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How The Boka Guys Turned Their Japanese Dream, Momotaro, Into Another Smash Hit

Welcome back to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.

Two folks wearing jeans and standing up.
Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz
Nick Fochtman

The triple-decker Japanese restaurant Momotaro was certainly a long time coming for Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz. The founders of the Boka Restaurant Group—the people behind some of the most successful and innovative restaurants Chicago has ever seen—had wanted to open a Japanese restaurant ever since they opened their first, Boka, in 2003. And their love of Japanese cuisine goes back further, as Katz was practically raised on the stuff in Vancouver, BC and Boehm even had a sushi bar in one of his first restaurants in Florida.

Still, many circumstances had to fall into place. They needed the right space (the warehouse they purchased at Lake and Green Streets that's seen in its raw form in these photos from 2013), the right chef (Mark Hellyar, who drove across country for the gig), the right designer (NY-based AvroKO, who finally latched on after a five-year courtship), and it had to be the right time.

One year after opening one of their most highly-anticipated projects, Momotaro is another smash hit with accolades such as an Esquire Best New Restaurant In America and a spot on the Eater 38. Boehm and Katz reflect on Momotaro's beginnings, how it all came together, what drives them to not let up, and what's next.

What was the stress factor in Momotaro compared to your other restaurants?
Rob Katz: Over budget, and the timeline was getting away from us. This was a very old, old building, and it was lifting to one side. We thought we knew what we were getting, but it took a lot of shoring up, a lot of extra steel into this property. Gosh, Kev and I have been doing this for over 20 years each, so we think we're getting the hang of it. Sometimes you're still thrown a curveball.
Kevin Boehm: It's not like we're repeating something we've already done each time we go out. We're trying to challenge ourselves each time we go out. With this project, it was also our first time working with AvroKO. They design incredibly detailed spots which are as challenging from a construction standpoint and from a sourcing standpoint, but worth it.

Can you rank all of your restaurants based on stress?
RK: Oh, man. When we were doing Balena, things were going along swimmingly. Then all of a sudden, the person who was in charge of putting in our entire storefront just left town, gone. We were ready to open. We kept hearing, "Yeah, the storefront will be there tomorrow. It'll be there tomorrow." Then weeks and weeks and weeks go by, and there is no glass, there's no steel, there's nothing. It's just a giant opening at the front of the building. The Boka reconcept was one that was just a joy start to finish, working with Lee Wolen on that project. We did the whole thing in 32 days. That's a small project. These other ones, they're getting bigger.

What were the other unforeseen things that happened with Momotaro?
RK: The timeline given to us by a general contractor was maybe slightly ambitious. This is a building that we developed. We really did want to make it spectacular, and it just takes time to get it right. You would think after building 24 restaurants between the two of us we could just nail it down to a perfect science. One thing we've learned is you never stop learning, because there's always something else.

That was a five-year courtship to finally get to work with AvroKO. Kevin and I had originally met with them in 2009 in New York on a separate project. We get their proposal. Kev and I promptly choked on that and said, "Wow, we're not ready for this level of design with these guys." There's a reason that they're more expensive. They are really sensational.

KB: Sometimes, when you're opening a restaurant, you have to forecast. When do you hire everyone? When do you hire your kitchen staff? When do you hire your managers? When does payroll start? It's a big number when you're opening up a big restaurant. You have to time everything. As you're getting information, with our experience in general contractors and architects, listen, you update timelines. The updated timelines just kept getting pushed back. I don't think anyone's immune to it.

It was a restaurant where the training had to be extensive. There was no way to open up this restaurant without having 30-35 training sessions before we opened, because there was so much language and so much terminology, and just visual identification of fish that had to be completed before we could open. Days and days of slideshows where people would just look at the color of fish and be able to say, "Okay, that's hamachi," just so the system would work.

How did Momotaro become this all-encompassing Japanese concept?

KB: A, we wanted to be authentic. Then B, there were two very distinct parts, which was the hot Japanese kitchen and the sushi restaurant. Most of the time when restaurants like this open, the hot Japanese kitchen is an afterthought. We said, "No. That's not what this restaurant's about. People are definitely going to get the sushi, but the conversation's going to start with the hot Japanese kitchen." Where most people went in and did a lot of Americanized sushi, we wanted to be authentic.

