Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz: The Fabulous Boka Boys
My favorite stories begin, “once upon a time,” and end, “they lived happily ever after. The story of the fabulous Boka Boys, Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, is one of those. It is a story of two characters who met, had a conversation over a very long cup of coffee, made a life-changing decision, and started on a journey over the rainbow.
In the beginning, they were just two guys looking to make career changes. Rob, a transplant to Chicago from Vancouver, B.C., was leading the hectic life of an options exchange trader. He was good at it. But trading wasn’t for him. He knew there had to be something else out there—something closer to his heart.
It didn’t take him long to find that “something else.” Ever one to lend a helping hand, he came to the aid of a friend whose club was understaffed and needed a bartender. Obligingly, Rob went behind the bar and found he liked being a mixologist—liked it well enough to take off the trading jacket for good. Well enough to open his own bar (Waterloo Tavern), then another (Elbo Room), and then another (Katacomb). He was, after all, Rob Katz.
Kevin Boehm wasn’t exactly a homie, but he did start out in Illinois. He hailed from downstate Springfield. He went to the University of Illinois for a while, but academia wasn’t his calling. He wanted to be in the restaurant business. He dropped out of school, became a server, saved his money, and, in a very short time, had enough to start his first restaurant—the Lazy Dazy Café in Seaside, Florida, which he sold. He opened another, the Indigo Wine Bar in Blue Mountain Beach, Florida; and sold that one as well. Then came the Indigo Restaurant in Springfield, Illinois. Sold that one, too. And finally, Six Degrees in Nashville, Tennessee. By the time he was 30, Kevin and opened and sold four restaurants. He was, after all, Kevin Boehm.
As luck would have it, a childhood friend hooked Rob and Kevin up. They met for a cup of coffee at Nookie’s in Old Town. The timing was right. Rob wanted to get out of the night club business. Kevin wanted to get out of Nashville. They started talking. The hours went by, and they were like a couple of high school kids looking for a project. Only they didn’t say “Let’s put on a musical,” when the light went on. They said, “Let’s open a restaurant.” Really. The rest, well, you know.
Kevin went back to Nashville and waited. And waited. And waited. Just when he was ready to give up on the project, the phone rang. It was Rob telling him, “Game on!” The Boka (for their two names) group was born.
Boka: A Star Is Born
They called their first restaurant, what else, Boka. It opened in October 2003 with Chef Giuseppi Scurato presiding over the kitchen and was an overnight success—the place where everyone who wanted to see and be seen went. It had everything going for it: great food, good service, and the kind of ambience that made diners feel both comfortable and privileged.
Boka was a star, but with the arrival of another Giuseppi in the kitchen three years later, (what are the odds) it became a super nova. I refer, of course to uber chef, Giuseppi Tentori. Tentori transformed the restaurant with his Mediterranean-influenced, contemporary American cuisine—which he modestly called, “simple food.” Restaurant critic, Phil Vettel had another description. He called it “dazzling.”
Vettel rhapsodized over a stuffed squid appetizer consisting of "...two gently cooked calamari hoods crammed with a rough chop of scallops and shrimp, over a bed of wilted spinach on a plate strewn with peppered cubes of pineapple and tapioca globules stained with squid ink. This was followed by chamomile dusted quail served with ash-baked eggplant alongside two rectangles of crispy polenta; a crispy croquette of goat cheese, and a tiny dice of pickled watermelon used to accent a plate of sashimi tuna topped with grated apple and horseradish. And for dessert, a blood-orange creme brulee accented with a chiffonade of fresh basil and rhubarb-cranberry crumble with Mexican vanilla ice cream." Simple.
Hot on the heels of Boka came Landmark in 2005, known for offering the best and biggest hamburger in town. I took my grandson and a friend there one night, and the friend all but inhaled the burger. The serving staff gathered round in amazement. Not only had they never seen anyone eat one of their hamburgers that fast, they had never seen anyone even finish one. I was so disappointed that the hamburger wasn't on the menu on a subsequent visit that my friend, manager Ian Goldberg, put it back on with my name attached. You gotta' love 'em.
Landmark didn't stay Landmark for long. In keeping with their chef-driven concept, Kevin and Rob partnered with the Bristol team and brought in Chris Pandel to serve as executive chef, along with pastry chef Amanda Rockman and Peter Becker, previously with the Peninsula and Charlie Trotters. The restaurant was renamed Balena, serving up Italian specialities, breads to die for (including a lemon-pepper challah), and pizzas that kept Chicago's pizza afficionados coming back for more. Winner! Winner!
