Mari Katsumura, executive chef at Chicago’s Michelin-starred Yūgen, grew up in a restaurant family. Her parents ran the lengendary Yoshi’s Café in Lakeview and Mari and her brother Ken grew up right above the restaurant. Here, Mari shares some of her favorite holiday food traditions and plans for Yūgen.
What were some of your favorite childhood holiday meals?
I think for any family where you have a chef, the whole things revolves quite a bit around food. Due to the nature of the beast, my parents would always have to work, but we would make the time outside of that to celebrate with the family.
I understood that these were really special times because both my parents would invest so much of their time. These are big days for us as restaurant industry people. Thanksgiving has to be one of my favorite holidays. They would invite lots of Yoshi’s staff and their friends and family as well. We’d clear out all the tables and make a big family size huge rectangle for everybody. My dad would usually make three turkeys—one Asian-style with Japanese fried rice inside, one would be American-style with French fries inside which I thought was genius and one more traditional with stuffing.
Thanksgiving was also a potluck, so a lot of friends would bring food—cold soba with dipping sauce, sushi and small Japanese appetizers. It was really funny to see the juxtaposition of having turkey on your plate, plus soba with dashi and sushi rolls. But that was really normal for us.
You and your brother Ken are both chefs, so what are holidays for your family like now?
Since my father passed four years ago, there are things my brother will make that my dad used to make. He’ll do this lamb chop on the bone with mustard glaze and herbed panko, which was one of my favorite things. He’ll do that usually for Thanksgiving and I really look forward to it because it reminds me of my dad.
Now that they’re doing the smokehouse thing at Yoshi’s every Sunday, Ken’s getting really into BBQ and smoking meats and charcuterie. I’ll handle anything pastry related or fill in the gaps in between. There always ends up being way too much food.
And what about Christmas and New Year’s?
We’ll have a fake Christmas during our January break. But I will say that New Year’s Day has always been a really big thing in my family and for Japanese people. There are very specific foods that you eat on New Year’s Day to celebrate a bountiful New Year, with little metaphors behind each one, and there’s a level of superstition. You eat a lot of fish eggs so you can be a good provider in the New Year. You eat soba on New Year’s Eve because the longer the noodle, the longer your life. My mom always orders special lacquered bento boxes for New Year’s that have several layers to them. We used to get them special order from Katsu restaurant and some older Japanese generation restaurants will still make them. Yamasho has them for pre-order. It’s one of my favorite Japanese home Chicago traditions.
Do you have any dishes on the menu at Yūgen that pay tribute to your father?
On New Year’s my dad would always do a full lobster split in half with motoyaki sauce charbroiled on top, and that was truly one of my favorite things. We have the motoyaki sauce now on our tasting menu, served with an Alaskan king crab canapé, and it holds a place in my heart. That’s one family recipe that does remind me of the holidays.
It’s so tough right now for restaurants, especially fine dining concepts like Yūgen. How has your reopening been?
I think the reopening has been quite successful. We have three active revenue streams – the main dining room, grab-and-go and our outdoor patio. The grab-and-go is like a Japanese convenience store with Japanese sandwiches, build-your-own ramen or carbonara and lots of sides like Japanese potato salad, spicy edamame, and gomae green beans. Plus, we have really cute pastries like matcha canelé and Okinawa sweet potato éclairs.
Kaisho, the patio, is a tiki takeover concept with all skewered items grilled on binchotan. One of my favorite meals in Japan is yakitori. It doesn’t really exist here in America the same way. It’s just funny that the most casual, basic experience is one of my favorites in Japan. I just wanted to replicate that. The chicken is the star and it’s jidori chicken. We get in whole chickens and break them down piece by piece, so it’s a laborious process. We aren’t sure how long we’ll continue with outdoor seating right now, but we’re working on a satellite situation, some collaborations with other people who have food trucks, so we’ll see what happens.
Editor’s Note: With the newest restrictions, indoor dining at Yūgen is closed. However, you can still support by ordering meal and cocktails kits from 3-6 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday. Learn more here.
Bake This: Mari’s Matcha White Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe
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Amber Gibson spends 340 nights a year in hotels searching for the latest and greatest in the travel industry. Her writing and photographs have appeared in print, online, and on the radio for outlets including Four Seasons Magazine, NPR, Saveur, Departures, Rhapsody, Hemispheres, American Way, Private Air, Wine Folly, Plate, Chicago Magazine, Tasting Table, and Serious Eats. She graduated as valedictorian from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and received a fellowship to attend the 2017 Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood Napa Valley. Champagne, dark chocolate, and gelato are her biggest weaknesses. She also admires and supports CAASE in Chicago. Follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.