The Boka restaurateurs behind star chefs

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Boka

Co-owners Rob Katz, left, and Kevin Boehm at the entrance to Boka. (John J. Kim, Chicago Tribune / February 6, 2014)

In 10 short years, Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz have gone from being fledgling restaurateurs to being the Chicago restaurateurs everyone wants to work for.

It's not just that their restaurants are successful, though that's certainly the case. Boka Restaurant Group — the name derived from the first letters of the restaurateurs' last names — consists of Boka, Girl & the Goat, Balena, GT Fish & Oyster, Little Goat Diner and Perennial Virant, and that's one heck of a lineup for anyone. But — and this may be key to the group's success — almost nobody realizes that Boehm and Katz are the names behind all these properties.

You hear "Girl & the Goat" and think Stephanie Izard. Balena? Chris Pandel. What Boehm and Katz have done is create highly individual restaurants that push their chef partners into the limelight.

The pair's history has come full circle with the reopening Feb. 10, of their first restaurant, Boka. Boehm and Katz shut down the 10-year-old restaurant for the first six weeks of the year to effect a top-to-bottom remodel that resulted in a sultry, sophisticated new look; a new, slightly less expensive contemporary-American menu; and a new chef-partner in Lee Wolen (ex-The Lobby and formerly with Eleven Madison Park in New York).

The newly designed Boka, swathed in dark wood tones and boasting such novel features as a moss- and fern-filled living wall and an escutcheon-plated entrance wall (part of which slides away to reveal the coat room), is a far cry from the bright white, sail-bedecked dining room of old. Even the "phone room," a bench-fitted alcove where customers were whimsically directed to take their cellphone conversations, is long gone. For Boehm and Katz, it must be like seeing a daughter dressed up for prom.

"This one (Boka) is very near and dear to our hearts," Katz says. "It's our baby; it's our name. Ten years ago, we were ma and pa; we took part in the building, the painting, every painstaking detail."

"There's an emotional aspect to every one of our restaurants; we're emotional guys," says Boehm. "But this one especially. I remember Phil Marienthal (owner of Blue Mesa, the restaurant that preceded Boka at that location) walking through Boka nine years ago and getting emotional. Now I can relate."

The pair, introduced through mutual friends, took very different paths to the restaurant business. Katz was an options-exchange trader who started bartending to help an understaffed friend, wound up owning a string of bars and turned to restaurants because, he says, "I wanted to be a grown-up." Boehm says he knew he wanted to be in the restaurant business at age 10, dropped out of college to buy his first restaurant in Florida, and owned restaurants in Nashville, Tenn., and Springfield before returning to Chicago 20 years later.

"Chicago was always the goal," Boehm says. "I remember coming up here, eating at Gordon, meeting Gordon Sinclair and thinking, 'Man, I have a long way to go.'"

Boka made its debut in October 2003, but for Boehm and Katz, the key moment came in 2007, when the pair persuaded Giuseppe Tentori, chef de cuisine for Charlie Trotter's, to join them.

"There was never an intent to become a chef-driven restaurant group," Katz says. "That came about with Tentori. He's such an amazing talent; from the first tasting, we knew we were onto something special. And our goal was to put him out there and make him a star."

Tentori, for his part, was weighing several offers, including one to work with Michael Mina in San Francisco. But something about his meetings with Boehm and Katz clicked.

"Rob and Kevin were very honest from the beginning," he says. "They talked about what they wanted and what they wanted (the restaurant) to be."

"He had offers from major players," Katz says. "The fact that he took a chance on us was a big thing for Kevin and myself."

And soon after, Boehm and Katz were on other chefs' radars.

"Maybe it was good timing on our part, when chefs were becoming rock stars," Katz says. "But when other chefs saw that we had Giuseppe and were putting him out front — and all this in the teeth of a recession, mind you — they liked that."

Thus, Izard joined the pair to create Girl & the Goat. Soon after that, the pair created GT Fish & Oyster, to raise Tentori's profile further. Pandel of The Bristol joined the group to turn Landmark, an early Boka property, into the chef-driven Balena. When Paul Virant joined the group, Perennial restaurant was re-branded as Perennial Virant. If you don't know the chef's name at a Boka Group restaurant, you aren't paying attention.

"At one point, almost everybody has approached them or wanted to work with them," says Wolen, the newest chef in the Boka stable. "I wrote to them more than three years ago. And for me to say I'm one of the five (chefs), and you look at the other four — I'm a nobody compared to them. But, not to sound arrogant, I think they choose wisely and put the right people in the right places."

"We find people we like, people we like to hang out with," Boehm says. "They (our chefs) are extremely different in cuisines and personalities. Do we have spirited conversations? Absolutely. But Rob and I both feel that great things come from spirited conversations."

"Finding a good business partner is like finding a second wife," Tentori says. "You're spending so much time dealing with them, you really need to like them, and to understand each other. It's very rare. I'm glad I found them."

The back of the house (kitchen) in good hands, Boehm and Katz spend most of their time on front-of-the-house matters, especially training.

"It all starts with the interview process, which is very (New York restaurateur) Danny Meyer: Do you like them, and do you think they're smart? So we hire smart people we like and train them a really long time."

The new Boka is the first of three restaurants the group will unveil this year. By September, we should see GT Prime, another Tentori vehicle. ("Not a steakhouse," the chef cautions. "More like GT Fish, but with meat — a lot of small meat plates, with a lot of fun stuff.") And before the year is up, Boehm and Katz will unveil a Japanese concept with a high-profile chef whose name is being kept under wraps because the chef is currently employed elsewhere.

"It's going to be a crazy-insane year," Boehm says, "but we kind of like crazy and insane."

"In 10 years, we've accomplished a lot," Katz says. "We were a 30-person outfit when Boka opened; now we're 1,000, and probably will be 1,300 by the end of the year. It's a staggering thing to think about."

pvettel@tribune.com

Twitter @philvettel

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