Restaurant Review

Estuo and Kae Iwamoto of Hana Sushi: Japanese Fare Created from the Heart

By Published On: June 27th, 2024

Estuo and Kae thirty years ago

What I was most excited about when I first moved to Rhinebeck, NY, last August was getting to try the variety of restaurant options in the towns along the 9G corridor. Prior to moving to Rhinebeck I lived in a rural spot in Columbia County where the nearest grocery store was a 20-minute drive and finding an open restaurant on a Tuesday night was laughable. Now, the food options seemed endless – I could get Thai, Italian, Irish, Greek, Indian, Korean, and Mexican food or hop across the river to Kingston or Woodstock for even more options.

The one craving I hadn’t satisfied yet however was sushi. That is until one afternoon I went to Minuteman Press in Red Hook to get some banners printed for work. As I was leaving, I noticed a sign for Hana Sushi right next door. It was early afternoon, and the restaurant was closed, so I peered through the window into a tidy and charming interior. I was intrigued. 

Generally speaking, especially after ten years of living in NYC, I do my research on sushi restaurants before I try them. A quick Google search came up with nothing but five-star reviews. I was thrilled to find this hidden gem and resolved to come back. A few nights later I went to Hana Sushi for dinner. Upon arriving, I was greeted warmly by the hostess Kae, who seated me at the sushi bar where her husband Estuo was the chef. What ensued was perhaps the most delectable sushi meal I have ever experienced. 

Estuo and Kae today

I had a chance to catch up with Estuo and Kae Iwamoto recently to learn more about them, their restaurant, and their approach to cooking.

Where did you both grow up, and how did you meet?

Kae: We both grew up in Japan, but we met here in the United States through a mutual acquaintance and married in 1993. Estuo grew up in Iwate, and I grew up in Miyagi. 

To Estuo: How did your career as a chef begin?

I started cooking for the first time in fifth grade when I made curry rice during home economics class. I also made it at home, and my family praised me, which made me like cooking. After graduating from high school, I worked various jobs, but when I was 26, I decided I wanted to run a cafe, so I attended a school that taught me how to make coffee. Since I couldn’t make a living from coffee alone, I decided to learn cooking and got a job at an Italian restaurant. The chef there started his own French restaurant, so I went there and learned French cuisine as well. I studied cooking in Japan for about three years. In 1985, I heard that an acquaintance in the United States was opening a sushi restaurant and needed a chef, so I applied and came to the United States. 

I learned sushi from Take Matsuda who trained at the traditional Okei Sushi in Japan and later ran his own sushi restaurant before coming to the US to teach sushi. Okei Sushi was a long-established sushi restaurant that branched off from Futaba Sushi, one of the three great founders of Edo-style sushi. I called my mentor, Mr. Matsuda, the “Sushi King” and respected him greatly. His favorite saying was, “The heart is more important than anything else. Make sushi with your heart for the customers.” I always keep this in mind while cooking.

Until 1995, I worked at Yama No Hana Japanese restaurant, where I eventually became the manager. Then I moved to Arkansas to work at Mt. Fuji Japanese Restaurant until 1999. I had some friends in the Hudson Valley and decided to move here, where I opened Hana Sushi Restaurant in Red Hook in 2001. 

To Kae: How did you become involved in the restaurant?

I was a full-time Japanese teacher at public and private high schools for 16 years. Although teaching is a meaningful job, it was challenging to spend my weekends and Sundays preparing for it. I wanted to enjoy helping out at my husband’s restaurant and work alongside him, so I decided to retire from my teaching job in 2021.

Estuo: Before the pandemic we had a staff of six people, but during COVID we had to pivot to take-out only. Then our youngest son, Alon, returned home and began working with me and Kae at the restaurant. Alon is a talented chef and he has great business sense. He also helps us with our advertising and all software matters. Now mainly the three of us, as a family, manage the restaurant. 

What is the best part about running a restaurant?

Estuo: I have the freedom to create my own schedule and design my own menu.

Kae: I like to make customers feel welcome, and I am very grateful to meet people in the community.

To Estuo: What would you say is your specialty?

Sushi and sashimi.

To Estuo: Is there a dish that you do NOT like to make?

Natto because it is very sticky.

What do you look for to tell if fish is fresh and good quality?

The color of the fish is very important, and so is the temperature. I have a longstanding relationship with our suppliers, so I am able to speak with them about what they have that is the most fresh.

To Estuo: What skills does a sushi chef need that are different from being a chef at a more traditional restaurant?

The knives are different, and there are very specific techniques around cutting fish. Each type of fish has a precise way it needs to be cut. Strict hygiene and safety standards are paramount when handling raw fish and seafood.

To Estuo: How would you describe your overall cooking philosophy?

Mr. Matsuda taught me that the most important thing is the heart, that when you make sushi, think about the customers, and think about making them happy in the heart. 

What are your long-term goals for the restaurant?

Kae: Right now we have a variety of Japanese food on the menu in addition to sushi. But sometimes this creates long wait times, and our customers can be disappointed. Our plan is to streamline our menu more towards sushi so that we can get things moving more quickly. 

What do you like most about living in the Hudson Valley?

Kae: The environment – it’s quiet and beautiful, the air is clear, and the people are nice. We love the Hudson Valley. •

You can visit Hana Sushi at 7270 South Broadway (Hardscrabble Plaza) in Red Hook, NY, or online at