Katsu Imamura taught me about storytelling. He’s an unlikely teacher for a writer, being that he’s a sushi chef. But it wasn’t until I sat three feet from him at the sushi counter of his eponymous West Ridge restaurant, that I understood how a chef—an artist, really—could convey a compelling narrative arc with food as the medium.
Upon a long plate of glass, Imamura presented 12 pieces of sushi, meant to be consumed from left to right. It began with hamachi flown in from Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, then a marbled slab of salmon, then a buttery escolar with Australian truffle. On and on this went, a sequence that flowed as logically and seamlessly as “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” to “Baby Be Mine” to “The Girl is Mine” to “Thriller” to “Beat It.” Imamura weaved a yarn that ebbed and flowed, a flavor note from one nigiri carrying over to the fried prawn head of the next. There were callbacks, surprises, ellipses, and exclamation points. There was momentum and energy in his telling. After that meal, I sat stunned, my mind having burst like salmon roe.
This year marks the 29th year Katsu Imamura and wife Haruko have run what many Chicagoans consider the finest and most faithful Japanese restaurant in town. And they have decided it’s time to end this chapter. Imamura, 74, will be retiring at the end of November, and the couple decided Katsu cannot be Katsu without, well, Katsu. Tentatively, they will be closing the Sunday after Thanksgiving, November 26.
“Now we are both healthy and still have time to enjoy other things, so we thought, perfect time,” Haruko Imamura said. “We are simply very happy and we feel it’s just the right thing to do.”
Katsu Imamura’s path to Chicago restaurant renown follows an unlikely road. In his younger days, he was a women’s fashion designer in Japan. But he loved food, and so when he arrived in Chicago in 1979, Imamura knocked on the door of a River North restaurant called Yanase. He had no previous cooking experience, but asked for a job anyway.
He devoted his life to cooking, and learned the intricate ways—the hand movements, the precise knife techniques, temperature control in rice—of becoming a sushi chef. In 1988, Imamura and his wife decided to strike out on their own. They found the only space they could afford on a stretch of Peterson Avenue. Despite the neighborhood not being known for its restaurant scene, it was a convenient location, especially for Japanese businessmen, who found it a short distance off the interstate on their way to and from O’Hare airport. Practically every well-known Japanese celebrity or athlete has made a Katsu a requisite stop over the last 30 years.
Word of its closing has been kept quiet—Katsu and Haruko have informed only their most loyal customers of their plan. But they didn’t want to make a big scene of it, and truth be told, were reluctant to have their retirement marked by public fanfare. Humility has always been their nature—the Imamuras don’t have a robust social media presence, they don’t advertise, and they never hired a public relations firm. They just want to run a business and serve decent food. But it would be a shame if Katsu quietly faded away. As a public service, Chicagoans deserve sushi—unvarnished as it was intended, without volcano sauce or arranged as a fire-breathing serpent. Until November 26, Katsu is the narrator I want telling me that story.