Rare is the story of a successful reinvention of an established restaurant. And yet, that is exactly the tale that is told about Boka, the first of the Boka Restaurant Group, thanks to Chef Lee Wolen.
When Chef Wolen became Chef/Partner at Boka, the restaurant was already 10 years old. In a city like Chicago, where the options for food are always new and endless, a restaurant that’s even two or three years old usually gets relegated to “neighborhood classic” and sticks to what it knows. A restaurant like Boka, with its rich Michelin-starred history, needn’t have sought to redefine itself. And then came Wolen.
Chef Wolen turned the concept of fine dining on its head, by making Boka a place where fine dining and family vibes co-exist. Whether you’re in sweats and dining by yourself at the bar or dolled up ready for white table cloths, immaculate plating, and a night out, Boka captures the ideal balance for any moment without ever making you or others feel out of place. The experience that you are looking for, whatever it may be, is the experience you get at Boka. This magician’s trick of Chef Lee’s has doubled Boka’s numbers year over year and continued to hold its place of high honor on the Michelin list.
“Boka is my home,” Chef Wolen shrugged modestly. In fact, despite being Chef of the Year and a Michelin list favorite, everything about Chef Wolen is modest. Almost painfully shy, he prefers being behind the scenes in his element. “I don’t cook for my ego. I cook to make people happy.”
There was a moment during our chat where I happened to mention I’m not a big fan of eggs whereas my mother will only ever want to order omelets. After he got over his shock at my egg-aversion, Chef Wolen couldn’t help himself. “I’m going to make you an omelet. You don’t have to like it, just try it.” And before I could say another word, he scurried into the kitchen and stood there making the most decadent omelet I had ever laid eyes on. The smoothest, most perfectly folded omelet made with the finest cheeses and truffle shavings sat before me within minutes.
Listen, when you stuff anything with enough gruyere cheese and truffles, it’s going to make me happy. That omelet made me super happy, but the fact that it was made with so much love and devotion from one of Chicago’s most awarded chefs is what really had me smiling through the night. Chef Wolen cares.
It’s easy to see that Boka means more to Chef Wolen than just a part of his career. “We have a weird family [at the restaurant]. The people here really love each other. There’s a lot of loyalty. My sous chefs have worked with me for five and six years. Boka has had the same manager for all 13 years.”
Which brings him to reflecting on what he thinks the most important aspect of success is, “Genuine people providing genuine service is important. As important as the food.”
And the trick to having great service is for the leaders to make the house a home. If you pay attention as a diner, you’ll feel it—the tremendous camaraderie between kitchen and service, the genuine smiles, the regulars that come in to this ‘family home’ so often that they have plaques with their names on the bar.
Fine dining restaurants can provide mind-blowing experiences, but few can pull off fine dining and family meal in perfect harmony. It’s all the basis of a successful restaurant group foundation: good people, good food, good leadership.
His love for simple ingredients emanates like none other. “He lives the simple life,” a staff member and long-time friend of Chef Wolen’s mentioned. “His menu ingredients are simple and humble. And then the dish comes out and it’s just stunning.”
This statement was proven over and over again through the course of the evening. Highlights for me included an heirloom carrot appetizer served warm, a staple of the Boka menu, and the broccoli tortellini which I could have eaten all night long.
I was also treated to a preview dish: a whole roasted chicken with exquisitely crisped skin, juicy insides, and a simple jus with veggies all in one big pan. The preview was not for Boka but for Chef Wolen’s next Boka Restaurant Group venture, Somerset, scheduled to open this Fall.
This was the only interview I’ve ever conducted whereby I got to talk to the front of house staff as much as I got to talk to the chef. I spent over four hours getting to know the team, learning about various staff members’ family vacations and hearing hilarious little tidbits about Chef Wolen. It was an entirely new way to look at one of Chicago’s best restaurants.
As for those tidbits about Chef Wolen, here are my top five favorites!
- He’s an only child.
- He hates crowds.
- He’s obsessed with the Cleveland Indians and the Cavs.
- His goal is to one day host Ellen DeGeneres at Boka. Both Chef Wolen and his mother, Geri, are big fans of hers.
Another celebrity diner goal that was already fulfilled was hosting Martha Stewart, which was, of course, fabulous.
- He’s a big Katy Perry fan (“We have a really good work atmosphere in the kitchen. We listen to the radio all day. If I put it on, it’s Lady Gaga,” Chef Wolen admits sheepishly. “Although, I’m a bigger Katy Perry fan.”) but also says that Pink’s concert blew his mind.
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