The team-up between Boka Restaurant Group and chef Jimmy Papadopoulos has been percolating since the summer, shortly after the 2015 Eater Chicago Chef of the Year left Bohemian House in River North. Although Papadopoulos says Boka partners Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz "weren’t looking to do a new restaurant," in July he conducted a tasting for them after an introduction by Boka chef Lee Wolen. And eventually, as the Tribune reported on Wednesday, Boka and Papadopoulos will collaborate on a new restaurant, planned for a spring 2017 opening at an undisclosed location.
Before the tasting began, Boehm and Katz revealed a major aspect in what they look for in a chef, as Papadopoulos says the pair told him "first and foremost, we have to like you." They then asked "what is your voice? What do you want to say?"
The voice the chef let out in his multi-course audition for the heads of one of America’s top restaurant groups began with a dish inspired by the Thomas Keller classic "Oysters and Pearls" from The French Laundry, which he dubbed "Oyster Pie." The father of three kept the tasting a secret by writing on Instagram at the time that he cooked the dish "for the kids...to diversify their young palettes." Lee Wolen and Guiseppe Tentori, now his chef peers with Boka, even commented on the post at the time.
The tasting, where Papadopoulos said he was able to "cook from the heart," didn’t immediately lead to a position with Boka, however. He enjoyed his hiatus and family time, which he called "priceless," and kept in touch with Boehm and Katz.
And finally, the call came — the suburban chef, who was nearly anonymous in the Chicago food community before opening Bohemian House — would be the next to open a restaurant with the star-studded Boka group. Papadopoulos joins a long history of kitchen superstars for the group: Stephanie Izard, Giuseppe Tentori, Lee Wolen, Ryan Poli, and more.
"Kevin told me, ‘you’re joining a formidable lineup,’" Papadopoulos says. "It’s the most amazing stage to step onto next. I couldn’t be more excited." That stage, although you’ll have to wait until a later date for its exact "exciting" location, will have a "modern, retro, classic American vibe to it" where he will cook "bright, bold beautiful American cuisine."
While he waits until the spring (at least) to open this restaurant, Papadopoulos hasn’t let his newfound gig go to his head. He’s been working a few days a week for the man who introduced him to his new partners, Lee Wolen — breaking down fish, making stock, and other prep work in the Boka basement — until the 2015 Eater Chicago Chef of the Year opens his own restaurant for the Boka group.