Andrew Zimmern called Boka Executive Chef Lee Wolen one of the most exciting young chefs in America today. (Photo: Galdones Photography)
It makes sense that Andrew Zimmern would invite Lee Wolen to dinner in Chicago, especially one to celebrate the Windy City’s culinary culture. Wolen is the executive chef of one the city’s most celebrated restaurants, Boka, earning him a spot in the first episode of The Navigator’s Table, a Zimmern-hosted dinner series featuring food phenoms in cities around the country.
Wolen’s steady stream of accolades, including a 2016 James Beard nod, and Chicago Tribune and Eater Chef of the Year in 2015, certainly earn him a seat at any table. But in a conversation during filming at the Renaissance Chicago Downtown Hotel, he is very humble and qualifies Boka’s current hotness a bit.
“We like to be a hot spot, but classic hot, not just a flash” he says. “A lot of times hot spots are hot and done.”
Since Boka has been around for over 12 years, it’s probably more than a flash in the pan, so to speak. Its contemporary American cuisine has stood the test of time and has served as a backdrop for Chicagoans’ special moments.
“You can celebrate a 20th anniversary or you can celebrate a Monday night out,” Wolen says. “Hang out at the bar; bring your kids. It’s for any time.”
Wolen was thrilled to be able to spend time with Zimmern and talk about the city where he got his culinary start. The Cleveland-native started as a sous chef at old Chicago standards Moto and Butter before moving to New York City to work at the Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park. He came back to Chicago just to helm Boka and return to his midwestern roots.
“Both my fiancée and I are from the Midwest and I think the food scene in Chicago is amazing,” he says. “You can have an amazing food scene and have the quality of life that we didn’t feel we had in New York City.”
In Chicago, Wolen seems to fit right in with a food landscape that he says allows young chefs to be more brave and push the limits. It’s that bravery in the kitchen that someone like Zimmern appreciates, calling Wolen “one of the most exciting and talented young chefs in America today.”
Maybe that’s why Zimmern thought he could hand Wolen the scissors to be the first to snip open the spiny sea urchin he served at the Navigator’s Table in Chicago. It’s a behind-the-scenes moment that wasn’t captured in the episode, and definitely threw Wolen for a loop.
“I’m not going to lie, I’m not a huge fan of sea urchin, but that was phenomenal,” he says. “I’ve never had it without being washed, but that was really, really good.”
While Wolen says he’s not a personal fan of sea urchin, it’s on Boka’s menu, served as a sauce on top of a crudo or raw fish.
One of Boka’s most popular dishes and Wollen’s favorite to make is octopus, which is cooked long and slow, then charred on the grill for a crispy outside.
But when Wolen can get out of the kitchen, he prefers international flavors. In the Chicago Navigator’s Table episodes, he hails Pakistani bites like baked fish and tandoori chicken at Tabaq and the Japanese curry rice and tempura shrimp at Cocoro, both near Chicago’s North Side.
He especially craves Asian cuisine, noting its boldness.
“Whether it’s Thai, that’s spicy and acidic, or Chinese, that’s salty and sweet. They use all the flavor combinations that make your mouth water.”
His must-have Chicago dish ticks off all those flavor boxes: The chili prawns at Lao Sze Chuan.
“It’s whole prawns with shell on, wok fried with garlic, scallions, and just a ton of chili peppers. It’s a crazy dish. It’s pretty amazing,” he marvels. “You don’t peel them, you eat the shell. That’s the best part about it.”