How did you figure out how to focus that into this finished product?
RK: It was a full collaboration with our chef/partner Mark Hellyar. Scrap pieces of paper. Tasting and formulating a menu that is one that we love and one that we think will translate to being something new and different in Chicago. We just don't want people to ever say, "That Boka restaurant's just like some other person's restaurant."
KB: One of the big things that we did was the books that we had as our menus when we started, which are beautiful, the problem was they were too small of books, so it made the menu many, many pages. About six weeks after we opened, we changed it. If you've come in here since then, it's just a one-page menu with sushi on one side and the hot Japanese kitchen on the other. We don't get the comments anymore about how big the menu was.

The menu books were actually more of a perception thing. A lot of Japanese restaurants in town actually have a lot more items than we did, but because there were so many pages in a little book, it made it seem to people like it was this giant menu. It's really not.
RK: Perception is reality.

Kevin Boehm Rob Katz Momotaro

[Photo: Timothy Hiatt]

What did you cut from the menu before opening Momotaro?

KB: There was a larger plate section that was much bigger at the beginning, with whole fish and that sort of thing. There was a sukiyaki dish. When you first sit down at that table, you're spitballing, basically. You just talk about everything. You write it all down on a piece of paper, and you're like, "The menu could never be this big."
RK: The editing part is where it can get tricky. There are some dishes that we just loved, and it just didn't translate onto the table.
KB: When we went through friends and family, if (the sukiyaki dish) sat at the table too long, it would start to reduce and would be incredibly salty within about five minutes. The problem in a Japanese restaurant like this, if you're serving that dish and anything else sat at the table, people might have to wait to get to that dish. Those are the kinds of things you don't find out until you get to friends and family. It's like, "Wait a second. The only way we'd be able to get away with that is if we isolated that dish every single time to be the only thing on the table."

How did you decide how to lay out Momotaro?
KB: Once again a collaborative discussion. A lot of times, Rob and I will walk into these buildings, and we know that there are certain things we want in the building. If you look at Swift & Sons, it's one big floor plan. At Momotaro, we still wanted to have private events, and we wanted to have a cool bar, and we wanted to have a dining room that had a certain amount of seats. We just walked around, and then within talking to AvroKO and talking to chef, that's just how it laid out. It was never really a long discussion.
RK: Sometimes the building tells you what you're going to do. We did want a lounge. We wanted a place where we could have people can come in with a different menu, different sort of energy in the room, a bit louder. That's what the izakaya is. It just laid out perfectly for that.

One other thing is that people keep calling this place a behemoth, a giant. The reality is we only have 130 seats in the dining room. It's really not that big. We really do wish we had more seats in this restaurant.

Upstairs, we wanted to move our our Boka corporate office over here. We removed a big swath of the floor of the second floor to give some drama to the entrance. As soon as you walk in, it's got soaring ceilings above the main bar, where we put that towering back bar. There's nothing more rewarding than seeing a customer walk in here for the first time, watch their eyes move around the room, and go, "Wow." That still happens.

You've had some changes along the way in the first year, too. The sushi chef left, and Mark took over everything. Can you talk about that and any other changes that happened in the first year you've been open?
RK: There's always going to be changes. There's always turnover in restaurants. That's inevitable. I think we tried very, very hard to cultivate this family group that we've become.
KB: Mark (Hellyar) was always the culinary leader of this restaurant. He was always the chef/partner. He just always wanted to have someone (else), because the sushi bar is separate from that kitchen. Listen, Kaze (Chan, opening sushi chef) was with us for six-to-eight months. He's a fine person and a fine chef. When you have Shigeru Kato, who is the now-exec sushi chef, sometimes things work out for a reason. He's just an absolutely off-the-charts, exceptional sushi chef.

I think that it's nice always to get accolades. Certainly getting Chicago magazine's Restaurant of the Year, and then Chicago Social's Restaurant of the Year, and then getting Esquire's Best New Restaurants in America, all those things are always nice, because it seems to bring a bigger crowd to the table. It certainly seems to extend the life of a restaurant. When people then come to Chicago, you start to become on the list of restaurants that they would go to no matter where they're from.

