San Francisco Bay Area sushi pioneer Ken Tominaga has died at the age of 61.

Chef Ken Tominaga, a pioneer of Japanese restaurants in the Bay Area and an inspiration to many of the area’s top chefs, passed away on Monday after a brief battle with cancer. He was 61 years old.

Tominaga passed away 32 years after he opened the Sonoma County Japanese Restaurant Hana in Ronert Park, often referred to as the first in Wine Country to serve upscale Japanese cuisine and sushi with impeccable attention to detail and seasonal fish. A cult favorite of many Bay Area chefs, Hana has earned a reputation in the culinary industry as a place to dine after hours.

“His passion for Japanese taste was infectious, and as his family grew, he developed a thriving business for over 30 years, sharing his mastery of traditional Japanese cuisine with the Bay Area community and beyond,” his family said in a statement.

Tominaga’s son, Kosuke Tominaga, who runs the restaurant, credits Hana’s recognition of his father’s accessibility and willingness to teach others; A man of few words, there was always a smile on his face, relatives said.

According to relatives, chef Ken Tominaga always smiled.

According to relatives, chef Ken Tominaga always smiled.

Provided by Tominaga Group

“He really changed the attitude of Western culture (in the Bay Area) towards Japanese food,” Kosuke Tominaga said. At the time, “there was a huge lack of understanding of the beauty of food in Japanese culture. I think he felt like he needed to fill a void in Sonoma County.”

The sushi guru was also behind San Francisco’s acclaimed Pabu Izakaya restaurant with celebrity chef Michael Mina and the ambitious three-story Healdsburg newcomer Matheson with chef Dustin Valette. Kosuke Tominaga believes that apart from Ken Tominaga’s distinct skills in the kitchen, it was his father’s work ethic and passion that attracted such collaboration in his community.

“He had this eternal flame of passion for everything he got into,” he said. “It has always been about the bigger picture and having a purpose for what you do every day. He taught me the importance of chasing my dreams.”

In addition to food, Ken Tominaga loved surfing, golf and any competition.

In addition to food, Ken Tominaga loved surfing, golf and any competition.

Provided by Tominaga Group

Tokyo-born Ken Tominaga fell in love with the world of cooking at a young age. In high school, he worked in restaurants, going from dishwasher to chef. He later decided to introduce his two young sons to food in the same way; he invited family members to explore other restaurants and introduced them to ingredients such as kimchi and uni.

But Tominaga did not immediately take up the culinary arts. He studied engineering in college where he met his wife Emiko Tominaga. The age difference is only one day, they got married at 19 and lived together for 40 years. In 1986, the couple moved to California to join the family optics business in Santa Rosa, where he made optical sights by hand.

“If we had a different life, I would not choose anyone but him,” said Emiko Tominaga.

After his family sold the business, Tominaga, who also loved surfing, golf, and anything related to competition, returned to Tokyo to pursue his passion: food. There he attended the famous Akasaka culinary school, while studying with local sushi masters in restaurants.

In 1990, Tominaga opened a Hana store in the modest Rohnert Park mall.

“I didn’t know what Americans eat,” he recalled to The Chronicle in 2014. “I tried every restaurant in my area.”

His research – and efforts to educate visitors – paid off.

Chef Ken Tominaga prepares sushi at Pabu in San Francisco in 2014.

Chef Ken Tominaga prepares sushi at Pabu in San Francisco in 2014.

John Story / Special for The Chronicle 2014

Healdsburg chef Valette, who hired Tominaga to oversee Matheson’s sushi and seafood selection, said Hana was one of his date spots. “He was definitely a trendsetter, one of the important people who came here and changed Sonoma County,” Valette said.

Valette and Tominaga worked together for four years to open Matheson in 2021. It wasn’t the first time a renowned Bay Area chef had sought out Tominaga’s talents. In 2014, Tominaga partnered with chef Michael Mina, a longtime friend, to open Pabu in San Francisco’s financial district. A modern take on the traditional Japanese izakaya, Pabu quickly expanded, opening other stores around the country in cities like Boston and Baltimore. (San Francisco is the only place that remains open.) Former Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer was enthusiastic about Pabu’s pristine sushi and distinctive little plates, placing it on his list of the 100 best restaurants in the Bay Area for several years.

Mina said that he and his family have been regular customers of Hana for 15 years, calling it “the most magical restaurant”.

“I am grateful to Ken for teaching and showing me what it really means to run a restaurant that looks like your home,” Mina said in a written statement.

Michael Mina and Ken Tominaga have teamed up to open Pabu Izakaya in San Francisco.

Michael Mina and Ken Tominaga have teamed up to open Pabu Izakaya in San Francisco.

Santiago Mejia/Chronicle

Tominaga has also worked with celebrity Wine Country chef Cindy Polkin at the now-defunct Fish Story, and with Douglas Keane at his now closed restaurants, the Michelin-starred Cyrus and Shimo Japanese Steakhouse.

Valette described Tominaga as a “joyful person” who was “always excited” and inspiring.

“He inspired me to put in more effort, further refine my style to understand the bigger picture,” Valette said. “It wasn’t about a single dish, but about the holistic feel of the menu and how to make someone happy in your restaurant.”

Tominaga is survived by his mother, wife, sons Keita and Kosuke Tominaga, and his brother. Keita Tominaga – Chef at Hana Restaurant the family stated that they would continue to run the restaurant. In Japan, according to Kosuke Tominaga, the longtime family business is called shinise and is considered “a big deal.”

Funeral services will be private. The family plans to post a live stream of the memorial service on Hana’s Facebook page at facebook.com/hana.japanese.sonoma.

Jess Lander is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: jess.lander@sfchronicle.com @jesslander

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