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Katsumi’s Teaching Kitchen delivers authentic Japanese experience

Katsumi’s Teaching Kitchen delivers authentic Japanese experience

By Todd Travis

It’s not often you get to learn authentic Japanese cooking from an American Army veteran. At Katsumi’s Teaching Kitchen, you get just that. Mori Willhite, who owns and runs Katsumi’s, is half Japanese and half American and speaks English just as well as Japanese. Her original plan was to be a Japanese language teacher, but she found that the market in Indiana would reward her more for teaching people how to cook.

Wilhite’s mom and dad met in Japan at a military post where her dad was stationed as a U.S. Marine. Her mom had taken Japanese cooking classes when she was young and had developed a pretty refined taste. So when they moved to San Diego in the 60s, it was challenging finding the right ingredients. “Even though now San Diego is a big multicultural hub, it was nothing like that in the 60s. So we used to get packages from Japan with soy sauce and rice and other food,” recalled Willhite. “We were eating Japanese Japanese food from the get-go because you can take the girl out of Japan, but you can’t take the Japanese out of the girl.” Unbeknownst to Wilhite learning to cook from her mom would later help her open her cooking school.

Mori Willhite owns Katsumi’s Teaching Kitchen, which was featured last year on HGTV. (Photos submitted by Mori Wilhite)

After graduating from San Francisco State with a Japanese learning degree, she realized joining the Army would help her actually pay for that degree. She joined in her late 20s and served for seven years as an X-ray tech. During this time, she continued to refine her cooking. Japanese food wasn’t really available at the standard she was used to. “Here I am in the middle of nowhere Virginia and I’m just starving for Japanese food, so I started to go get flour and make potstickers on my own or have my mom send me instant curry mix,” Willhite recalled. “They had stuff, but my mom was from a well-to-do family so her taste buds were a little higher than the average Japanese American family.” She also met her Army sweetheart at the time, which brought her to Indiana after she completed her service. They are no longer together, but they did have a son together who lives with her now.

Wilhite had to make some major life adjustments when she found out her son had autism. “The autism was a surprise, but it shouldn’t have been because it turns out my mother’s brother and his daughter are autistic, and his father was also on the spectrum. Also, Japan has the highest number of autistic people in the world,” she said. “He’s non-verbal and operating at a 5-year-old level and he won’t be leaving me anytime ever.”

Mori’s son James Katsumi.

Living in Indiana has been a fortunate occurrence for Wilhite because of all the resources made available for those with autism and special needs. Her son attends Plainfield High School and participates in their life skills class. He is on the track team for those with special needs and will be able to get a letterman jacket this year. “Indiana is one of the better states to have a special-needs kid. They have a lot of support and ABA applied behavioral analysis centers to help you,” Willhite mentioned.

Part of the reason Wilhite started a cooking school was because of her son’s autism. She knew that it would be difficult to keep a regular job while taking care of him. On top of that, her mom was getting older too, and she needed care as well. “I thought, ‘I’ll just start a little side business,’ and it went from the idea of being a language school to being a cooking school,” she explained. That little side business would turn into what is now Katsumi’s Teaching Kitchen, which was named after Wilhite’s grandfather and means “champion.” Her mom passed away in 2020 and left her enough money to buy a location in Beech Grove.

This kitchen scene was filmed by HGTV for the “Urban Oasis” episode.

Katsumi’s offers extensive classes that not only teach people to cook but also how to shop the right ingredients and the cultural significance of the process. “The class teaches a Japanese standard to non-Japanese people,” Willhite explained. “I basically train you to think about how the sushi tastes at the restaurant compared to what we’re doing now.” They also offer classes for specific subjects such as “how to use chopsticks,” intro to sushi and a food pairing class. They recently received their liquor license so they will be able to offer alcoholic drinks to pair with the food as well.

Willhite had started off planning to do the school for just one year, but she is now in her seventh year of business. She is continuing to evolve and improve her business year after year. Last year Katsumi’s was highlighted on HGTV on its home giveaway show, “Urban Oasis,” which showed interesting places to check out in Indianapolis and included Katsumi’s’ in that feature. If you want to partake in this cultural experience, check out her website: katsumisteachingkitchen.com.

Katsumi Teaching Kitchen caters for upcoming Beech Grove Chamber events

Networking Luncheon: April 14, 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m., Hornet Park Community Center, 5245 Hornet Ave. Speaking: Robert Bane with Veteran Strategies. $15 in advance; $20 at the dor.

Networking Afterhours at WALA: April 19, 4:30-7 p.m., WALA – Wine and Local Art on Main Street, 616 Main St. We will hear from Beech Grove Artist Collective, a successful group in Beech Grove for bringing together First Fridays and Art in the Park. $10.

For more information, go to: beechgrovechamber.org/events-networking


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