In the fall of 2003, Rocky made a desperate attempt to force peace on the family. But it was about as savvy as blurting out Your daddy’s in New Jersey! back in that San Francisco hotel. Rocky rewrote his will, giving Keiko control over how to disburse 75 percent of his estate to his children after his death. That way, he explains in his lawsuit, he hoped that his “children would realize that making peace with her would be the best possible course of action … and would bring everyone together.” He was very, very wrong.
“You said this is a way your kids and Keiko will get along,” Grace wrote to him, according to his lawsuit. “What sick-twisted logic … None of us are naïve enough to believe that she would give us a penny. It is amazing how far she will go, and how far you let her go.” That’s when Rocky decided to sue his children. His lawsuit claims that the four children “breached their fiduciary duties,” in part by losing BOT’s controlling interest in Benihana Inc. (through a stock dilution and sale that reduced its stake from 50.9 percent to 36.5 percent). Rocky says the children have canceled his salary and, in the words of the lawsuit, are trying to “wrest control” of the companies, largely because of their “hatred of Plaintiff’s wife.”
“I want to help my kids, but I want my children to crawl, to walk, then run on their own,” explains Rocky. “Then I help them. But they can’t even crawl. They just collect money and do nothing. What else they want? Can’t wait till I’m dead?” Rocky says he barely speaks with Grace and Echo anymore and focuses most of his anger on Kevin. Meanwhile, Pamela’s daughter Devon and Chizuru’s son Steve have both steered clear of the conflict, perhaps because they’ve made their own money independent of Benihana. Steve runs the indie record label Dim Mak, which broke Bloc Party, and he imported the Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. to the States (both acts have crashed at Rocky’s house). He’s become a clubland celebrity, D.J.-ing under the name Kid Millionaire. “People always think I’m really loaded,” Steve says, stressing that his nom de discotheque is a way of pointing out that his father hasn’t funded his record label. “I’m close to my dad, but if Dad was investing in me, I’d have a big problem—” He stops himself. “Shit, I should rephrase that.”
As Rocky will repeatedly tell you, his favorite daughter is Devon. The licorice-thin, moonfaced model was discovered at a Rancid concert at age 13 and later replaced Naomi Campbell as the face of Versace. When “Page Six” began calling her “hotter than a grill at Benihana,” Rocky was proud. When Devon started dating thirtysomething Lenny Kravitz around her 18th birthday, he couldn’t have been happier.
“She always do the right thing,” says Rocky. “She say, ‘You sure?’ I say, ‘No problem.’ She say, ‘He’s half-black, half-Jewish.’ I say, ‘That’s okay … That’s America! I can’t get away from the blacks and the Jews!’” He nearly falls over laughing.
He says he loves Devon, a budding actress who reportedly just signed a $2 million deal to design a line of jeans for Levi Strauss Japan, more than any other child because she’s loyal and perhaps the only one who shares his drive. “All I ever want is to make money,” Rocky says. “When I wake up, I think about how to make money in my brain. Devon’s the same way.” Even as a child, Devon loved money so much she would leave bills strewn all over her room, like toys—“$100, $200, $300! Hundreds of dollars. On her bedside! On the floor! In the bathroom! I say to her, ‘You don’t think money is important!’ And she say, ‘I want to see my money, Daddy. I want to see it when I’m in my bed, when I’m in the bathroom, everywhere—I want to see it always.’ ”
Rocky smiles. “She’s my favorite, very smart.”
It must be hard being one of Rocky’s children—and not just because you’d probably be in the middle of an ugly lawsuit right now. “It’s brought a lot of pressure being his child,” Kevin says. “He basically changed the way Americans think about Japanese culture and cuisine.” Rocky’s life story has been held up as a modern-day Horatio Alger tale, lionized in eleven Japanese books, a made-for-TV Japanese movie, an American biography, a manga comic book, and on the walls of Benihanas from Milwaukee to Bucharest.
Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki was born on October 9, 1938, in Tokyo. His father, Yunosuke, was a “playboy,” a “child actor,” and a flashy vaudevillian, Rocky says, who “loved Fred Astaire.” He taught tap-dancing to Katsu, a tango dancer who would become his wife, and entered the restaurant trade. Rocky was 6 when American B-29s firebombed Tokyo, killing close to 100,000. After the attack, the legend goes, Yunosuke was walking through the wreckage when he spotted a tiny red flower and decided to name his new café after the Japanese word for such a blossom: Benihana.