“It is all about surrounding yourself with things that you love.”
Running around the globe as Chief Executive Officer of Benihana of Tokyo, Inc., cookbook author, and entrepreneur, Keiko Aoki is a super active, multi-talented, business woman. She has just launched her new ready-to-eat food line, using Japanese home cooking dishes, and promotes a healthy diet. Right before her business trip to Southeast Asia, she chatted with Chopsticks NY and shared her health tips, way of life and business philosophy with us.
You are a person who juggles many different roles. What is your daily routine?
Every morning I am out of bed by 6:30, and I wake up by having my coffee. After that I make my international calls. From 7-7:30 I head to the gym for some exercise, and then from 8-9:30 I walk my dog Mugi in Central Park before we head to the office together at 9:30. During our hour and a half together in the park, I enjoy being surrounded by nature and use that time to think about the day’s business issues. At that time, many good ideas come to mind. Walking along with a clear head and watching changes in nature such as the pond freezing and the leaves changing color leads to higher quality, more fresh ideas than when I am just sitting in my office. It is a chance to objectively and thoughtfully deliberate on things like the direction I am heading in and any problems I am encountering at work, and this is where I find solutions.
It sounds great to start the day with that kind of stress release.
It is hard to be healthy if you are feeling stressed out. It is not just about the food you eat, but the health of both your body and mind are important. Even if you eat food that is good for you, get massages and wear nice makeup, none of this will have an effect if you don’t have a healthy mind. The biggest point in terms of becoming beautiful is building a solid foundation, like with a house. When things that upset you remain in your head, this tires out your body and harmful hormones are released. People often say that by falling in love you become beautiful, but I don’t think this is the only way. It’s more a matter of creating a positive environment for your body and mind. With this, you will naturally release positive hormones and this will change your features for the better. The idea is to shine in your own way. In order to accomplish this, you have to know yourself.
What do you think is the key to finding this confidence?
It is all about surrounding yourself with things that you love. For example, certain people or pets or colors or food or furniture; it doesn’t matter what it is and what people say about it, as long as it has meaning to you. When people are around things that they love, they naturally flourish. By loving something and being loved, you become beautiful. It is the same with work that you enjoy.
Speaking of work, can you tell us a little bit about your new food line with Fresh Direct?
We picked soba noodle salad to start with to highlight this noodle because ramen’s popularity has overshadowed other Japanese noodles. As Japanese people, we dip soba in sauce but for most Americans this is a hard way to eat it. For them it is easier to just pour the sauce over the soba, but in doing this the soba expands and the taste changes, so for this purpose we created soba dressing for the American market.With this, Americans can take their time eating as opposed to Japanese who tend to quickly slurp their soba. We launched this line with Fresh Direct last November. Going forward, we would like to introduce other essential Japanese foods such as kinpira (sautéed burdock seasoned with shoyu base sauce) and hijiki (a type of seaweed simmered with shoyu base sauce) at other supermarkets like Whole Foods. My basic concept for KEIKOAOKIINNER MAKEUPTM is “ready to eat,” meaning introducing Japanese food culture in a form that can be eaten as is, without preparation. The reason is that people who work in New York often don’t use their kitchens and just want food in a container they can simply throw away.
What do you see as the appeal of Japanese food?
I think that Japanese and Asians in general tend to have a lot of information regarding what they consume. For example, we know what nutrients scallions provide, that seaweed is good for your hair and that onions help the blood circulation. These are things that we hear while growing up, and they become common knowledge. Japanese foods such as shoyu, miso and natto (fermented soybeans) have lots of enzymes which are especially necessary as you get older. They are like gasoline for our bodies, so the more you get, the longer you live and the lower your stress level.
What are your future business plans as an entrepreneur?
My overarching goal in the near future is growing the Benihana of Tokyo business throughout the world. We currently exist in 15 different countries, but most of our Asian restaurants are franchises so we are looking to increase direct management in that region. My next business trip is to Singapore to scout new locations for this purpose. At the same time, I would like to continue my promotion of Japanese food culture in other countries. I would like to focus on being able to balance the former, which is the profitable side, and the latter, which is my personal interest. My business philosophy revolves around the Japanese idea of “omotenashi no kokoro” or “hospitality from the heart.” I really like this and want to use it as a concept for Benihana. It means respectfully welcoming all customers, something that is often lacking in other countries. In Japan, even our fast food restaurants have this quality!
What is something you learned from your late husband, Rocky Aoki (founder of Benihana)?
The concept he instilled in me the most is to always try new things, and this has become my core. Life is short so I try to look at each day as a gift. A big part of this is surrounding yourself with positive people who you can regard as mentors, and Rocky’s existence was like this for me.
Do you have any recommendations for Chopsticks NY readers who are interested in visiting Japan?
I think that really depends on the audience you are targeting, such as solo travelers vs. a group of girlfriends vs. an older couple, and of course differences between the genders. I don’t know about Japan because I don’t do touristy things when I am there, but the one place I am always sure to visit during all of my international travel is shopping centers. Here you can learn about that country’s economy, fashion and culture all at once. You can compare it to New York and make valuable discoveries. So I think it would be interesting for visitors to Japan to check out shopping centers and department stores like Isetan and Mitsukoshi. It is fun to wander around.
——– Interview by Stacy Smith
Keiko Aoki Born in Tokyo and former Miss Tokyo, she studied at Yamawaki Gakuen College, Hawaii University and Harvard Business School. She started her consulting company in New York in 1989. In 2002, she married Rocky Aoki, the founder of Benihana group and took over his business at his decease in 2008. As Chief Executive officer of Benihana of Tokyo, Inc., she devotes herself to spreading the Benihana chain worldwide, which was Mr. Aoki’s wish. In addition to her Benihana business, she is currently in charge of a consulting company, catering business, and healthy food line.
KEIKOAOKIINNER MAKEUP TM
The new line of healthy Japanese food products, KEIKOAOKIINNER MAKEUP TM is available through Fresh Direct. The first of the line is Soba Noodle Salad that includes soba noodles, a pack of sesame dressing and crispy onion croutons. It can be eaten as is, paired with fresh greens and salads or any other food as a side dish.
KEIKO AOKi Specialty Catering
The service offers healthy, fresh and delicious Japanese cooking in New York City. All inclusive, personal catering functions for 4 to 10 people in your home. Large group catering also available, includes our hors d’oeuvres menu, sushi preparation with live performance by sushi chef.
Easy & Healthy Japanese Food for the American Kitchen
Combining easy-to-use cooking techniques with traditional Japanese cuisine, Keiko Aoki balances the delicate flavors of Japanese cuisine with ingredients and equipment found in the average American kitchen. These quick-to-prepare recipes are designed to accommodate the hectic and busy lifestyles most Americans endure.
Benihana of Tokyo Hawaii is one of Benihana of Tokyo, Inc’s direct operation since 1971.
2005 Kalia Road
Honolulu, HI 96815