Renowned Japanese chef Kenichi “Ken” Tominaga, the legendary owner of Hana Japanese Restaurant in Rohnert Park, died Monday morning after a brief illness. The 61-year-old restaurateur was surrounded by family, including his mother, who flew from Japan to be with him.
A native of Tokyo, Tominaga developed a cultlike following after launching Hana Japanese Restaurant in 1990 in an unlikely spot in the DoubleTree Plaza shopping mall. His goal was to whet Sonoma County’s appetite for the authentic Japanese cuisine he grew up eating at home and in restaurants.
Hana quickly established itself as one of the Bay Area’s leading Japanese restaurants, thanks to Tominaga’s core principles stated on the restaurants’s website: source only the highest-quality, freshest fish; incorporate only the best local produce; and trust that “if you love food, know how to prepare it and try to make people happy, you will succeed.”
Through the years, some of the best chefs in Sonoma County lined up at Hana’s intimate sushi bar on their nights off, enjoying not only the chef’s high-quality sushi but comfort foods like the Nabeyaki Udon seafood noodle soup his mother used to make.
“Ken was versed in all Japanese food,” said chef Douglas Keane, who often cooked for Tominaga when he worked at the former Cyrus and Shimo in Healdsburg. “Besides Cyrus, he was the only one in Sonoma County who was using IMT (International Marine Products) and True World Foods. They would fly in the fresh fish once a week from Japan.”
Keane, who plans to reopen a new Cyrus restaurant this fall in Geyserville, said he first met Tominaga while they both were cooking for various food and wine events. He admired the chef for his sense of hospitality, work ethic and upbeat personality.
“Regardless of how good he was as a chef, he was just a great human,” Keane said. “He would always tell you what a great meal he had somewhere, and he always put a smile on your face when you saw him.”
Over the years, Tominaga had been sought after as a partner by other chefs and restaurateurs. When renowned Napa Valley restaurateur Cindy Pawlcyn opened her seafood restaurant Go Fish in St. Helena in 2006, Tominaga held court behind the restaurant’s sushi bar.
“He was such an amazing person, with a spirit that I will always remember,” said Sean Knight, Pawlcyn’s business partner. “His talent and standards were at such a high level, and he had the ability to instill this in the people around him.”
More recently, Tominaga was one of the partners in Dustin Valette’s The Matheson in Healdsburg, which showcased a sushi bar run by Tominaga when it opened last November. The sushi bar was recently put on hiatus for multiple reasons, Valette said, including Tominaga’s declining health.
“That guy taught me so much, not only about sushi but also about being a true human,” Valette said. “He was a great guy and inspirational as a business partner.”
Like other chefs, Valette was a regular customer at Hana, where he enjoyed watching Tominaga choreograph all aspects of dining, from the food to the welcoming ambiance of the restaurant.
“Ken made that restaurant special,” Valette said. “He was such an integral part of that restaurant. I love the food and the quality. I love watching a master paint. It’s like Michael Jordan plays basketball.”
San Francisco celebrity chef Michael Mina also frequented Hana regularly, and he fell in love with Tominaga’s inventive omakase menu, tailored to each diner’s preferences.
After developing a close friendship, Tominaga and Mina opened PABU Izakaya in 2014 in San Francisco’s Financial District. The modern izakaya and sushi bar was named by Zagat as one of the hottest Japanese restaurants in the country. In 2016, Tominaga and Mina built on the restaurant’s success by opening PABU Boston at Millennium Tower.
Tominaga was born on Nov. 12, 1960, in Tokyo, to Katsuya and Keiko Tominaga. While raising their son in Tokyo, his parents made sure he was immersed in the city’s vibrant dining scene. In high school, Tominaga worked his way up in restaurants, first as a dishwasher, then as a prep cook, snatching a few hours of sleep before heading back to class.
While studying engineering in college, he met his wife, Emiko Tominaga, when they were both 19. They married in Tokyo.
“She’s the anchor,” said his son, Keita Tominaga of Petaluma, who is the executive chef of Hana Japanese Restaurant. “She’s the reason my dad was able to devote his life to the work. She took care of everything else, and my dad was able to freely devote himself to his craft.”
Tominaga’s career as an optics engineer took the couple to Taiwan for a year. They later moved to California so he could help his parents with their optics company in Santa Rosa.
After his family sold the business, Tominaga returned to his first love and attended the Akasake Cooking School in Tokyo. At night, he studied the work of sushi masters he’d known since he was a boy at his favorite sushi restaurants.
“I don’ know anybody that worked harder than him,” Keita said. “The Japanese work ethic is very high, and he exceeds that in many ways.”
Tominaga opened Hana in 1990 with his parents. He poured his heart and soul into his work, just like the chefs he learned from in Japan.
“He wanted to share Japanese cooking and flavors with the Bay Area community and beyond,” Keita said. “He loved people. He was a man of few words, but they meant a lot, those words.”
Tominaga’s signature dish at Hana was Ken’s Roll, filled with shrimp tempura and avocado and topped with spicy tuna and a sprinkle of garlic, togarashi powder and pine nuts. At wine and food events, people would line up for his famous Spicy Tuna Hand Rolls.
“I don’t know how many pictures there are of him holding the Spicy Tuna Hand Roll,” Keita said. “He must have rolled hundreds of thousands of them.”
A competitor at heart, Tominaga loved the pressure of sports, both as a fan and as a participant. He grew up surfing, first at the beaches in Japan and later in Taiwan and California. He played baseball through high school, then took up golf as an adult. Tominaga was a devoted fan of all Bay Area sports teams, from the 49ers and the Warriors to the Giants and the A’s. Through his restaurant PABU in San Francisco, he catered Stephen Curry’s 30th birthday.
“He was always all about taking the best of two cultures,” Keita said. “That’s what he taught me and my brother, what it means to become local and part of the community.”
Tominaga also put his own twist on the traditional Japanese food he created at Hana, paying homage to ancient flavors while making them fresh and approachable.
“He needed to make Japanese food that was palatable and loved by the Americans,” Keita said. “He also educated people with the right flavors.”
In a statement released Wednesday, his family wrote: “His legacy will live on in Hana Japanese Restaurant, which his family will continue to operate, in the many other establishments he advised and culinary teams with whom he shared his passion and expertise.”
In addition to his mother, wife and his son Keita, he is survived by his brother Hiroyuki Tominaga of Saitame, Japan, and his son Kousuke Tominaga of Santa Rosa.
Funeral services will be private. A celebration of his life will be held at 11:30 p.m. June 12 at La Crema Estate at Saralee’s Vineyard in Windsor. The family plans to provide a livestream of the memorial, with details to come on the Hana Japanese Restaurant Facebook page, facebook.com/hana.japanese.sonoma.
Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56
Features, The Press Democrat
I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.
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