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Chef Mari Katsumura Stakes Her Claim in Chicago’s Fine Dining Scene

At Yugen, the chef is taking charge for the first time, inside a storied restaurant space

Mari Katsumura

Mari Katsumara has, without exaggeration, spent her entire life in the Chicago restaurant industry. She grew up directly above her father’s north side restaurant, making her ascension to West Loop culinary excellence seem almost predetermined. And there are few things Chicagoans love more than someone who’s from Chicago Chicago.

A Lakeview native, Katsumura has spent her culinary career on savory and pastry lines at some of the city’s most esteemed restaurants, including Boka, Pump Room, Blackbird, Acadia, Entente, and even Grace, the three-Michelin-starred restaurant that abruptly shuttered in late 2017 following a dispute between the chef, the general manager, and the owner. In November, she opened Yugen, a Japanese fine dining restaurant, in the former Grace space. Now, for the first time, she’s the executive chef in a kitchen steeped in her own Japanese-American heritage, with a menu that’s unmistakably hers.

In some ways, Katsumura’s rise to culinary prowess is a very American one, shaped by her immigrant parents. Yoshi and Nobuko Katsumura moved to Chicago from Japan in the ’70s, and in 1982 they opened Yoshi’s Cafe, an upscale Japanese-French eatery in Boystown, a Lakeview enclave. Post-World War II Lakeview was an unofficial “Japantown,” home to over 150 Japanese-owned shops, restaurants, and grocery stores, but by the time Yoshi’s opened, Japanese-Americans were leaving for the suburbs. Katsumura says she felt no sense of a “Little Tokyo” in Lakeview as she was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s. Back then, Yoshi’s, which recently marked 36 years open, was a rare Japanese business in an area that had once been distinctly Japanese.

Per their daughter, Yoshi and Nobuko Katsumura — the executive chef and business manager, respectively — sought to shield their children from the grueling work of restaurant ownership. “They did everything in their power to make sure I didn’t go into cooking,” says Katsumura. “They knew it was such hard work and you have no holidays off, and on their days off they were so exhausted they couldn’t adequately spend time with us.” That’s why they lived above Yoshi’s Cafe, she adds: to maximize family time. She never worked in the kitchen at Yoshi’s; she just helped out with tasks like coat check from time to time as a kid. But as a young adult, Katsumura realized cooking wasn’t just her calling, but “an obsession.” After attending Bard College, she studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Minnesota, and then, a few years later, at the French Pastry School. Her parents eventually got over their goal to keep their kids out of the industry. Katsumura says her mother, “is really, really, really happy for me.”

Clockwise from top: chawanmushi (Santa Barbara uni, Hudson Valley foie gras, Asian pear); kurobuta tonkatsu (apples, almond, pig ear); sashimi (Japanese citrus, blue shrimp, cucumber).

Katsumura’s project actually contains two restaurants in one: Yugen, the fixed-price dining room and main attraction, and Kaisho, the cocktail-forward, izakaya-style front room with a limited a la carte menu. This “two restaurants, one kitchen” model is reflective of a national trend in fine dining, which includes double-duty couplings like Chicago’s Smyth and the Loyalist, New York’s Momofuku Ko and Ko Bar, and the bar and dining room of Eleven Madison Park. The smaller space, which references Japanese pubs, is intended for a more casual meal or drink. “I really love having that dual experience, you know?” says Katsumura. “Where a line cook off the street could come [to Kaisho], have a cocktail, get a couple bites after their shift.”

The menus at both Yugen and Kaisho reflect Katsumura’s experience as a first-generation Japanese-American. Indeed, several of her dishes are intrinsically tied to the chef’s upbringing. Take, for example, Yugen’s Japanese curry. Her father made it especially for the family (it wasn’t on his cafe’s menu) every couple of months. Yoshi Katsumura would make it from scratch (not from store-bought cubes), and Katsumura has stuck with his method over the years. For Yugen, the chef put her own spin on the recipe, adding potato and parsnip from Nichols Farm in Illinois, braised beef cheek from Indiana’s Schlegel Farms, aerated foam, puff pastry, curry carrot dust, and parsley oil. The result is a quintessentially Japanese dish, with pointedly Midwestern ingredients.

Katsumura’s experience growing up in her father’s kitchen comes through at Yugen in more ways than just the food and drink. The chef has inherited her parents’ incredibly hands-on approach to restaurant ownership and management, as well as their unrelenting work ethic. “Up until the day he couldn’t work anymore, he was in the kitchen,” Katsumura says of her late father. “He was 66 years old, on the line every single day, going through chemotherapy and still working.” One of Katsumura’s self-declared values as executive chef is being in the kitchen as much as possible, which is not a ubiquitous quality among chefs, according to her.

