The crash course for opening a restaurant or bar... is to do just that: open a restaurant or bar. And by age 30, both Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz had passed the test — four times, in fact. Boehm had launched two of his own projects, Lazy Daze Cafe and Indigo Wine Bar, in Florida, before relocating to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, spawning a second Indio there, then jumping to Nashville with Six Degrees. Meanwhile, Katz — a Vancouver native — moved to Chicago in 1987 to be an options trader, but he fell into the hospitality industry when his bar-owning roommate needed help making drinks one night.
“I feel in love with the business,” says Katz, who went on to tell his roommate after one night tending bar, “I will take this standing gig forever more.” Katz eventually became a non-equity partner in the venue’s next iteration, Otis’s Bar, and from there he opened Waterloo Tavern, Elbo Room, and Catacomb—all in Lincoln Park.
By 2001, Boehm and Katz were ready for more. After years of owning bars, Katz felt ready to pivot to restaurants: “I [believed] the restaurant game ... was the next iteration of ... my career.” So he sold his venues and looked for a partner. While back in Nashville, Boehm had Chicago on his mind. When deciding between New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, America’s then then-most-influential dining cities, “The dream to me was always Chicago,” he says.
That year, friends introduced Boehm and Katz. And over a mutually presumed 15-minute cup of coffee at Nookies on North Wells—which turned into a four-hour discussion—the two forged plans to open one restaurant together. “What’s the worst that could happen?” they laughed together.
Boka hit Lincoln Park in 2003. “We were afraid of the downtown rents,” and Lincoln Park was affordable back then, says Katz. After a year and a half of location scouting, he and Boehm settled upon Blue Mesa, the area’s once-iconic Mexican restaurant on North Halsted, just a stone’s throw from Steppenwolf Theatre. With $450,000 borrowed from friends, the plan was to open a non-stuffy, contemporary American concept that fit somewhere between the city’s white tablecloth spots, like Charlie Trotter’s — the hottest restaurant back then — and the countless lower-end, casual haunts. “There was a whole lot of ultra fine dining, and a whole lot of ultra casual; there wasn’t that pocket in between,” says Boehm.
Acclaimed restaurateur Danny Meyer’s seasonal, modern American restaurant Gramercy Tavern in New York City served as Boka’s inspiration. And with zero chef relationships in Chicago, they put an ad in the Chicago Reader. “We went way far down the road with [Food & Wine Best New Chef winner] Don Yamauchi,” says Boehm, adding that they also considered Michael Gaspard from now-shuttered MK. But Giuseppe Scurato, former sous chef at Spago, nabbed the gig.
“He made really tasty food, he was a really good cook,” says Boehm, recalling some of Scurato’s early dishes, like grouper with oxtail raviolini and venison with juniper-braised cabbage.
“It was a strong menu,” says Katz.
And Boka’s menus would only continue to become stronger. After pretty much zero pre-opening press, three months in, the team received its first review in Chicago magazine, a critique filled with praise that threw Boka into the local dining spotlight. But the restaurant’s pivotal moment came in 2007, after six month of negotiations, when the duo convinced Charlie Trotter’s chef de cuisine, Giuseppe Tentori, who had spent close to a decade at the seminal restaurant, to come on board as executive chef, replacing Giuseppe Scurato. One year later, Tentori earned the coveted title of Food & Wine Best New Chef for his refined and sophisticated, yet unfussy, modern American plates.
“What his standard was was so much higher than anyone I had ever worked with before, and he had an expectation level for everyone,” recalls Boehm.
“To keep up with Giuseppe, Kevin and I had to really continually elevate our game,” says Katz. And Tentori’s Food & Wine win put Boka on the national dining map: “It was a big moment for us, to legitimize us, and legitimize the restaurant.” Three years later Boka received its first Michelin star, and, though chefs have changed, the restaurant has continued to retain the star ever since.
It was Tentori who introduced to Boka, in 2008, a tasting menu: six or eight courses. During the transition from Scurato to Tentori, “We went from classic American food to progressive American food,” says Katz. Then, in 2014, after Tentori left to open GT Fish and Oyster with Boehm and Katz’s burgeoning Boka Restaurant Group, the duo felt the restaurant needed a new voice, and the team hired Lee Wolen, former sous chef at New York’s Eleven Madison Park. “The tie that binds is American cooking,” says Katz of Boka’s chef progression.
