KEVIN BOEHM AND ROB KATZ like the odds of chef-driven concepts. In eight years, the duo have collaborated with celebrity chefs Stephanie Izard, Paul Virant, Giuseppe Tentori and others to create some of Chicago's hottest dining destinations — the Michelin-starred Boka; Girl & The Goat, one of the toughest reservations to score in the entire country; GT Fish & Oyster, a hit with locals; and Perennial Virant, which opened this past spring. And this dynamic duo have more up their sleeve. During a recent interview, Boehm and Katz took turns finishing each other's thoughts.
RH: How do you split up your duties?
Boehm: We both kind of know the dance that each other does. The most important things we do these days happen between eight and six. It's a big company now. We have 600 employees, and most people are willing to put in the work, but a lot are not willing to put in the work to prepare to be ready.
Katz: In the early days, we liked to say we were both front-of-the-house guys. Neither of us is a kitchen guy. We're both numbers guys, businessmen. I think we both have evolved as the company has grown. We've gravitated to what our strengths are, so one of us is training the front of house staff, while the other one is dealing with construction and real estate issues. At the end of the day, we're both in the same arena, shaking hands, looking over stuff, making sure everything is running the way it should. It's sort of a ballet that we do.
RH: Take us back to 2003 and your first project, Boka.
Boehm: The name is a combination of our last names. When we did it we didn't know each other as well as we do now, so we were feeling each other out, trying to figure out what conceptually we wanted to be. The first two years we didn't nail it, then we figured it out and changed it. We figured out that we wanted to have a chef-driven restaurant group with accomplished chefs.
Katz: We dove in head first and decided we were very good at what we were doing — Boka was excellent — but to take it to the next level, we needed a truly accomplished chef, and Giuseppe (Tentori) was looking to take off on his own. It's odd looking back now, but we had to sell him on our passion, vision and commitment to excellence.
At our next restaurant, in 2005, things started to change. We opened Landmark, which was different than anything we've done before or since, because it's not chef-driven. After that came Perennial, the Girl and the Goat, and GT Fish and Oyster. Landmark was really the impetus for pushing what we are good at — partnering with remarkably talented chefs and putting them at the forefront.
RH: Which comes first, the concept or the chef? And how do you choose partners?
Boehm: Sometimes we keep concepts in a queue. When we started to talk about a seafood restaurant, which became GT Fish and Oyster, it was a combination of Giuseppe's talent, the concept and the fact that we wanted to partner with him. That's why we put his name first and on the marquee.
A lot of chefs can cook great food. But do they also have discipline? Can they also manage people and manage numbers. And what about their sanity? There are few who have all four qualities. They don't have to have them all, but it's nice if they have more than one. Being creative is great, but we also look for like-minded people, people we respect and like to work with.
Katz: We're talking about very successful chefs. They want to work with, not for, someone and own a piece of the business. We put deals together that make them successful,
Boehm: It's not only financial, but also the infrastructure of the restaurants. We think we're as good as anyone at training front-of-the-house staff. We've built a culture around service. We think this frames the chef's food and makes it taste even better.
RH: How do you handle the egos?
Boehm: When you get talented people in a room, everyone has a strong opinion, and that's okay. We always say great things come out of spirited discussions. With the front of the house, everyone has a say. And all three chefs are very hands-on with hiring front-of-the-house staff. We all interview people and make final decisions. It's always a collaborative effort.
Katz: The back of the house is their domain. They're all smart and understand what we're trying to accomplish here. God forbid there should be a food cost issue, but if there is we'll bring it up and discuss it. We have weekly meetings at each restaurant with the front and back house managers. There we go through details.
RH: How do you figure out what cuisine will be hot next?
Katz: We definitely have a vision and goals for different restaurants. Right now, in this office there is a big board in front of us with things on deck that we want to realize and start moving on. We have five openings planned in 16 months. That's a lot to bite off.
RH: How do you approach design?
Katz: At the beginning we worked with a group from New York and we adored them, but lately we've figured it's much easier to work with a local team. 555 Design is an extraordinary outfit, tremendous at what they do. They're not doing a lot in Chicago, but elsewhere — a plus for us. That partnership has been exciting. The first design was for Girl and the Goat, and they hit the nail right on the head
We're looking for timelessness. Kevin and I are not about flashy, white hot spotlight-type places. We want our restaurants to stand the test of time, for people to feel comfortable and warm and want to come back.
Boehm: What 555 nails is that when you walk in it feels new but it also feels like it's been there a long time.
RH: You put all this time and effort into establishing successful concepts. Any plans to duplicate them?
Boehm: Part of the reason we do what do is because we love it and have fun doing it. Part of that fun is individually crafting a restaurant. I don't think we would ever do a sequel. The sequel is never as good as the original. We're not ruling it out, but we have no plans to do it.
RH: And are you continuing to stick with Chicago?
Katz: For now, yes. It's certainly not for a lack of offers. Many cities have opportunities, but we don't think they will make us happier. We're doing well in our own backyard in a market we're comfortable with and knowledgeable about.
RH: What do each of you consider Boka's main strengths as a company?
Boehm: I think we spend more time planning our front of the house for service than 99 percent of restaurants do. We're more concerned about hospitality. We are concerned all day long, from reading online reviews to writing letters to customers, to doing things special for them above and beyond. We open restaurants that make money. It keeps our investors and partners happy. We are detail-oriented guys — we sweat all areas.
Katz: Sometimes we say if we are waking up in the morning and not feeling a tad queasy, there is something wrong. We just lead our company with such passion and we are driven to make sure it stays in the direction it's going now. We both came from relatively modest backgrounds, so maybe we are driven by a fear mentality, so we work hard, keep our heads down, do the job and protect what we have.