Interview with Chicago Rising Star Chef Lee Wolen of Boka

by Caroline Hatchett
May 2015

Caroline Hatchett: How does Boka differ from what you were doing at The Peninsula?
Lee Wolen:
My food is more fun here. At your first job you want to impress, you want to be refined. Once they trust your food, you can start having more fun with bolder flavors, making the food look better.

CH: What ingredient are you most excited about?
Ramps! We forage for them in Indiana. Last season we picked about 200 pounds of ramps, and we just ran out of them.

CH: How are you involved in the culinary community?
I’m starting to do more with charities. Right now I’m working with the Academy for Global Citizenship based here in Chicago. Over the next few months we’ll be going to various schools, cooking with the kids for their school lunches.

CH: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
Approachability. Our goal is to get away from being “fine dining.” We’re trying to create an atmosphere that’s fun and inviting, a place where people can feel comfortable. You’re not going to go to Per Se three nights a week, you know? We want to be the place you can go three nights a week. We use fine ingredients, but we’re not fine dining.

CH: What’s your five year plan?
Continue to adjust and improve upon the restaurant, daily. I really want to focus on service and front-of-house; we do a lot of wine training, we spend a lot of time training our host team too, even calling other restaurants just to hear how they answer and things like that. I’m really involved with the general management, I’m pretty much in charge of everything. And, I really want to get a potter to make our mugs.