Of course, parents often teach their children as much about who they don’t want to be as who they do. By his daughter’s telling, Yoshi Katsumura was heavily influenced by the kitchen culture of his time. He studied under Jean Banchet at Le Francais in the Chicago suburbs, and then at several Michelin-starred restaurants in France. “He cultivated his culinary experience during the very O.G. French time of Charlie Trotter and that culture,” says Katsumura. (Trotter was notoriously difficult in the kitchen; in 1996, Chicago magazine named him the second-meanest person in Chicago, after Michael Jordan.) “That’s where the stereotype comes from: you know, the yelling French chef throwing pots and pans. [My father] was a product of that environment.”

Yugen
Kaisho

It’s a style of kitchen management that the younger Katsumura wants nothing to do with. “I want [Yugen’s] kitchen to be more — not necessarily laid back, but not as militaristic of an environment that I think a lot of three-star restaurants are notorious for,” she says. Indeed, since Trotter’s rise to culinary acclaim in the 1980s and 1990s, strict kitchens have become nearly synonymous with Chicago fine dining. Prior to its 2016 renovation, for example, Grant Achatz commanded Alinea’s kitchen with such intensity that cooks worked in near silence. Without naming names, Katsumura surmises, “Someone set a precedent, and that structure worked for that restaurant, and copying is the highest form of flattery.”

The Yugen chef attributes her desire to distance herself from the “militaristic” status quo to a new era in the restaurant industry. With the rise of social movements including #MeToo, Katsumura has witnessed a change in kitchen culture that clashes with the rigid management style previously instilled in fine dining. And having spent time in notoriously strict kitchens, like Grace, Katsumura is all the more convinced a more relaxed management style is right for Yugen.

Katsumura was on the opening team at Grace in 2012: she worked on the pastry and savory lines (primarily pastry) for three years before departing for other projects. When Grace closed at the end of 2017, amid a rather public conflict between owner Michael Olszewski and chef Curtis Duffy and GM Michael Muser, Olszewski retained ownership of the space. Katsumura says she had no hesitation to get into business with Olszewski following Grace’s acrimonious closure, and that her professional relationship with him, dating back to 2012, has been nothing but positive. Together, they assembled an all-female leadership team for Yugen that includes Jeanine Lamadieu as pastry chef, Olivia Noreen as beverage director, and Olszewski’s daughter Morgan Olszewski as the general manager.

With Yugen, Katsumura returns to a familiar physical space with a completely fresh outlook. “The cuisine is so different, the mentality is so different in terms of managerial style, as well as the aesthetic and style of service. It’s so different that there’s really no comparison,” she says. Though the Chicago culinary world was rocked by Grace’s snap closure — and eager to see what would replace it — to consider Katsumura’s new project merely a Grace replacement would be a disservice to her fine dining credits and vision as a chef in her own right.

Mari Katsumura in the kitchen at Yugen.

Apart from the bones of the space, Yugen is completely unlike Grace. Katsumura changed the dining room’s look not so much to rid it of Grace’s bad juju, but to make it Yugen. The word “Yugen” itself is a tenet of zen aesthetics, meaning “the simplicity of beauty,” or “finesse and gracefulness.” To achieve a more zen atmosphere, Katsumura ditched Grace’s white tablecloths for bare charcoal stained wood, decorated the walls with jewel tones to “let nature back in,” and filled the dining room with a more organic, soft light. (Though, as Eater Chicago reported in November, Grace’s $1,000 chairs remain in Yugen’s dining room.)

Despite her self-described seriousness and demanding work ethic, Katsumura’s goal for Yugen is humble and straightforward: to introduce patrons to elements of Japanese cuisine beyond sushi, and to surprise people. “Hopefully in a good way,” she adds. It appears many Chicago fine dining chefs have adopted a similar goal lately. Iliana Regan’s Kitsune, multiple omakase-style restaurants, and Kumiko, a Japanese-style bar from Julia Momose and the team at Chicago tasting menu venue Oriole, have opened over the past two years. All of these establishments endeavor far beyond your neighborhood, a la carte sushi joint.

It’s likely Michelin recognition is also on Katsumura’s bucket list, given her vast experience and comfort in fine dining. But, at Yugen’s core, this endeavor is about “honestly, just being true to myself.” Having crafted a menu, a workplace, and a dining space so informed by her own heritage and values, it seems Katsumura is already doing just that.

Grace Perry is a Chicago-based writer. Nicholas James is a Chicago-based photographer.
Editor: Monica Burton

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