Chefs to Watch 2015: Lee Wolen, Boka, Chicago

Ari Bendersky

Lee Wolen admits he wasn’t a very good student while growing up. He much preferred working with his hands to cracking books, so when he was chosen as the sole student from his high school to attend culinary classes at another Cleveland-area school, he jumped at the chance. “I never wanted to be in a normal classroom or have a normal job,” he says. “There was something about making mayonnaise I liked better than history class.” That, combined with watching Lidia Bastianich’s cooking show with his grandmother, set him on the path toward Michelin greatness. 

Those daily vocational classes led to stints learning with chefs like Homaro Cantu at Moto, Ferran Adrià at El Bulli and Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park, where he served as sous chef for three years. The experiences taught Wolen how to create serious food with esoteric ingredients, but he also wanted to make food that was more approachable. “It’s serious without the attitude,” he says. “It’s upscale but not fussy.” 

Much of that humility derives from his Midwestern roots, which he brought with him to Chicago when he landed a job at The Lobby in The Peninsula Chicago. There, people came out in droves for his riffs on Eleven Madison Park’s famous juicy roasted chicken, its bronze-hued skin stuffed with herbed brioche and butter. His cooking—perhaps backed by his welcoming smile—earned him top reviews from Time Out Chicago, Chicago magazine and the Chicago Tribune, followed by a star in the 2013 Chicago Michelin guide.

Wolen parlayed that success into a partnership and executive chef role at Boka, teaming up with owners Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz. The accolades continue to pile up, but he admittedly shies away from the attention. He’s more concerned with staying busy and inspired, and creating dishes like heirloom carrots with dates, smoked goat cheese and pistachios, and his Caesar-inspired salad made with Parmesan crisps, in-house poached white anchovies and a Parmesan cream. And, of course, an emerging signature: his brandade ravioli—golden, buttery pockets filled with perfectly balanced salt cod floating in an artichoke-lemon purée that emulates sea foam ($15, recipe). “I haven’t had salt cod ravioli anywhere,” Wolen says. “It originated from the salt cod fritters we had at private events, and I thought it would be cool to put it into pasta instead of deep-frying it. It’s a way to have comfort and refinement in a pasta dish.” 

The dish is definitely more indicative of his own style versus that spotlight creating roast chicken. It’s still serious, perhaps with a smidge of attitude, but also a whole lot of Midwestern charm. And that’s exactly how he likes it.

Q&A with Lee Wolen:

What career would you have if you weren’t a chef? I would be a professional fly-fishing guide. It’s super-relaxing. It’s challenging, as far as fishing, but it also takes focus. You [can’t] think about anything else when you’re fly-fishing. It’s Zen for me.

What restaurant is your dream stage location and why?
Xi’an Famous Foods in New York City, so I can figure out what goes into that sauce they put on their cold noodles!

What is your pet peeve in the kitchen?
Being late. In my kitchen, if you’re on time, you’re five minutes late. The minute I wake up, I’m stressed about being on time for work.

What was the first dish you ever made?
A ham and cheese omelet. I was like seven. My mom was probably with me. I liked making breakfast when I was a kid.

Who is your dream dinner guest, and what would you cook?
The Cleveland Cavaliers—any team from any season. I’d cook whatever they’d want.

Who would play you in the movie of your life?
Brad Pitt… because, why not?

What three words describe you best?
Neurotic. Passionate. Hungry.

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