Many restaurants are busy right when they open for the first time. Then there can be a little lull, and then it depends on where it goes from there whether it's successful or not, whether it goes up or not. Is that true with yours?
KB: There are so many variables, that if you go back to the very beginning, with Rob and I in 2003, we were scratching and crawling to get customers at Boka at the very beginning. There were no Eaters around at that point, so the restaurant wasn't getting written about a lot when we first opened. It was basically just taking one customer at a time, very grassroots. Now when we open up a restaurant, they give us the crowd. It's just a matter of are we going to hold onto it or not, and can you grow from there?
RK: I don't know the exact stat, but you hear these type of things that 90 percent don't make their third birthday. Yes, a lot of restaurants can open up hot. We are very, very fortunate that we have earned this currency of trust with our customer base, with the city of Chicago. I think what that means is people have this trust in us, and they will come out and see our new restaurant. Then it's up to us, our team, from top to bottom, to keep the customer happy, to make sure that we're doing our job.

Kevin Boehm Rob Katz Momotaro

How difficult is it to not get complacent at this point in your career, when you've had so much success and pretty much one hit after another?
KB: I think there's a reason why we keep doing something different every single time. Rob and I are guys who like to be challenged. I think that Boka right now is the best restaurant that it's ever been at year 12, because there's been an evolution. I think that one of the reasons that Rob and I are good together is because I think if one of us started to get complacent, the other one would...
RK: Bitch-slap the other one. I'm like, "Ow, Kevin, that hurt."
KB: "Do you know where you came from? Shut up."
RK: There are so many interesting ways to answer that question. I think the reality is that we continue to evolve. We're getting older. We have children. We have great families. Kevin and I always, always wanted to open up a Japanese restaurant. We always wanted to open up a steak restaurant. So as long as we are still motivated, and there are still other restaurants for us to open up, and we want every restaurant that we have to get better, I think getting complacent is just not in the cards.
KB: It's not part of our DNA.
RK: For surely me, a little bit of it is driven by fear, fear of failure, of always having to hustle and work hard. Kev and I didn't come from a ton. Nothing was ever given to us. I think it manifests itself into this work ethic that you just got to keep your head down. There's no real time to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. Not yet. There's too many people that are behind us in this company that are pushing us.

What were the two moments that led to the success of this restaurant?
KB: One would be the chance meeting with Mark Hellyar. Mark packed his stuff up and got in a car and drove from Washington, DC to Chicago to do a tasting with us at Boka. That's where it started.
RK: Number two is this building and this location. We've invested a lot into the West Loop here over the last six years, and we've seen this neighborhood completely explode, completely change. We always knew it would happen, but boy, not to the extent that it did and the time frame that it did. People thought we were crazy to open this place up at Lake and Green underneath an El track, and we could have continued being right on the heart of Randolph.

Has Momotaro been everything you've hoped it would be in one year?

RK: Every day that we walk in, Daniel, there is this pride. We've done a lot of things, and we've seen a lot of things, and we've built a lot of things. We walk into this building every single day, because this is where our offices are. We're very proud that Chicago has embraced it. It just all came to fruition. When it does that, it feels good.

What do you have planned for the future with Momotaro?
KB: We're about to have a meeting here at the end of the year where we're going to all get together and basically outline 25 goals for next year. Then we'll grade ourselves a year later on how many of those we were able to accomplish. Some of those things might be a Michelin star. Some of those things might be more material, like a new coffeemaker. Who knows?

The goals when you open up a restaurant are very easy. We want to be a great restaurant. We want to be able to execute 250 dinners on a Saturday night or 300 dinners on this night. As you get to year two, which we're at right now, you have to start really talking about what your goals are moving forward.

It's amazing having a talk about Momotaro when you had a new one (Swift & Sons) just a week ago.
KB: And there's two more in the belly right now. Sometimes that does get a bit overwhelming. It's not the way you want to draw it up. Some projects get delayed. Other projects get moved forward. Before you know it, they're smashing into each other.

You're talking about GT Prime and Duck Duck Goat. What's the latest on those?

KB: They're in construction. Duck Duck Goat we're framing out right now. We always hate to put dates to these things, because then you're being held to this, but we will be open in 2016. I would say it's going to be late winter of 2016 to early spring.

RK: GT Prime will be spring, Duck Duck Goat will be mid to late spring.


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