Rob and Kevin didn’t spend a Chicago minute waiting to plan another restaurant. It was at that point I entered their orbit. I was working away in my Old Town office one afternoon when in walked this tall, gorgeous guy with flame red hair and a physique to die for. I peeked outside and saw another ridiculously handsome man pacing back and forth. I immediately thanked whatever gods had sent them there, and Rob and I sat down to chat. Seems he and Kevin were thinking of opening a restaurant in the old Lincoln Hotel (site of the well-known neighborhood hang-out Jeff’s Laugh-In). He wanted to know what I thought of the idea and how Old Town neighbors would respond. Well, I was all over it—anything that brought those guys to the neighborhood, especially attached to a first-class restaurant had my vote. Like the line in “Jerry Maguire”, they had me at hello.
I set about letting the neighborhood know they were coming—although it took a little longer than they anticipated to put it all together. Eventually, on a beautiful summer evening in 2008, the doors opened. Perennial took up residence in Old Town, and the Boka boys had another hit on their hands. The first chef, Ryan Poli, had cut his chops at world-renowned restaurants Le Francais and The French Laundry. In 2005, Jason Chan brought him to Chicago to be the executive chef at Butter. Kevin and Rob came calling in 2008, and Chef Poli jumped at the chance to run the kitchen at Perennial—which he did until 2011, when Perennial morphed into Perennial/Virant and acclaimed chef Paul Virant took over.
Virant epitomized the Boka team’s new concept of the chef-driven restaurant. He was already the chef/owner of the popular Vie in Western Springs. He was named a Best New Chef for 2007 by Food and Wine Magazine and was nominated for Best Chefs Great Lakes in 2011. Bringing him aboard was brilliant.
The boys made a hot corner of Chicago even hotter by opening a first rate coffee shop on the south side of the hotel lobby. They called it “Elaine’s” after a telephone operator who got coffee for playwright David Mamet back when he lived at the old Hotel Lincoln. Elaine’s became the happening coffee place for hotel guests, neighbors, and the inevitable wi-fiers. So happening, in fact, Elaine’s was recently named one of the ten best coffee houses in Chicago. And if two hot spots weren’t enough for one place, Kevin and Rob put a rooftop café and bar above the hotel. Improbably named the J. Parker (after the bodyguard with Abraham Lincoln the night he was shot), it offers one of the most spectacular views in all Chicago--overlooking Lincoln Park, Lake Michigan, and Chicago’s magnificent skyline. Small plates are provided by Chef Virant. It just doesn’t get any better.
The Hits Kept Coming
It's true that a kiss is just a kiss--but a restaurant opened by the fabulous Boka Boys is far from being just a restaurant. It is a small miracle. Among these "miracles" are Girl and the Goat (July 2010 with Chef Stephanie Izard); G.T. Fish and Oyster (2011 with Chef Giuseppe Tentori); Little Goat Diner (2012 with Chef Stephanie Izard); and a new Boka (February 2014 under Chef Lee Wolen) all wildly successful. The Boka boys had established eight restaurants in ten years and gone from a 30-person outfit when Boka opened, to a staff of 1,000. Staggering. And they aren’t nearly done. The Boys are set to open three new restaurants over the next fourteen months. A Japanese-themed restaurant, Momotaro, with star chefs Mark Hellyar and Jeff Ramsey is scheduled for a September 2014 opening; G.T Prime. headed by Tentori and similar to G.T. Fish only with meat, will open in April 2015; and Armour+Swift, a macro Steakhouse will take up residence in the new Google building in May 2015. In the immortal words of Walter Cronkite when the first astronaut stepped on the moon, “Whew Boy!”
Behind Every Good Man
You’ve heard it said, “Behind every good man is a good woman”. That’s certainly true of the Boka boys. Rob’s good woman is Kathleen, a gorgeous and talented lady who is his muse, partner, friend, and constant source of inspiration. She is also the mother of their two really amazing children: Jamieson and Shelby. Jamieson is as smart as his dad with the body of an athlete and the soul of an artist. I have an entire collection of paintings he has made for me. We also trade emails about our favorite team, the Bulls. Shelby has the kind of ethereal beauty that makes you ask, is she real? Trust me, she is.
Standing behind (actually beside) Kevin is Courtney, a dark-haired beauty who turns heads wherever she goes. Their daughters, Sofia and Lola, have taken up residence in my heart. Sofia was a star in a neighborhood production of “Teahouse of the August Moon” that I did a few years back. None other than Candace Jordan (Candid Candace) was on hand to do her makeup. And Lola is every father’s dream of a daughter. Lucky Kevin is also going to add a boy to his family any day now. He’s already said that he’s in charge of his son’s hair—whatever that means.
Sometimes, really good things happen to you in this life. Something really good happened to me on that day, ten years ago, when Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm, those fabulous Boka Boys, walked into mine.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times