“I’m a boring man,” Lee Wolen, chef of Boka, said at the end of our interview. He isn’t really—reports are that he has quite the fascinated fan base of women of a certain age at the Lincoln Park restaurant, as he did at the Lobby at the Peninsula Hotel—but he’s not a chef who likes to go on and on about his food either. Comfort food executed at a very high level of polish about sums it up, or as he puts it: “complex but simple.” That, at least, is the goal as he sets out to revitalize Boka Group’s original restaurant and namesake after a decade of operation. (Mike Sula reviewed how that’s working out last week.)
We met on the newly redesigned terrace, the less formal side room of the restaurant, which has gone from rustic to a kind of whimsical southern gothic as part of a striking reconcepting. With its signature sails, Boka’s main room was the height of chic when it opened ten years ago, but had come to look like something out of 2004 by 2014. Now the whole restaurant is more upscale quirky; on one wall an assortment of living greenery (created by former Time Out Chicago reviewer Heather Shouse) is interspersed with baroque paintings of aristocratic animals.
Wolen is either Boka’s third or fourth chef, depending on how you want to count it. The first two were the pair of Giuseppes, Giuseppe Scurato (now of Ceres’ Table) and then, for most of its decade-long run, Giuseppe Tentori with Carl Shelton as the chef-de-cuisine boots on the ground as Tentori’s attention was split with GT Fish & Oyster. But it also turned out that Wolen had his own history with the place, even though he never worked there.
So did you have any experience as a diner with Boka before you came here?
I used to live across the street when Giuseppe [Tentori] took over in 2006-ish, 2007. I always used to eat here, loved it. And then when I moved to New York [Boka Group founders] Kevin [Boehm] and Rob [Katz] and their wives ate at Eleven Madison Park, came into the kitchen for a kitchen tour and a cocktail, I spoke to them a little bit, got their card. I kind of always wanted to work for the Boka Group, but when I was moving back to Chicago, there was no opportunity with the group. So I just kept in touch, sent a few e-mails, and then they came to eat at the Peninsula.
And the rest was history. You’re coming into a restaurant with its own story. What’s Boka’s theme and how did you approach carrying it on?
I think it’s fun, exciting fine dining without a lot of attitude. I think what the Boka Group takes into consideration is the highest level of food and service, while still having a friendly atmosphere and no attitude.
I don’t think I had to change what I do because I think my food is very approachable, it’s all common flavors that everybody seems to like. It’s contemporary American food with an upscale twist, maybe different techniques that not every restaurant does. Keeping within the boundaries of common flavors and being superseasonal.
You say different techniques, like what?
We cook our short rib for 58 hours. We cook our octopus for 18 hours. We just use techniques that I think have a better outcome on food. Not crazy techniques.
Now that we’re going into spring, I think a lot of the food is brighter than it was a month ago. We’re done with squashes and heavy root vegetables. We have an asparagus salad on the menu now, with smoked arctic char, pumpernickel, lemon. Tonight we’re changing the chicken to asparagus and mushrooms. Tomorrow we’ll change the pork set to sorrel. All the spring vegetables are coming in. The market will open next month, and the farmers are already bringing us stuff like lettuces.
Everybody talks about the chicken dish, so let’s talk about everything but chicken for once. What’s on the menu that you’re really fond of?
Um . . . I always go back to octopus, that’s my favorite, it’s always my favorite dish. We try hard to make that a flavorful one. It has a burnt orange puree, grilled scallions, and then some sweet-and-sour braised pork. And at the table we pour, it’s kind of like a ramen broth of pork bones and ginger cooked down.
Yeah, Sula was big on the ramen broth. What made you think, boy, this octopus needs some ramen broth?
It had nothing to do with ramen at first. It was because we get a whole pig from Catalpa Farm in each week. We use the skin for our bar snacks, we use the loin and tenderloin for a dish on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, we were thinking, what can we do with the bones? We can make a nice broth. Pork broth can go with anything, with scallops, with fish, with anything. We sell a ton of octopus, the bones make a ton of broth—we kind of don’t have to buy anything.
Does anybody ever come in and insist you make them something off the old menus?
He didn’t insist, but a guy wanted the truffle mac ‘n’ cheese the other night. We made it for him, he was superhappy. He gave me a fist-pound in the dining room. It was a little embarrassing, but he was happy.
Let’s talk about your development as a chef. You started at Butter, Ryan Poli’s first place as chef, in the early 2000s?
I worked at restaurants in Florida for about four years. Those restaurants taught me how to cook—I don’t want to say sloppy food, but kind of how to just cook American home food. They were the kinds of places that had lasagna, or spaghetti and meatballs, or chicken piccata—the kind of food that people cook at home. And I think that’s super important to have a base of random food like that—pasta salad, macaroni and cheese. If you don’t know how to make that as a chef, if you only know how to make a perfectly cooked pork loin, that doesn’t make much sense.
And then when I came to work for Ryan, it was the first time I—I wouldn’t consider it French Laundry fine dining, but for Chicago then it was pretty fancy. I learned a lot. I think that place inspired me to go to Europe, Spain, England. Ryan was big on going overseas, and I think working for him I got to learn the techniques of passing a puree through a tamis when it’s finished. It’s important, refinement. Because if you learn up, you can always go down, but if you only know down, you can never go up.
Then I went to Moto after that, which was fancier. Obviously his food is a very different take than contemporary American, everything had to be perfect. I think those two restaurants inspired me to go to Europe and New York, Eleven Madison Park, where I learned a whole different level.
Then after Spain I realized that I didn’t really want to do progressive, molecular cuisine like that. I kind of wanted to cook at a place where everybody understood what they were eating, where you could eat on a weekly basis rather than a yearly basis. It’s not to say that Eleven Madison Park was only a special-occasion place, but you can translate that food anywhere. Same with the French Laundry—it’s potato, Swiss chard, and beef, cooked the best way. So you can translate that to other atmospheres.
But that’s what made me want to work at Eleven Madison—their food is very balanced. Acid, salty, crunchy, sweet—everything makes sense. I think what we do here is a reflection of that balance of flavor and texture, very visual. Now, we don’t have small plates, and I think small portions, like on a tasting menu, are easier to make look beautiful. The plates always look pristine because it’s tiny and perfect. When you have a big entree it’s difficult. But I think it reflects in our food that we’re an a la carte restaurant but our plates are still beautiful. We try to have a good portion, but be good on the eye too.
Yeah, I thought at the Lobby you could see that things were sometimes plated in an Eleven Madison Park way, the long line or S-curve of ingredients on the wide-open plate.
We like everything to be, like, tighter now. Everything in a circle. We’ve stopped the line. You know, once you leave a place after you’ve been a sous chef for three years, a place like that, it’s kind of what you do. You don’t really know anything else. It’s hard to break away from that.
Of course, we have the same flavors, very similar flavors—every restaurant in the world is doing peas, asparagus, morels, and scallops. No one’s inventing new flavor combinations. The French Laundry does blue cheese and apples, we do blue cheese and apples. It just works.
I’m a simple eater. I don’t eat weird things. I think our food’s very simple. It’s complex, but it’s simple.