Lee Wolen, a 2015 Rising Star Chef, as well as chef and partner at Boka in Chicago, IL, knew he wanted to be in the kitchen from a young age. He attended a vocational culinary school during high school, and was soon off and running, or rather, cooking.
He started his career as sous chef at Moto in Chicago before eventually moving on to another sous position at Butter. He also spent time overseas at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in England and Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli.
Back in the U.S. he spent three years at Eleven Madison Park, also as sous chef, where he worked beside Daniel Humm, helping him earn four stars from The New York Times, three Michelin stars, and a top 10 ranking on San Pellerino’s “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list.
Wolen joined The Lobby at The Peninsula Chicago in 2012 as chef de cuisine, earning the restaurant the first five-star rating from Time Out Chicago in eight years. A serendipitous meeting with Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm of Boka Restaurant Group led him to his current spot: as chef and partner at Boka where he continues to win accolades.
In 2015 Wolen was named Chicago Tribune Dining Awards Chef of the Year. He was named “Breakout Chef of the Year” by Time Out Chicago, and was nominated by Food & Wine as a candidate for People’s Best New Chef, Great Lakes Region.
Symrise caught up with him to talk ingredients, inspiration and innovation...
Symrise: Are there any ingredients you're having fun with at the moment?
Chef Wolen: Fermented cauliflower. I love the saltiness it brings to a dish as opposed to pickling. You can still taste the vegetable when its fermented.
Symrise: Where do you get your cooking inspiration?
Chef Wolen: From my grandmother. I used to go to her house when I was a kid and watch Julia Child with her on the weekends. She’s the reason I’m cooking today!
Symrise: What was your most memorable dish(es) and how did they influence your cooking style?
Chef Wolen: Probably my broccoli salad. The dish uses common ingredients (broccoli, cheese, lemon, etc.) just done slightly differently (broccoli puree, parmesan cracker vs grated cheese).
Symrise: What does being innovative mean to you?
Chef Wolen: To me, being innovative in the kitchen means using clean, simple flavors in their purest form.
Symrise: How does your work at Boka differ from previous kitchens you worked in?
Chef Wolen: It’s the first kitchen where I’ve been the executive chef!
Symrise: Any trends you see going on in the kitchen?
Chef Wolen: Right now, I feel like its all about toasts and breads. We went from being afraid of eating bread to fully embracing it!
Symise: If you weren't a chef, you'd be…
Chef Wolen: A fly fishing guide.
Symrise: If you were stuck on a desert island, you wouldn't go without…
Chef Wolen: Chicken, kimchee and brown rice. I could eat that every day. My kitchen tool would be a grill. I’d need something to make the chicken with!