It’s been six years since chef Yoshi Katsumura died, but his wife has kept the family’s Lake View restaurant Yoshi’s Cafe open.
Nobuko Katsumura said diners tell her, “it feels like Yoshi is still cooking,” that they imagine he’s in the kitchen and could come out any moment and greet them the way he used to.
“When I’m at the restaurant,” Katsumura said, “I feel he’s still here. It has been six years, but I feel he’s still here.”
But after nearly four decades, she said she will close the pioneering French-Japanese restaurant Dec. 12.
The white building with the maroon awnings at North Halsted Street and Aldine Avenue will go to a local buyer Katsumura would not identify.
But she said: “I‘m not selling to a developer. I think it’s a good thing for the neighborhood.”
Yoshi Katsumura pioneered the fusion of Japanese and French cuisine in Chicago. He trained in Japan with Hiroyuki Sakai, famed from TV’s original “Iron Chef,” in the intricacies of French cooking. At Yoshi’s Cafe, he used Japanese ingredients in French food, creating eclectic dishes like the sake-fused oyster shooters.
The Katsumuras came to Chicago in the 1970s and opened Yoshi’s Cafe in 1982. With limited staff, Nobuko Katsumura recalls working alongside her husband, helping him peel carrots and potatoes.
In the early years, Yoshi’s was a luxury restaurant and offered more French dishes such as foie gras and pheasant.
The Katsumuras renovated in 1995, and Yoshi’s Cafe became more of a casual, neighborhood venue with more affordable and healthier options, and they doubled the restaurant’s capacity.
Yoshi’s Cafe became a favorite of Chicago filmmaker Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix,” “V for Vendetta”).
Talking about Yoshi Katsumura after his death in 2005, Wachowski said, “Like all great chefs, his food gracefully united the unique with the comforting.”
In the past couple of years, like all restaurants, Yoshi’s Cafe has had to weather the coronavirus pandemic. The restaurant shifted to carryout and delivery, and some of its servers took on roles as drivers.
When outdoor dining was permitted, regular customer Marc Engel helped Nobuko Katsumura find tents for the patio. Engel said that when he moved to Chicago 25 years ago, Yoshi’s Cafe was the first restaurant he visited with his partner and that he has been going there ever since.
Eating at Yoshi’s feels like “you’re in your living room,” said Engel, who has rung in the new year many times at the restaurant.
“I see Nobuko walking around and cleaning up my table, and I feel bad because I feel guilty, like my mom is cleaning up my dishes,” Engel said. “For [her] to hold on to this was unbelievable, unbelievable. Many people would have shut it down already. ... This restaurant cannot be replaced. It’s impossible.”
For Nobuko Katsumura, the restaurant’s 15 full-time employees are her extended family, and most have worked at Yoshi’s for nearly 20 years. They call her mom, and they used to call her husband, dad.
“They said they will stay with me until the last day,” she said.
Nobuko Katsumura, 69, has lived above the restaurant since it opened. She said she’ll move a few doors down for what she described as “the next chapter of her life.” She said she plans to spend more time with her children and grandchildren.