Born in Ibaraki, Japan in 1950, Yoshi Katsumura began his cooking apprenticeships at age 19 in the popular French restaurants of Tokyo, learning the basics of classic cooking in a very classic system. He started as a dishwasher, then to peeling vegetables. At age 20, he was apprenticing with Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai in Tokyo.
His dream was to work in France, but nothing became available. He moved to Chicago in 1972 and started working at Le Bastille. By 1975, he had worked his way up to chef, and then moved to La Reserve for a year. Like many chefs in Chicago, Chef Yoshi worked under Great Chef Jean Banchet at Le Français in 1977. But he had yet to experience French food on French soil, so in 1978 he was offered work in both Paris and Lyon, France. He returned to Chicago at the end of 1979 and worked with Jimmy Rohr at Jimmy’s Place as chef and partner. At the time it was considered one of the city’s finest and most innovative French restaurants.
In 1982, Chef Yoshi along with his wife Nobuko, found a restaurant space that they could call their own. It was located at Aldine Street (now known as “Yoshi Katsumura Way”) and Halsted Street in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. Yoshi’s Café, a small 48-seat dining room, had arrived in 1982.
By 1984, Great Chefs Television was shooting the Great Chefs of Chicago series, and Chef Yoshi was recommended by Great Chef Jean Banchet, who they were also taping that year. Chef Yoshi Katsumura prepared an appetizer, Hot Duck Pate in Puff Pastry; two entrées, Dover Sole with Scallop Mousse and Medallions of Lobster, and a Roast Breast of Pheasant Stuffed with Pheasant Mousse and Foie Gras; and a dessert, Green Tea Ice Cream with Raspberry Sauce (all in episode # 12 of the Great Chefs of Chicago series). Chef Katsumura is considered the progenitor of fusion, melding Asian ingredients with European techniques. “I like to put together dishes with little bits of the best of all cultures” said Chef Yoshi.
Eight years later in 1993, Yoshi overhauled his menu. He is a keen observer of how American culture is changing. “Food is fashion, and for a chef to remain popular with the public, he has to catch the fashion as it is changing and try to stay ahead of it. To survive, a chef has to set aside his ego and serve his customers,” he says. Or as his protégé, Great Chef Takashi Yagihashi recently said, “Technically, I’ve never seen another chef like Yoshi, nobody is better than him.”
In November 2014, Yoshi’s Café will celebrate its 32nd anniversary. His gentle fusion continues to sparkle. Congratulations Yoshi & Nobuko!