Chef Lee Wolen to Head New Restaurant for Chicago’s Boka Group
The Boka Restaurant Group has another card up its sleeve. Lee Wolen, the executive chef at Chicago’s Michelin-starred Boka, will be at the helm of a new concept that will be part of The Viceroy Chicago, an extension of the luxury Viceroy Hotel Group that owns properties in cities around the world. This Gold Coast location, the site of the 1920s-era Cedar Hotel, will be their first in Chicago. The new restaurant will be the 15th concept for BRG.
First talk of Somerset, as the new restaurant will be dubbed, came a little over a year ago. Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, founding partners of the Boka Restaurant Group, approached Wolen with the idea of starting a new place. With an eye to what Wolen wanted to cook, as well as what concept would be a fit for the restaurant group, they landed on a rustic, American focus.
“When you look at the trend of American dining, it’s rustic,” Wolen says. “People want to get a group together and share.” It’s a departure from his cooking style at Boka, which is more of a fine dining experience. Somerset will be designed in a “more casual, not as plated” way, something Wolen really wanted to bring to a new project.
The menu is still in development, but things will begin moving next week when Wolen and team transition into their test kitchen. Shared plates and an emphasis on vegetables are likely additions, and Wolen is particularly excited about the inclusion of a wood grill in the kitchen.
“The little things make you happy. Lots of codes have to be met to have a wood grill, so if it’s not in there from the beginning, you’re probably not getting it,” he explains. Expect that wood-fired flavor to be central to the menu.
The space is expected to have 160 to 175 seats and take full advantage of the former Cedar Hotel’s patio. They also plan to keep the building’s original façade intact.
While leading Somerset, Wolen will maintain his position as executive chef at Boka and bring some of that restaurant’s seasoned cooks over to the new kitchen. “Opening a new place creates growth for people who need it,” he said. “I have cooks who have worked with me for two to three years, and they’re ready for new responsibilities.”
Somerset is slated to open in tandem with The Viceroy Chicago fall 2017.