Hana's Lori Hashimoto Dishes on Brazilian Lobster, Magic Knives and Keeping It All in the Family

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Lori Hashimoto Hana Japanese Eatery 5542 N. Seventh Avenue 602-973-1238 www.hanajapaneseeatery.com

This is part one of my interview with Lori Hashimoto, co-owner and sushi chef of Hana Japanese Eatery. You can read part two of the interview with Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery here.

To understand Lori Hashimoto, you must begin with her name, a blending of American and Japanese -- like Hashimoto herself. At first blush, she seems like an outgoing all-American woman but get her around her mother Kinue and her stepfather Kazuto Kishino (who help her operate the restaurant) and she becomes a soft-spoken Japanese daughter whose every word is deferential. She is two people and wears both personas well.

Hashimoto grew up in the Southeast Valley, taking a job at Bangkok Express in Tempe after high school, where the self-described "meat and potatoes girl" began taking an interest in more sophisticated fare. "Her food was phenomenal, like crack" says Hashimoto of her Thai boss. "She made me try things. She changed me forever." Hashimoto stayed there for two years, working as busgirl, cashier and manager before earning an associates degree in Social Work at Mesa Community College.

But social work was too depressing, so she took a job as "lab rat" for a nutriceutical company, working her way up to GM of the plant 15 years later. She was bringing in the big bucks but not feeling particularly fulfilled.

Meanwhile, Hashimoto's brother Rick (now a sushi chef at Hana) had been working under a handful of Benihana alums who schooled him in Japanese sushi tradition. "We're as close as a brother and sister can be without it being weird," Hashimoto says. So when he started pestering her to open a Japanese restaurant (a dream she'd always harbored), she listened.

When she also noticed that her stepfather (former executive chef for Ayako of Tokyo) was unhappy at the Chandler sushi bar where he worked, she knew she had to take the plunge. She approached her friend Lynn Becker and suggested they go into business together. "We built this place for my parents," she says.

The rest of Phoenix is grateful.

When Hana opened, Hashimoto ran the front of the house, winding up behind the sushi bar by default. The family couldn't find serious apprentices, so she jumped in to help: cleaning and organizing but never touching anything. Only watching. A year later, she started decorating plates -- a drizzle of ponzu here, a bit of daikon there. That was another year. One day, her brother (who, she maintains, is often "a dick when he's back there") encouraged her to cut a piece of fish.

"I could do it," she says. "Looking at my hand was like looking at his hand." When she began making food at the three-year mark, she was instantly hooked. "Handing something over the counter and having people tell you it's good is such a rush." Hashimoto's been behind the sushi bar four years now and her step-dad and brother call her Chisai Naifu -- little knife.

Six words to describe your food: traditional, fresh, light, pure, simple, colorful.

Six words to describe you: patient, compassionate, strong, respectful, confident, stubborn.

Favorite ingredient(s): yuzu kosho (a paste made from chile peppers, yuzu peel and salt), shiso, soy sauce and seaweed.

Favorite kitchen tool: My maternal grandfather's kitchen knife. It's about 85 years old, very heavy. I use it to cut big fish because it cuts like butter. And the blade never dulls. My mom swears it hasn't been sharpened by anyone in months. It's kind of super-natural. If my parents divorced, the only thing my brother and I would fight over would be the knives.

One food you can't live without: Soy sauce. I put it on everything -- tamales, scrambled eggs, burgers and fried chicken. I learned that from the Thai lady, who put just a dash in everything she made. It adds depth, umami.

One food you detest: Believe it or not, raw salmon. I can't handle it and we go through more of it than any other fish.

Favorite dish from your childhood: "Baby Chicken," that's what I called the dish my mom always made for me. It's just small pieces of chicken deep-fried with salt, pepper, garlic salt and cornstarch -- no egg wash, nothing. I try to make it but mine never turns out the same.

If you were on death row, what would be your last meal: my grandma's spaghetti, Kaz-san's abalone, Mom's meatballs and gravy (so simple but so good), okazu (chopped cabbage with bacon) and our server Sonya's magic bars -- made with coconut, chocolate and graham crackers. I can eat a whole pan of those because they're semi-sweet. Japanese people don't like super-sweet food.

Favorite dish on your menu: Right now, the Hana Lobster, a nine-ounce, warm water Brazilian lobster sautéed with garlic and asparagus. I'm a butter girl and this is yummy to me. Read Part Two of our interview with Lori Hashimoto of Hana's Japanese Eatery

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