Closure of Yoshi’s Cafe in Lake View after 39 years: Pioneer of French-Japanese cuisine, original chef worked with ‘Iron Chef’ Hiroyuki Sakai

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It’s been six years since chef Yoshi Katsumura passed away, but his wife has kept the Lake View family restaurant, Yoshi’s Cafe, open.

Nobuko Katsumura said that diners would tell him, “it’s like Yoshi is still cooking,” that they imagined he was in the kitchen and could come out anytime and greet them like he used to.

“When I’m at the restaurant,” Katsumura said, “I feel like he’s still there. It’s been six years, but I feel like he’s still there.

But after nearly four decades, she said she would close the pioneering French-Japanese restaurant on December 12.

The white building with the brown awnings at North Halsted Street and Aldine Avenue will go to a local buyer that Katsumura would not identify.

But she said, “I’m not selling to a developer. I think it’s a good thing for the neighborhood.

The late Yoshi Katsumura at his beloved French-Japanese restaurant in 2005.

Yoshi Katsumura pioneered the fusion of Japanese and French cuisine in Chicago. He trained in Japan with Hiroyuki Sakai, famous for the first “Iron Chef” on television, in the subtleties of French cuisine. At Yoshi’s Cafe, he used Japanese ingredients in French cuisine, creating eclectic dishes like oyster shooters with sake.

The Katsumuras came to Chicago in the 1970s and opened Yoshi’s Cafe in 1982. With a limited staff, Nobuko Katsumura remembers working alongside her husband, helping him peel carrots and potatoes.

In the early years, Yoshi’s was a fancy restaurant and offered more French dishes like foie gras and pheasant.

The Katsumuras were renovated in 1995 and Yoshi’s Cafe became a casual neighborhood spot with more affordable and healthier options, and they doubled the restaurant’s capacity.

Yoshi's Cafe, with its brown awnings, will close on December 12.

Yoshi’s Cafe, with its brown awnings, will close on December 12.

Yoshi’s Cafe has become a favorite of Chicago filmmaker Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix,” “V for Vendetta”).

Speaking of Yoshi Katsumura after his death in 2005, Wachowski said, “Like all great chefs, his cooking gracefully united the unique with the comforting.”

Over the past two years, like all restaurants, Yoshi’s Cafe has had to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. The restaurant has moved to take-out and delivery, and some of its servers have taken on the role of drivers.

When outdoor dining was allowed, regular customer Marc Engel helped Nobuko Katsumura find patio tents. Engel said when he moved to Chicago 25 years ago, Yoshi’s Cafe was the first restaurant he visited with his partner and has been going there ever since.

Eating at Yoshi’s is like “you’re in your living room,” said Engel, who has rung in the New Year several times at the restaurant.

“I see Nobuko walking around and cleaning my table, and I feel bad because I feel guilty, like my mom is cleaning my dishes,” Engel said. “For [her] hanging on to that was unbelievable, unbelievable. Many people would have closed it already. … This restaurant cannot be replaced. It’s impossible.”

For Nobuko Katsumura, the restaurant’s 15 full-time employees are his extended family, and most have worked at Yoshi for nearly 20 years. They call her mom, and they called her husband, dad.

“They said they would stay with me until the last day,” she said.

Nobuko Katsumura, 69, has lived above the restaurant since it opened. She said she would be moving a few doors down for what she described as “the next chapter in her life”. She said she plans to spend more time with her children and grandchildren.

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