Benihana Founder Was Member Of 'Double Eagle V' Crew
To most of the world, Hiroaki
"Rocky" Aoki will be known best as the founder of the Benihana
chain of Japanese steakhouses... described as "equal parts
restaurant, magic show and performance art" by restaurant architect
David Rockwell. But Aoki also left his mark on the aviation world,
before passing away last week at the age of 69.
The Balloon Federation of America tells ANN Aoki was among four
men who made the first successful crossing of the Pacific Ocean by
gas balloon. The Double Eagle V -- helmed by Aoki, Ben Abruzzo,
Larry Newman, and Ron Clark -- flew 5,768 miles from Nagashima,
Japan to California's Mendocino National Forest in November
Following that record-setting adventure, Aoki continued flying a
special shape hot air balloon... humbly fashioned in his own
likeness, complete with Benihana chef's garb.
One could say Aoki was the embodiment of the American dream...
of both its best and least-desirable qualities. The son of parents
who ran a coffee shop in Japan, Aoki emigrated to the US when he
was 19, according to The New York Times. He opened his first
restaurant years later, using the $10,000 he'd saved selling ice
cream from a truck. Seven years later, he owned 15 restaurants.
Not all was rosy, however. Aoki resigned from the company he
founded in 1998, under investigation for insider trading. He later
pleaded guilty to charges he used an illegal stock tip to invest in
Spectrum Information Technologies, ahead of news Apple Computer
Chairman John Sculley would soon join the company. He sold the
stock soon after, making hundreds of thousands of dollars... most
of which he later paid in the form of a $500,000 fine, along with
three months' probation.
Aoki made it a priority to flirt with danger. Besides his
ballooning ventures -- arguably his least-risky endeavor -- Aoki
also raced catamarans and powerboats. One accident while training
in 1979 nearly cost him his life; a second crash in 1982 "only"
injured his leg.
In addition to those exploits, Aoki also raced in the original
"Cannonball Run" cross-country race, driving a Volkswagen Beetle
stretch limo. He founded a New York nightclub, as well as a
short-lived competitor to Playboy magazine. New York
Magazine reports he sued four of his six children in 2006, alleging
they tried to wrest control of the Benihana empire from him and his
Aoki passed away last Thursday, due to complications from
pneumonia. We're sure that wherever he is now... it's a more
interesting place for his being there.