Living the Dream
By Jordan Staggs | Photography courtesy of Boka Restaurant Group
Some careers are painstakingly pursued and mapped out. Other life paths may take time to come into focus. Some stem from aha moments, others from necessity. For Kevin Boehm, the catalyst for finding his niche was a serendipitous visit to a tiny coastal town called Seaside on Scenic Highway 30-A in Northwest Florida.
It has been twenty-seven years since Boehm decided to take a break from the University of Illinois and make that fateful trip to the coast; today he is known throughout the culinary industry for opening twenty-four restaurants. Along with his business partner, Rob Katz, and the rest of their team at the Boka Restaurant Group, Boehm is fresh off his third consecutive year as a top-five finalist for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur. The group’s portfolio currently includes restaurants and bars in the Chicago metro area; among the many accolades earned by their restaurants and chefs are Michelin stars, James Beard Awards and nominations, spots on Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs list, and even an Iron Chef award.
How does one venture from being a college dropout to having a dream job? We asked Boehm about it:
VIE: How did you end up getting your restaurant career started in Seaside, Florida, all the way from Illinois?
Kevin Boehm: I took a break from school in 1991 and decided to spend some time in Panama City, Florida. I was introduced to Seaside by my girlfriend at the time, Theresa, and we decided to open a little restaurant in Seagrove Beach called Lazy Daze Café. Our third day of being open, the oven blew up in my face and caught my hair on fire! In 1995, I opened Indigo Wine Bar in Blue Mountain Beach with my partner, Jeff, before selling it a couple of years later.
I loved my time in Seaside. Ollie from the Red Bar and I became good friends back in 1993. I helped wallpaper the posters on the ceiling the night before opening. I still visit with my family there and always have a sense of home when I drive on 30-A.
VIE: What is it that you love about the restaurant business?
KB: It’s been an evolution over the years. I think these days, my passion for food, hospitality, and design are all equal. Great restaurants are an alchemy of all three. I love throwing a party, taking care of guests, and seeing people spend some of the most important moments of their lives in our spaces.
I think these days, my passion for food, hospitality, and design are all equal. Great restaurants are an alchemy of all three.
VIE: You’ve partnered with Rob Katz since 2002. What makes you such a great team?
KB: First of all, beyond partnership, we are best buddies. Secondly, we agree most of the time. Lastly, we push each other. We are both competitive and want the restaurants to be the best.
VIE: What is a typical day like overseeing nearly twenty restaurants? What is the biggest challenge?
KB: Every day is different. With nineteen different entities and twenty-two hundred employees, it’s always an adventure. From design meetings to construction, P&L meetings, insurance, legal, development, and even just walking dining rooms, it’s always moving at a breakneck pace.
VIE: Where do you find inspiration when opening a new restaurant?
KB: Our core group of corporate executives and our six chef partners are some of the most brilliant food and hospitality minds in the world. Sitting at a table with all of them and developing the critical and creative path is often spirited and always inspiring.
Sitting at a table with all of them and developing the critical and creative path is often spirited and always inspiring.
VIE: When designing a restaurant, do you work directly with architects and builders from the beginning? How do layout and design affect the dining experience for patrons?
KB: We have worked with some of the most famous designers in the world, including the multiple James Beard Award– and Hospitality Design Award–winning group AvroKO. In every project they do, there is a historical narrative that the design always goes back to. At Momotaro, it’s the economic miracle in Japan after World War II, and our back bar is a replica of the old Tokyo Stock Exchange. At Somerset, the dining room mimics 1950s–60s high society and country club culture. This attention to detail keeps the designs original and prevents AvroKO from repeating their work. Rob and I are heavily involved in the design process from beginning to end.
In this ADD world we live in now, I think design is more important than ever. Creating layers of design keeps people interested. If you just realize during your eighth visit that the Japanese pay phone at Momotaro will speak to you in Japanese if you pick it up, then we are doing our jobs!
VIE: What do you consider your greatest business accomplishment to date?
KB: Rob and I have been one of the five finalists for Outstanding Restaurateur at the James Beard Awards for three straight years. For a small-town kid, getting that honor meant the world to me. It’s a long way from having my hair on fire at a six-table restaurant in 1993!
Rob and I have been one of the five finalists for Outstanding Restaurateur at the James Beard Awards for three straight years. For a small-town kid, getting that honor meant the world to me.
VIE: You and your wife have three children—are they all foodies thanks to you?
KB: Sofia (14), Lola (10), and Luca (4) are all foodies! They have been eating sushi all their lives and visit all the restaurants on a consistent basis.
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Visit BokaGrp.com to learn more and see all of Boka Restaurant Group’s incredible Chicago eateries.