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When Boka's off-menu, Asian food rules

Chef Lee Wolen and his staff indulge in a Korean feast in between prep and service.

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Chef Lee Wolen queues up for a Korean feast from sous chef Eddie Lee. - JAMIE RAMSAY
  • Jamie Ramsay
  • Chef Lee Wolen queues up for a Korean feast from sous chef Eddie Lee.

Boka is known for lush, artful versions of essentially straightforward American dishes, but chef Lee Wolen likes to eat fairly light and simple Asian food. "Everybody at Boka," he says, setting the record straight, "likes to eat Asian food."

"We eat a lot of tofu. And chicken," he says of the restaurant's staff meals. That's no surprise for a chef lauded for his roast chicken. "Roasted chicken is the quickest. We do the whole roasted chicken here, so we always have the legs and thighs. And it needs to taste good. That's very important. It's the basis for the rest of your night; what you eat at 3:30 has to last you till midnight."

Family meal marks a clear divide between the relative calm of morning prep and the intensity of the service to follow, Wolen says. "All the prep is done first, and then we eat" around 3 PM, he says. "Then we usually get all the herbs and stuff together on a garnish tray. At 4:45 we taste everything, all the sauces. Make sure vegetables are cooked, do a line check—and then it's five o'clock."

Eddie Lee is in charge of family meal today. The Korean-born sous chef recently returned from his first trip back there in six years, and he's preparing a feast of his native country's cuisine. As the buffet is laid out in the "terrace" room enclosed in part by a moss wall, Lee explains the dishes: a pair of traditional pancakes—one scallion, one mung bean; pickled radish and kimchi; rice cakes with pepper paste, "a classic street food"; short ribs with carrots and potatoes; vinegary sweet- potato-starch noodles with a variety of julienned vegetables.

"I did that," Wolen interjects. "That was my contribution—I julienned the vegetables."

"Credit for the vegetables goes to chef Lee Wolen," announces Lee, clearly amused by his boss's playacting.

Everyone is excited to share in the lavish dinner, but as the staff sit, the room quickly segregates—one table is white-coated cooks, another is black-vested servers. It's quiet except for a few compliments sent Eddie's way; there's more phone-scrolling than conversation. This interlude is the calm before the storm.   v

JAMIE RAMSAY
  • Jamie Ramsay
JAMIE RAMSAY
  • Jamie Ramsay
JAMIE RAMSAY
  • Jamie Ramsay
JAMIE RAMSAY
  • Jamie Ramsay
JAMIE RAMSAY
  • Jamie Ramsay

Mung-bean pancake


2 c peeled mung beans (yellow), soaked in water overnight
6 T sweet rice flour
1/4 c kimchi liquid
1 t soy sauce
1/2 cup mung bean sprouts, chopped
1/4 cup royal fern, chopped
2 T cooking oil
Salt to taste

Grind mung beans in food processor until batter is coarse. In a bowl, mix all ingredients and season with salt. Place a nonstick pan over medium heat and add cooking oil. When oil is hot, add batter to the pan and spread it out to your preferred thickness. When bottom side is cooked, flip to cook the other side.

Dipping sauce

3/4 c soy sauce
1/2 c rice wine vinegar
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 scallions

Chop scallions until a sticky liquid comes out from them. Mix all ingredients and let sit for at least an hour to infuse the soy-vinegar mix with the flavors of the onions and scallions.

JAMIE RAMSAY
  • Jamie Ramsay

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