“Lee Wolen might be the most technically sound chef in all of Chicago,” adds Boehm.
The accolades Boka has earned over the last 15 years are nothing short of impressive, with Wolen collecting a profusion of awards for his precise, technique-driven contemporary American cookery more recently. In 2014 Boka won Restaurant of the Year at Jean Banchet Awards. That same year, Wolen was named Chef of the Year by Eater, as well as by the Chicago Tribune. In 2017, Wolen, pastry chef Meg Galus, plus Boehm and Katz were James Beard Award finalists. In 2017 Wolen, Boehm and Katz were all James Beard Award finalists again. And last year, Boka had more James Beard Award nominations as a single restaurant than any other restaurant in America: Wolen, Galus, Boka Service, Boehm, and Katz were all James Beard finalists yet again.
“I learned from nothing, just had to teach myself, same as Kevin ... we had to learn on the fly,” says Katz of their early hard-knock restaurant education. As it turns out, over that early cup of coffee 15 years ago, a Chicago dream team was born. One with a knack for hiring great, talented humans. And through empowerment, a fledgling restaurant has turned into a hospitality group of the same name that commands 16 concepts, with more to come.
“Kevin and I have succeeded so well because we are aligned in so many facets of life, and both of us are competitive, ambitious guys,” says Katz. “And we have always sort of dreamed big.”
To celebrate Boka’s 15 years of business, Eater spoke with the restaurant’s parters, in addition to several of its alumni. We asked them to think back on their time at Boka, and share memories from Chicago’s pioneering American restaurant.
Kady Yon, former pastry chef at Boka, executive chef and operations manager at Soho House UK
On Boka’s community: Boka was an extension of my own family. I always found solace in the fact that we could always count on one another, no matter what challenges we were faced with, whether it be personal or professional. To this day, I make it a point to take time out of my day to have a chat with my teams; it doesn’t necessarily have to be work-related. I have found this to be one of the most rewarding aspects of my job because it’s the people that make my job so incredible.
Ian Goldberg, former bartender turned vice president and partner of Boka
On Boka’s chef progression: We have had a few chef changes from Giuseppe Scurato as the opening chef at Boka. When he departed, Boka took a gigantic move forward with chef Giuseppe Tentori, who was a Trotter alum. His attention to detail and his culinary talent elevated Boka to new heights overnight. He was a big part of pushing me to ... new levels in the hospitality industry. I was constantly amazed at his eye for detail, which certainly rubbed off on me. And then four years ago, it was time for change, as the restaurant was approaching 10 years, and we needed to inject some new energy ... then entered the ultra-talented chef Lee Wolen. Boka was entirely remodeled, and with Wolen at the helm, I am proud to say that in year 15, Boka continues to progress, and it might the best it has ever been today.
On opening night: I remember being nervous and excited to be a part of an amazing opening team. Kevin and Rob set the tone that we were opening a special restaurant, and I was excited to be a part of the team. I must have made at least 15 blue Bokas from our cocktail menu.
On Kevin and Rob as a single entity: The company always showed respect for both of them. It was odd to hear or say their names individually; they were seen as a team, or as a single entity, which is really great. I think this holds true today and is really impressive.
On staff and hiring: They treat their staff with respect, [and that] trickles down to the guests and their experience. They also know how to choose and acquire talent, but their ability to hold onto [talent] is what they are known for.
Giuseppe Tentori, former executive chef and partner of Boka, chef-owner of GT Fish & Oyster and GT Prime
On getting confused for Giuseppe Scurato: When I started at Boka in 2007, not too many people knew who I was, or much about the restaurant. Giuseppe is not exactly a common name in Chicago, but as luck would have it, the opening chef was also named Giuseppe. So it took about a year for people to realize that there was a new chef at Boka. People would say, “We love the new menu, tell Giuseppe to come out and say hello!” and then when I came to the table they would say, “Who are you!?”
On sharing wine glasses: When I began, we were working off of a very small budget, so we had to paint and touch up the place ourselves. I had just left Charlie Trotter’s, which had a huge budget, and was pristine from top to bottom. But at Boka, I had to figure out how to get the job done with what we had. If we had a super-VIP table, I would bring in my nice wine glasses from home to serve them.
