Yugen, a fine dining restaurant with a exorbitant $215 per-person tasting menu, suddenly closed Wednesday, and it’s the second sudden shutter in the space in three years. In November 2018, Yugen replaced Grace, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant that closed in December 2017. Grace’s demise made national headlines, and prompted owner Michael Olszewski to install his daughter, Morgan, as general manger for a fresh start.
Despite the pressures of succeeding inside the same space where former Grace chef Curtis Duffy earned global recognition, Yugen found success thanks to executive chef Mari Katsumura. Katsumura — a veteran pastry chef who worked at Michelin-starred restaurants like Acadia and Entente — found her own path. Yugen was part of a wave of four Japanese restaurants in Chicago given star status in the 2020 edition of Michelin’s guide.
But after contemplating her role, Katsumura submitted her resignation on May 10 in what she calls an amicable split; she’s not leaving the industry as a news release stated. Olszewski lauded his former chef and Yugen’s staff for their efforts to keep the restaurant afloat during the pandemic. He even encouraged other restaurants to hire them based.
“I’m not trying to sound braggadocios, but Yugen was the best restaurant in the city of Chicago,” Olszewski says. “Its food, its service, its pairings, and just the people who worked here were incredibly talented and gifted.”
The compliments from Olszewski show a different mood compared to when increased conflict between Duffy, GM Michael Muser and Olszewski culminated in a staff walk out at Grace and subsequent closing in December 2017. Olszewski turned around quickly with Yugen, which debuted in November 2018. Despite the new menu from Katsumura, it still very much looked like Grace as the restaurant retained the same color scheme, tables, and $1,000 designer chairs. Meanwhile, Duffy and Muser opened Ever last year in Fulton Market. Michelin awarded the restaurant two stars last month.
Olszewski says he’s not worried about his reputation being marred after another sudden closure. He teased that he already has an idea for a replacement and could make an announcement “within a month.” He hinted that he already has a chef in mind, his second choice to replace Duffy in 2018 when he hired Katsumura. A new restaurant could open sometime this year in the same space.
“It’s going to be totally new and different,” he says. “It’s going to have a wow factor, an OMG factor.”
While proud of her successes during the pandemic, the grind has appeared to take a toll on Katsumura. The chef says she needed a break after 10 solid years of working in the industry, a stint that included one of the most grueling aspects of the business, restaurant openings. She says she needs some time off to recharge. The Chicago native plans to remain the city and perhaps open her own restaurant in the future: “Isn’t that everybody’s dream?” Katsumura says.
Without Katsumura, Yugen’s menu doesn’t make sense, a chef can’t slide into her role: “These are my stories, these are my dishes,” she says. Katsumura adds she “did have quite a bit of guilt” about leaving “because it’s actually a very sad thing.”
Restaurants are in Katsumura’s blood. Her mother owns Yoshi’s Cafe in Lakeview, a restaurant that her father, the late Yoshi Katsumura, founded in 1982. Mari Katsumura says she’s available to host, clear tables, and help if her mother, Nobuko, is OK with it.
“If she needs my assistance, I would be happy to help with anything that she needs,” she says.