Fifteen years ago this October, an overtly ambitious 25-year-old David Falk purchased a tiny restaurant in Northside. Boca quickly outgrew Northside, relocating to Oakley in 2004. Then, in 2013, Falk moved his flagship restaurant downtown into the old Maisonette building growing the Boca Restaurant Group (BRG) into a $25 million company, with plans to hit $75 million in the next five years. While we have written plenty of reviews, we’ve never taken time to sit with the chef and dish about his meteoric rise. Until now.
When you bought Boca in 2001, were you just looking to have creative control or was there a larger picture even then?
When I was 15, I followed my brothers to El Coyote where I worked as a busboy and immediately knew that I never wanted to leave the industry. One day I was pouring coffee over an elderly woman’s shoulder and I was scared to death that I would burn her. I decided that I needed to be in kitchen. The first sauce I learned was béarnaise, and it’s still my favorite sauce. With Boca, I just wanted my own place. After living in Europe [and] working at [Charlie] Trotter’s, I was willing to spend every dime. And that was the most humbling feeling—it was all on me. I still feel it 15 years on.
This is an industry where burnout is typical but you’ve maintained a tremendous amount of momentum. How do you balance that?
Every venture needs both pioneers and developers. Pioneers get all the credit. I am the pioneer, but I have 400 employees, mostly developers. Jono Fries started as a line cook in Northside and is number two in this company running innovation and operations. Ben Castle, our CFO, started as a server in Oakley. I’ve spent the last 13 of 15 years trying to keep the artistic passion while still making money.
For years you’ve had a reputation as someone with a lot of confidence, at times bordering on arrogance. Has it bothered you to be perceived that way?
It was accurate. Sometimes I wish I could go back and kick my own ass. But I had an experience driving one day that scared the shit out of me; it was very connected to my faith. And it’s why humility is now one of the core values of this company. The spirit of hospitality is about humility, putting someone else’s needs first.
It sounds like you’re easily as interested in restaurant design as what goes on the plate.
I worked at Maisonette and knew what this address meant to the city. In 2010, I was watching La Bohème and realized that we needed a chandelier. So we blew out the second floor, and put in the staircase and the chandelier. I like to think we design for women, because they decide where we eat, right? In fact, we were at a meeting with our design group and I played this clip from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast when Belle’s looking up and spinning around. That’s how I want women to feel here. The guest is always the hero here. I’m not the hero; the food isn’t the hero. It’s the guest.
What’s next for BRG…
Former Boca general manager, Bawe Shinholster, was a classical pianist, a prodigy, really. [He] taught me about the cadenza, a short, intense piece of three to five minutes where the virtuosity of the musician could really shine. Over the next year, Boca will perform three cadenzas. We’re going to create a limited engagement, ticketed restaurant-within-a-restaurant upstairs.
We are creating these mini-concertos where food and wine play perfectly together. But the challenge is keeping it simple; the food has to take a humble place so that it doesn’t overshadow the wine. The October cadenza will be called Arc en Ciel, French for rainbow. There will be nine savory wine pairings. We’re still chipping away at it a little bit every day