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Yoshi Katsumura , renowned Yoshi's Cafe chef, dead at 65

Yoshi Katsumura in 2005 at his restaurant. | Sun-Times file

Yoshi’s Cafe, a place of celebrations, engagements and political huddles for 33 years, will continue to operate despite the death Sunday of chef Yoshi Katsumura, according to his widow, Nobuko.

Mr. Katsumura, 65, died at Northwestern Memorial Hospital after an 18-month struggle with liver cancer.

His final wish was to keep the Lake View restaurant open, which his family and staff intend to do. He told them, “ ‘Yoshi’s legacy will be with all of you. Please keep [Yoshi’s] legacy as long as you can,’ ” said Nobuko Katsumura, who works the front of the house, greeting patrons.

In a business where eateries seem to open and close overnight, Mr. Katsumura and his restaurant were notable for longevity and a loyal clientele. For decades, Yoshi’s has won awards for its French-Asian fusion cuisine.

“We have this restaurant for 33 years, and he is always innovating,” his wife said. “He never stopped creating.”

The Katsumuras lived upstairs from the cafe at 3257 N. Halsted. They opened in 1982, a time when Lake View had homeless regulars on the street and security bars on business windows.

Back then, “There was only one or two gay bars” nearby, his wife said.

His longevity netted Mr. Katsumura the nickname “Mayor of Boystown.”

Calling him “immensely talented, dedicated and kind,” Art Johnston, co-owner of the landmark gay bar Sidetrack, 3349 N. Halsted, said: “As the gay neighborhood developed around him, Yoshi become an avid, generous supporter of our community’s aspirations and growth.”

“He created a neighborhood culinary scene,” said Ald. Tom Tunney (44th). “Halsted would not have developed as much without his early presence.”

“Yoshi’s is the restaurant my wife and I always meet my parents at whenever we return to Chicago; for me a crisp martini and his tempura string beans will always be the taste of coming home,” said filmmaker Lana Wachowski of “The Matrix” and “V for Vendetta” fame. “Like all great chefs, his food gracefully united the unique with the comforting. We are very saddened to hear of his passing, but his legacy remains an icon of Lakeview and I am sure the warmth of his presence will continue to be felt inside Yoshi’s Café.”

Mr. Katsumura began his career in Japan, working for “Iron Chief” Hiroyuki Sakai, a master of French cuisine. He idolized Sakai for his flashing knife skills, and he admired that Sakai went to a gym and worked out to stay in peak kitchen condition.

To this day, Yoshi’s Cafe features octopus, soy sauce and miso from his native Ibaraki Prefecture in Japan, known for its natto — pungent, fermented soybeans.

In his early days in Chicago, he was in the kitchen at Le Bastille. He also worked at chef Jean Banchet’s Le Francais in Wheeling, a restaurant lionized for excellence. From 1978 to 1982, his wife said, he presided over the kitchen at Jimmy’s Place, 3420 N. Elston, which evolved into Jimmy and Yoshi’s.

“Yoshi always wanted to have his own restaurant,” she said.

In the mid-1990s, he re-invented Yoshi’s, transforming it from a formal dining room to a casual bistro. The lower prices and expanded seating were a hit.

His interest in cooking started when he was a teenager. “He helped his sister to make a doughnut and that made him really like it,” Nobuko Katsumura said. “In his early 20s, he had an opportunity to work at a hotel in Japan, and [with] chef Sakai.”

“I’ve never seen a chef like him,” said chef Takashi Yagihashi of River North’s Slurping Turtle Restaurant. Yagihashi trained at Yoshi’s, and said he marveled at Mr. Katsumura’s speed and efficiency, whether he was deboning fish or butchering deer.

And, unlike some chefs, Yagihashi said, “He never yell at anybody.”

He never really took a day off, even at home. “He takes over my place in the kitchen,” his wife said, “and it is better than I do.”

Their children, Mari and Ken, never wanted to go out to eat when they were small, she said. When their parents asked if they wanted to try a new restaurant, the kids replied, “ ‘No, Daddy cook,’ ’’ she recalled.

Today, Mari works as a pastry sous chef at Blackbird, and Ken is a butcher at The Publican.

One of his proudest days occurred last April, when Tunney sponsored the renaming of the cafe’s street as “Yoshi Katsumura Way.”

Mr. Katsumura “was a great person hosting fundraisers for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami that ravaged his native Japan and other natural disasters,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a frequent patron along with his wife, Loretta.

“He always wanted to do good for the community,” said Maureen Martino, head of the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce.

His clientele included Mayor Rahm Emanuel; Mayor Richard M. and Maggie Daley; political strategist David Axelrod; skater Michelle Kwan; model Cindy Crawford; opera singer Samuel Ramey; and actors Richard Gere; Gary Sinise; Robert Duvall; Robert Redford; Harold Ramis; and Sarah Jessica Parker.

After dining at his restaurant in Chicago, Rosie O’Donnell flew him to Miami to cook for her 50th birthday bash.

One of Mr. Katsumura’s early investors was Iva Toguri, owner of Belmont Avenue’s Toguri Mercantile. After World War II, she was accused of being radio personality “Tokyo Rose.” The American-born Toguri had wound up in WWII Japan, where Radio Tokyo produced propaganda shows targeting American troop morale.

Postwar fervor contributed to her being convicted of treasonous broadcasts. She was sentenced to 10 years in jail. The FBI later said the programs were a collaborative affair with her and other radio hostesses. She successfully fought deportation and settled in Chicago. President Gerald Ford pardoned her in 1977.

Mr. Katsumura is also survived by a brother in Japan, Kazuhiro Katsumura, and a grandson, Hiro. A memorial service is planned at 6 p.m. Aug. 17 at the Midwest Buddhist Temple, 435 N. Menomonee St., Chicago.