|Sumi, which derives from the Japanese word for charcoal, focuses on the tradition and skill of robata grilling. This ancient culinary technique was originated by Japanese fisherman, who were the first to utilize the communal hearth known as an irori as a way of cooking the day’s catch. The menu is anchored by a variety of dishes from the robata grill, enhanced by traditional cold and hot Japanese appetizers.The design of Sumi reflects charcoal in its purest form, with a focus on natural materials including stone and bamboo. Designed to resemble the minimalist décor of a Japanese storefront or kura, Sumi features marble and reclaimed wood throughout the intimate dining room. Upon entering the space, guests will see the centerpiece of the concept, the 26-foot robata bar helmed by Chef Gene Kato. The robata bar offers seating for up to 14 guests, and is adorned with hand-crafted stools, one of the restaurant’s many elements created with an artisan or takumi spirit in mind. Sumi’s beverage program features a variety of house-blend teas and bottled cocktails along with a selection of Japanese spirits and sodas. Sumi has been praised as one Chicago’s Best Japanese Restaurants by Zagat. Sumi Robata Bar was the recipient of the 2017 Jean Banchet Award of Culinary Excellence as Chicago’s Best Neighborhood Restaurant.
Gene Kato | Chef/Owner
For Gene Kato, an innovator of Japanese cuisine in the U.S., introducing Sumi Robata Bar in Chicago in January 2013 was the ultimate culmination of his culinary experience and years of meticulous preparation. Recipient of the 2017 Jean Banchet Award of Culinary Excellence as Chicago’s Best Neighborhood Restaurant. In 2017 Chef Kato was recognized by James Beard as a semi finalist for Best Chef: Great Lakes. He knew that opening his own restaurant required so much more than a deep knowledge of food. “It’s easy to be a great chef producing notable dishes while overseeing the kitchen, but it’s another level to be a great business visionary and be able to manage the front of the house and the overall operations, as well,” Kato says. “It was the ultimate test of my career to be able to take all I’ve learned and present it in an exciting, successful package.”
With Sumi, Kato brings to Chicago the traditional takumi, or artisan, experience of robata grilling using sumi, a distinct Japanese white charcoal. Kato knew Chicago was the perfect locale for his first restaurant and for any future restaurant endeavor, as he has been living and working in the city since 2002. “I really enjoy the Chicago restaurant culture and its customers,” he says. “People here have that great hospitality you find in the South, but with a big-city feel. There is so much opportunity to bring new concepts to the table.”
Prior to opening Sumi, Kato’s career path had already positioned him as an innovator of Japanese cuisine on a national scale. In addition to a tenure at Ohba, he dedicated nine years to working as executive chef and partner of Japonais, launching the modern Japanese restaurant in Chicago, New York, and Las Vegas. Coupled with his experience of growing up in a Japanese household in Charlotte, NC, in which he learned to cook the foods so integral to his heritage and culture, Kato is devoted to elevating Japanese cuisine yet remains respectfully authentic to tradition. “The most important tenets of Japanese cooking are overall quality and technique,” he explains. “That’s the thing with Japanese food: It’s composed of basic ingredients, so each detail must be perfect.”
Kato has been featured in numerous national and international publications for his creative signature dishes such as “The Hot Rock.” He also regularly participates in culinary events and was part of a star-studded lineup of chefs—including his peer, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto—at the 2007 Culinary R&D Conference. Kato exhibited his talent and captivated an audience of corporate chefs and research and development executives with his vision for the future of Japanese cuisine in the United States. Under Kato’s cerebral helm, Sumi has received great acclaim from critics and diners alike, with accolades including “Best New Restaurant” from Chicago magazine, “Best of Chicago” from Chicago Reader, and a “Critic’s Pick” from Time Out Chicago.
He is a loving father to his son. In his spare time, he enjoys delving into other great ethnic cuisines at restaurants throughout his adopted city.
Victoria Rojas | Owner
At Sumi Robata Bar in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, Victoria Rojas sets the tone for the evening by greeting each guest she encounters with a warm smile and welcoming attitude. “My approach to hospitality is to create an atmosphere that is very approachable and unpretentious.” That hospitality adds to the authenticity at the intimate robatayaki concept.
Though a native of Miami, Florida Victoria considers herself a citizen of the world, having started her love affair with travel at a very early age. This passion for exploration gave Victoria exposure to the world’s top culinary destinations, with trips throughout all of Europe, Latin America, and Canada as well as parts of Africa and Asia. After receiving her MBA in international business from Lynn University in Boca Raton, FL. Victoria moved to Chicago to pursue a career in finance. It was in Chicago that she met Chef Gene Kato, a rising star on the culinary scene who shared with Victoria his vision for his own independent concept. She was struck by the high level of skill Chef Kato brought to his cuisine, rivaling some of the best restaurants she has encountered in her international travel.
As co-proprietor of Sumi, Victoria played a seminal role in the business development of the restaurant. Prior to the opening, Victoria immersed herself in trend-forecasting and research, before putting together the compelling business plan. “I come from a very hard working Colombian family. Growing up, I was taught that anything is possible with dedication, discipline and determination,” she says. “It is my belief that no one can stop you from accomplishing what you set out to achieve.”
Following three years of planning and development, Sumi opened to the public in January 2013. Since its opening, Sumi has received great acclaim from critics and diners alike, with accolades including “Best New Restaurant” from Chicago magazine, “Best of Chicago” from Chicago Reader, and a “Critic’s Pick” from Time Out Chicago. Victoria spent over 9 years in a prestigious private equity firm as well as some time at a global consulting firm.
On a personal level, Victoria’s infectious enthusiasm has earned her admiration from guests and industry insiders alike. Her deftness at juggling the demands of the restaurant, career, and motherhood has earned her editorial praise from Eater Chicago, along with being named a top local influencer Mom in Chicago by Refinery 29. Victoria was also named a Women of Style by CS Modern Luxury in 2014. She stays connected to the Chicago cultural scene through her charitable efforts, which has included serving as a host committee member for the Academy for Global Citizenship’s Chef’s Playground event.
Victoria is a devoted mother to her 6 year son, Antonio. In her spare time, she enjoys staying active by going to Pilates, salsa classes, and travelling as well as exploring Chicago’s culinary scenes with family and friends.