Renowned Japanese chef Kenichi “Ken” Tominaga, the legendary owner of the Japanese restaurant Hana in Ronert Park, died on Monday morning after a short illness. The 61-year-old restaurateur was surrounded by family, including his mother, who flew in from Japan to be with him.
A native of Tokyo, Tominaga gained a cult following after opening the Japanese restaurant Hana in 1990 in an unexpected location at the DoubleTree Plaza shopping mall. His goal was to whet the appetite in Sonoma County for authentic Japanese cuisine, which he ate at home and in restaurants.
Hana quickly established itself as one of the Bay Area’s premier Japanese restaurants thanks to Tominaga’s core principles outlined on the restaurant’s website: Buy only the finest, freshest fish; include only the best local products; and believe that “if you love food, know how to cook it and try to make people happy, you will succeed.”
Over the years, some of Sonoma County’s top chefs have lined up at the cozy Hana Sushi Bar on weekends, enjoying not only the chef’s high-quality sushi, but also comfort foods like Nabeyaki Udon, Seafood Noodle Soup. prepared by his mother.
“Ken knew all about Japanese food,” said chef Douglas Keene, who often cooked for Tominaga while working at the former Cyrus and Shimo restaurant in Healdsburg. “Besides Cyrus, he was the only one in Sonoma County who used IMT (International Marine Products) and True World Foods. Once a week they brought fresh fish from Japan.”
Keene, who plans to reopen a new Cyrus restaurant in Geyserville this fall, said he first met Tominaga when the two were cooking for various food and wine events. He admired the chef for his sense of hospitality, work ethic and upbeat personality.
“No matter how good he was as a cook, he was just a wonderful person,” Keane said. “He always told you how great he had lunch somewhere and always smiled at you when you saw him.”
Over the years, Tominaga has been sought after as a partner by other chefs and restaurateurs. When renowned Napa Valley restaurateur Cindy Polkin opened her Go Fish seafood restaurant on St. Helena in 2006, Tominaga held court over the restaurant’s sushi bar.
“He was such an amazing person with a soul that I will always remember,” said Sean Knight, Paulsin’s business partner. “His talent and standards were at such a high level, and he was able to instill that in the people around him.”
Most recently, Tominaga was one of the co-stars in Dustin Valetta’s film Mathison in Healdsburg, which showcased a sushi bar run by Tominaga when it opened last November. According to Valette, the sushi bar was recently put on hold for several reasons, including Tominaga’s deteriorating health.
“This guy taught me a lot, not only about sushi, but also how to be a real person,” Valette said. “He was a great guy and inspiring as a business partner.”
Like other chefs, Valette was a regular at Hana, where he enjoyed watching Tominaga choreograph every aspect of the cuisine, from the food to the welcoming atmosphere of the restaurant.
“Ken made this restaurant special,” Valette said. “He was such an integral part of this restaurant. I love food and quality. I love to watch the master draw. It’s like Michael Jordan plays basketball.”
Celebrity San Francisco chef Michael Mina also frequented Hana regularly and fell in love with Tominaga’s inventive omakase menu, tailored to each diner’s preferences.
“Hana was a family restaurant and when you were in Hana you were part of the family,” Mina said. “Ken made this connection effortlessly and I am grateful to Ken for teaching and showing me what it really means to run a restaurant that looks like your home. ”
After becoming friends, Tominaga and Mina opened PABU Izakaya in San Francisco’s financial district in 2014. The contemporary izakaya and sushi bar has been named one of the most popular Japanese restaurants in the country by Zagat. In 2016, Tominaga and Mina built on the restaurant’s success by opening PABU Boston at the Millennium Tower.
Tominaga was born on November 12, 1960 in Tokyo to Katsuya and Keiko Tominaga. While raising their son in Tokyo, his parents ensured that he immersed himself in the city’s vibrant food scene. In high school, Tominaga worked in restaurants, first as a dishwasher, then as a cook, snatching a few hours of sleep before returning to class.
While studying engineering in college, he met his wife, Emiko Tominaga, when they were both 19 years old. They got married in Tokyo.
“She’s the anchor,” said his son, Petaluma’s Keita Tominaga, the chef at the Japanese restaurant Hana. “She is the reason my father was able to dedicate his life to work. She took care of everything else, and my dad was free to devote himself to his craft.”