Mari Katsumura doesn’t live in a vacuum — she’s well aware of the situation she walked into as chef of Yugen, the upcoming Japanese restaurant opening inside the space where chef Curtis Duffy wowed diners for five years at Grace. Katsumura is a Chicago native who grew up working at her parents’ Lakeview restaurant, Yoshi’s Cafe. She’s gained her own acclaim making desserts as pastry chef at Blackbird, Acadia, Entente, and Gideon Sweet. Now she’s poised to lead her own restaurant.
Katsumura repeatedly described her career path as “organic” and “natural.” Katsumura is guarded on details about the menu. She previously mentioned a miso soup in prior interviews, trying to describe the techniques she’ll employ at the restaurant. That led to some confusion, something Katsumura wanted to clarify. Yugen will be contemporary Japanese fine dining with several nostalgic touches, the kind that remind Katsumura of eating abroad with her parents Yoshi and Nobuko. She’s confident that Chicago hasn’t seen a restaurant like Yugen.
“My mom is really, really happy for me,” Kastumura said. “Honestly she couldn’t be happier.”
One of her mentors is Dana Salls Cree (Pretty Cool Ice Cream, Nico Osteria). Katsumura worked as Salls Cree’s sous chef at Blackbird. Salls Cree said savory food won’t pose a challenge to Katsumura.
“Mari grew up in her parents’ restaurant, and the hospitality and enthusiasm for guest experience seeped into her completely,” Salls Cree said. “She has cooked both sweet and savory in many of Chicago’s best kitchens, and I’ve watched her cook with passion for every last thing she creates be it a fancy plated dessert or just a staff meal.”
Grace’s former waiting room will be converted to a second dining room with an a la carte menu — Katsumura has mentioned it would be a smaller tasting course menu, but it appears ownership is still ironing details. It won’t be as pricey as the main tasting menu. It’s designed for customers who don’t want to spend several hours at the restaurant, it’s a more-affordable option aimed at locals, Katsumura said. While Crain’s reported that the space underwent a “mid-six-figure renovation,” Yugen also wants to attract regulars beyond those who want to splurge on a celebratory dinner. The main tasting menu, which is still developing, should have around 10 courses. At least one dish will feature Kobe imported from Japan.
“It’s coming full circle for me,” Katsumura said. “This is true from the heart and authenticity.”
Katsumura said it was important to “acknowledge greatness,” as a nod to Duffy’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant. Grace’s epic demise left many to wonder who would dare follow Duffy’s footsteps given the tumultuous circumstances with the same ownership. They haven’t opened the restaurant yet, but so far Katsumura said the relationship with Olszewski has been positive. Olszewski has brought on his 23-year-old daughter, Morgan Olszewski, to serve as GM. Katsumura isn’t a partner at Yugen, but she feels she’s had creative freedom to forge her own identity.
“Mike, as the owner, has been really trusting of me,” Katsumura said.
The restaurant should open in October and Crain’s hit upon how Yugen’s trio of Katsumura, Morgan Olszewski, and pastry chef Jeanine Lamadieu, (Smyth + The Loyalist, Le Bernardin) are women. Katsumura didn’t focus too much on that, again saying the leadership team came together “organically.” Providing more opportunities for women was a happy byproduct: “At the end, the food will speak for itself,” she said.
Yugen was Katsumura’s first choice for a restaurant name, something they came back to after throwing out other ideas. It’s a heady term for Katsumura, in one context meaning “deep awareness of the universe.” Initially, Katsumura described the restaurant’s food as a Japanese/French hybrid, but as she grew more confident with the menu, she’s more demonstrative in saying Yugen will serve authentic Japanese food. Katsumura believes something unique is happening in Chicago when it comes to Japanese cuisine. Nearby, former GreenRiver bartender Julia Momose is opening Bar Kumiko, a Japanese drink-focused restaurant with the Oriole team. While diners and critics over the last few years have noticed Asian influences on many menus, there’s now a movement to “showcase Japanese food in its pure form.”
“Something special is really happening, I really can’t put it into words just yet,” Katsumura said. “There’s a movement slowly starting.”