—that way, he could enjoy some time alone with Kyle and his mother, Pamela Hillberger, Rocky’s mistress. “Kevin sees Kyle,” recalls Rocky, who can’t help grinning, no matter how badly this story ends for him. “He asks me, ‘Who is this kid?’ ” Rocky panicked and lied—badly. “I said, ‘Oh, he’s my friend’s boy. ’ But Kyle says, ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ ” Rocky said, “No, there’s no daddy here. He somewhere in New Jersey!’ ” But Kevin, his oldest son, wasn’t buying it. “One day before the big race, and Kevin found out that Kyle’s my kid. Big mistake.”
But that wasn’t the worst of it. “Another mistake was when I had accident,” Rocky says, “almost dying.”
Later that afternoon, in a scene straight out of Rock Hudson’s Magnificent Obsession, Rocky took a 38-foot racing boat out into San Francisco Bay. He hit 80 miles an hour near the Golden Gate Bridge and then, as New York Times sports columnist Red Smith put it, “Rocky Aoki’s speedboat disintegrated … and so did Rocky.” Rocky splashed down with a broken arm, a shattered leg, a torn aorta, and his liver sliced in half. He was helicoptered to a nearby hospital, where doctors removed his spleen and gall bladder and cut open his chest to perform a ten-hour coronary bypass. “Three days, unconscious,” he says. When he woke up, he recalls, “I’m completely naked, tube in my penis. I see my wife standing over me, on one side. On other side, I see my girlfriend…. I say, ‘Ohhh … shiiit!’ ”