Remembering Yoshi

( I originally published this article in August, 2015 when Yoshi died. Yoshi’s Cafe closes this Sunday.)

This was supposed to be a story about the great burger I had last Saturday night at Yoshi’s Café. But the harsh realities of life intervened. My tale of a wonderful burger has morphed into an obituary for a kind and thoughtful man who was also a great chef. Yoshi Katsumura died on Sunday. He was 65 years old, and he had been battling liver cancer for more than a year.

When I met Yoshi in the mid-80s, Yoshi’s Café was one of the Chicago area’s elite restaurants. I was writing a weekly column on restaurants and food for the “Chicago Sun-Times.” I wasn’t a critic, nor did I want to be. My job was to find good chefs, restaurants, groceries, and gourmet products and then write about them. I had questions about everything, and Yoshi was one of the people who answered them.

Back then, Yoshi’s food was described as “French with Asian influences,” since “fusion” wasn’t yet a part of the world’s culinary vocabulary. In Yoshi’s kitchen, the blends were never forced, and the mingled flavors always worked well together. This was food that was a treat for both the eye and the palate.

Somewhere along the line, Yoshi wanted me to meet a friend of his who had a Japanese restaurant in one of the northwest suburbs. My editor and I talked about doing a column focused on Yoshi talking about Japanese food and traditions. The setting would be his friend’s restaurant. Yoshi agreed.
My late husband and I shared two wonderful dinners with Yoshi and his wife Nobuko, both on Monday nights when Yoshi’s Café was closed. I learned a lot and wound up writing two columns packed with information. Alas, even with Yoshi’s patient tutelage, my chopstick skills remained dismal.

In the mid-90s, Yoshi called and asked me to come to the restaurant to talk about the changes he was making. With the restaurant scene shifting, he had decided to expand into the adjacent space and revamp the menu. The “new” Yoshi’s Café would be more casual, the price point more eclectic.
According to the game plan, the original format would still be offered in a portion of the restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights. That never happened. The “new” Yoshi’s Café was a hit from the get-go, which brings me back to the burger.

The winner of the 2012-edition of the Hamburger Hop, Yoshi’s burger is made with Wagyu Beef, the American equivalent of Japanese Kobe Beef. I ordered it medium-rare. To no one’s surprise, he- who- likes- his- burgers- well- done ordered his burger well done. With the exception of the cheddar cheese, I had all of the items normally served on the burger served separately. I wanted to taste each of them before putting everything back together. Included in the mix were a smoky Asian BBQ sauce, Asian pear jam, tomato-pickle-aioli, truffle oil, panko crusted fried green tomato and baby arugula. Hand-cut French fries and home-made pickles rounded out the dish, which was a solid, four-star hit.

We were a party of four. One friend ordered the New York strip loin steak with chimichurri sauce and Wagyu beef brisket pot-stickers with an apricot glaze, while the other opted for the oven- roasted Lake Superior white fish partnered with a lobster bisque miso sauce served over a creamy risotto. Different appetites. Different price points. Great food.

Yoshi and Nobuko’s daughter Mari and their son Ken are both trained chefs. I don’t know if they’ll pick up where their dad left off, but I’m hoping they will. But whatever the future, for right now, the kitchen staff at Yoshi’s Café is serving superb food. No surprise there. They had a wonderful mentor.

The following recipe is for the chocolate chip meringue cookies served at Yoshi’s Café. It’s based on a recipe from of “Kids in the Kitchen,” Imagination Tree Video Learning Kits; Mid-Com, Inc.; Evansville, IN.
Yoshi’s Chocolate Chip Meringue Cookies
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
¾ cup egg whites (approximately 7 eggs)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon cream of tartar
¾ cup finely chopped semi-sweet chocolate
1 cup finely chopped pecans (can be omitted)
Add cream of tartar to the egg whites. Beat with an electric mixer until very stiff.
Slowly add the sugar. Beat at high speed for 30 minutes. (It’s not a typo; beat them for 30 minutes.)
Using a spatula, fold in the chocolate and the pecans.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Using a heaping tablespoon for each cookie; drop onto prepared pans. (You can also use a pastry bag to shape the meringues. My baking skills are similar to my chopstick skills, so I spoon them out.)
Place the pan-or pans-in the oven.
Lower the heat to 200 degrees.
Bake for 2 hours.
The cookies shouldn’t stick to the paper. If they do, bake them a little longer.
Store the cookies in an airtight container.

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