On finding his voice: Kevin and Rob really taught me how to run a business — not just be a chef. I remember that I really liked to work with turbot at Trotter’s, but it’s a really expensive fish, so Kevin said, “Have you heard of Lake Superior whitefish?” I hadn’t, but I learned to cook with it and make it delicious. One of our signature dishes that was on the menu for about eight years was a stuffed squid with pineapple and tapioca — the tapioca was dyed black with squid ink, and we joked that it was the closest thing that we could get to real caviar.
Lee Wolen, executive chef and partner at Boka
On freedom: I was compelled to join Boka because of the amount of freedom that chefs are given in Boka Restaurant Group. Kevin and Rob let us run our restaurants as if they were our own, but are always there to provide support and help when needed.
On running a business: Kevin and Rob have taught me how to run a profitable business and have helped me figure out what works and what doesn’t. They have opened my eyes on how to be a great restaurant with great food, while also being financially responsible.
Eric Vollono, former line cook at Boka, executive sous chef at Band of Bohemia
On hiring the right people: I worked under Carl Shelton and Jessica Carney at Boka and GT respectively. I can go through and tell you every name of every person I worked with at both restaurants, from chef to porters. These people made an impression. They all cared, and growing a culture like that starts at the top and is a huge reason for their continued success.
On company culture: It was impressive, so many people working for a common goal. I worked at both Boka and GT at the same time, and I remember being surrounded by talented people in both restaurants who really gave a damn about what they were doing. Top to bottom, everyone moving with purpose to achieve something special. Great culture, great learning environment.
Matthew Schneider, former general manager and wine director Boka, manager at California’s Foley Family Wines
On team spirit: When I worked at Boka, it was like my home away from home. Many weeks I spent more time there than my own home. And it wasn’t just me, it was everyone. When you have that type of passion, focus, and work ethic in all the people around you, it is infectious. And the person who was the original carrier was Giuseppe Tentori. He created a mentality at the restaurant where we won as a team or we lost as a team. Everyone was accountable. It is the things like this that breed respect for one another, and respect was the thing we needed to be the best team.
On paying attention to the little things: Kevin and Rob are each other’s yin and yang; that is why they are such a great team. On any given night Kevin and Rob would visit the restaurant, often traveling to the other restaurants in the group together. Kevin would immediately look at the books, see if we had any of our many regulars or any VIPs in house, or if we had ran into any issues that evening. Rob, on the other hand, would make a beeline for the dining room, to see the room and check the ambiance. Giuseppe Tentori would be watching the dining room from behind the curtain, watching diners, making notes about service. Often they would then, within mere seconds of each other, come up to me: Giuseppe with service directions, table timing, and such; Kevin with suggestions for seating adjustments, tables to touch, regulars and VIPS to watch out for; and Rob with suggestions to adjusts the lights or music. Mostly the lights — oh, the lights! I remember Rob telling me with a smile, “If you are not checking/adjusting the lights every 15 minutes, you are not doing your job.” And it wasn’t just the kitchen notes from GT nor the ambiance Rob was really talking about, just as it wasn’t the hospitality-driven thoughts that Kevin needed to make me aware of. It was all of them teaching me to pay attention to the little things. Because in fine dining, a restaurant survives based on its ability to do the big things right, but thrives on its ability to do the small things well.
Meg Galus, pastry chef at Boka
On Boka as a family: At Boka, there is none of the common division between front and back of house, or different teams within the restaurant. The whole staff even comes together for meals and celebrations on holidays when we’re closed, because we consider ourselves to be extended family. There are even some regular guests who come to these events to celebrate with us — that’s how far the feeling of family extends.
On empowerment: What I really appreciate about Kevin and Rob is that they empower the people they put in place to run the restaurants. This is one of the things that has contributed to us having such a diverse set of restaurants within the group. The chef-partners and management teams have the responsibility for, and therefore the ownership of, the operations, from financials to steps of service and employee culture. We’re lucky to have the backend support system of a large group, and also be able to maintain the feel of small independent restaurants where everyone can feel their impact on the guest experience and bottom line.