Chef Lee Wolen, who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, now heads up Boka—a Michelin-star restaurant in Chicago’s Near North Side. For the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival 2017, Chef Wolen left the Windy City to take up temporary residence in the Swiss Alps. With the theme of American cuisine for this year’s festival, he was selected to be the guest chef of Suvretta House, a 5-star luxury hotel that opened in 1912. This invitation gave him the opportunity to partner with another highly accomplished chef, Fabrizio Zanetti—born in St. Moritz, he’s currently the Chef de Cuisine at this famed Swiss hotel.
At 33 years of age, Chef Wolen has already amassed an impressive collection of experiences working with top chefs in Oxford, Spain’s Costa Brava and New York City. He joined Boka Restaurant in 2014, and has continued to earn recognition for his culinary skills. The Chicago Tribune restaurant critic, Phil Vettel, describes his cooking as, “approachable yet astonishing,” in a 2016 review. His review placed Boka at #8 among Chicago’s Top 50 Restaurants.
On the second day of the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival, I sat down with Chef Wolen in the elegant and spacious lobby of the historic Suvretta House to talk about Boka, Swiss food and his future plans.
During his first few days in St. Moritz, he said his focus was really on preparing for the food festival, rather than skiing or sightseeing. He talked about how he enjoyed working in the kitchen at the Suvretta House with people from different cultures and who don’t all speak English. From his experience so far, he said that everyone had been extremely helpful. In terms of working with Chef Fabrizio Zanetti, Chef Wolen described him as “the nicest guy ever.”
I was curious to learn about Chef Wolen’s impression of Swiss food before he arrived. He told me that he didn’t really know much about it, other than thinking it had French influences and was a little bit heavy. After spending a few days in Switzerland, he said the meals seem to feature a lot of meat and veal, in particular, which he did not originally think was that common. Also, he reported that he had eaten a lot of cheese since his arrival, including a typical Swiss cheese fondue, which he thought was delicious.
When I asked him to talk about his cooking style, he described it as contemporary American, with influences from everywhere. Recently, he started to add some Asian techniques, such as drying fish and meat, and then shaving them to create bolder, umami flavors. His goal is simply to cook food that people enjoy eating, like butter-poached lobster with celery root. He characterizes his cooking as “classic flavors done well.” At home, and when he has time, Chef Wolen likes to make roasted chicken with carrots.
For the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival, Chef Wolen decided to cook his favorite dishes from his restaurant. While he uses luxury ingredients at his restaurant, he said it’s not his style to put caviar, truffles and foie gras in everything. He told me his current favorite dish is smoked and grilled roasted beets with licorice. While beets may not usually be considered a “fancy” ingredient, he likes to elevate vegetables, so they have a more prominent status on his menu.
With regard to his future plans, Chef Wolen will be opening a second restaurant in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood in fall 2017. He said the food will still be contemporary American, but the new restaurant will have a more casual atmosphere than Boka. (Editor’s note: For more information about his new restaurant, Somerset, check out Eater Chicago’s January 2017 article: “Boka Taps Lee Wolen As Chef At Their New Gold Coast Restaurant.”)
Overall, I found that Chef Lee Wolen resembles the terms used by the Chicago Tribune restaurant critic to describe his food. He is very “approachable” and easy to talk to, and his accomplishments are truly “astonishing”—a Michelin star two years in a row; James Beard nominee 2016 for Best Chef in the Great Lakes region; and Chef of the Year 2015 from the Jean Banchet Awards, Chicago Tribune and Eater. He has worked very hard to reach this point in his career, and with the opening of his second restaurant later this year, he continues to have an exciting future ahead of him. It was a pleasure having the opportunity to meet him during the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival 2017, and I hope to visit his restaurant(s) next time I’m back in Chicago.