Last Updated on October 6, 2020
The ButcherBox Test Kitchen has been transformed into a movie set. Massive lights brighten the space from three sides, and half-a-dozen black-garbed crew members buzz around, holding mics, adjusting dials on screens, and carefully aiming a series of fancy-looking cameras at a big man in an apron.
Yankel Polak holds the spotlight easily, as lobster tails sizzle in butter in the pan in front of him. His hair is cropped short, tattoos run down both his arms, and he looks like someone I would eagerly follow into battle. He talks in a friendly, casual way—like he’s just hanging out in his own kitchen, chatting with one of his buddies. He adds cream and herbs to the pan, and then wafts his hand to his nose and smirks into the camera.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “Smells like something good is happening.”
He plates the lobster onto fresh angel-hair pasta, and steps in front of the stove. They’re trying a new style today—framing the recipe with an intro and an outro—and Yankel says his wrap up three times, all in slightly different ways. They cut, and the whole set sighs in relief—until they realize one of the cameras wasn’t focusing correctly.
“I can do it again,” Yankel says, without skipping a beat. “I’m ready. Let’s roll it again.” He cleans and preps the space and pulls out two more raw lobster tails. A few minutes later, everyone’s ready, and the cameras start rolling.
Yankel first stepped into the restaurant world when he was 17-years old. He served and tended bar, washed dishes, cleaned after hours, and drove delivery trucks—just about everything except cooking. With his work, he had a personal code: He always had to be learning. “I would learn everything I could, and when there wasn’t anything I could learn, I would move on,” he explains.
It was a personal health crisis—Ulcerative Colitis—that put food front and center in his life. “I had to rebuild myself, and focus heavily on what I was eating. I would cook and prepare five little meals a day for myself.” Once he was back on his feet, he got his first kitchen job—an oyster shucker at Eastern Standard, a Boston gastropub in the shadows of Fenway Park, right in the middle of Red Sox season.
“It was insane. I’d be shucking 1,000 oysters a shift, sometimes double that. We’d go as fast as possible. I stabbed myself in the hand perpetually.” During this time, Yankel was also in school at BU, studying journalism and philosophy. He had his sights on a Ph.D. in Holocaust History, with plans to teach—Yankel’s father, a rabbi, is a Holocaust survivor. Halfway through his last semester, a friend offered him a job at a massive, two-floor two-kitchen pregame hotspot built into the side of Fenway, and he leaped at the opportunity, ending his academic career. “I left,” he says. “And never looked back.”
While moving up the kitchen ranks, including a stint in the high-pressure role of the expeditor, Yankel stuck to his code, and after rising to sous chef, he had learned all he could. He found another challenge as the executive chef at a little restaurant in Boston, then became the executive chef of a restaurant group, running five different restaurants at once. “I spent the next two years putting out fires, 7 am to midnight, 7 days a week. I moved during that time, and barely had time to unpack. I lived out of boxes for a year.”
While managing those restaurants, Yankel found a new passion: Fighting and self-defense. In the afternoons between shifts, he would train Krav Maga, an Israeli style of fighting that focuses on real-world situations and extreme efficiency—a style that very much suited his life outlook. He earned his black belt and found himself wanting to train full time—in both Krav Maga and Muay Thai.
He quit the restaurants. “I swore I’d never go back to food,” he says.
He stuck to that, for a while, at least. He became a real estate agent, he drove for Uber, and he taught martial arts and firearms safety. “I even bought a drum set on eBay and started taking lessons.”
Then he got a call from Mike Salguero, an old friend from college and the founder of a new startup called ButcherBox. He asked Yankel to do some food styling—which morphed into telling people about the product, describing what each cut is and the best cooking methods. This company was different, and appealing to him in a whole new way. “The attitude and the people involved early on was incredible. I found this amazing opportunity to be a part of something that was really…world-changing.”
As Head Chef, Yankel soon found himself in front of the camera—making videos for different recipes and preparation techniques. To help with his on-camera presence, he even took some courses at ImprovBoston. “The whole thing with Improv is trusting what is coming out of your mouth—as in nothing is bad, as long as you don’t force it. It’s the ‘yes, and’ mentality, it’s never ‘but’ or ‘no.’”
Again sticking to his code of constant learning, Yankel pivoted to play a larger role on the video team, eventually becoming the Director of Video Production. After going to a food industry conference, he realized the importance of storytelling through video. “Did you know that every time you buy a ButcherBox, you’re helping put kids through college for agriculture?” Shaking his head, Yankel says, “I left that conference, thinking, ‘How are we not telling these stories?’”
“We’re doing a lot more of that now.”
The crew calls ‘Action,’ and Yankel’s back at it, running through the lobster recipe again with two boiled lobsters lounging on a display tray nearby.
At one point in his monologue, he looks up, as if surprised to see the camera crew. “Uh, you guys been there the whole time?” That earns him a chuckle, and then he gets right back to flipping the lobster tails as one camera zooms in for a close-up. He wipes a pesky splatter of sauce from the counter and then starts going through the script again. Everyone’s on the same page, making the whole production, and all that goes into it, look smooth and easy.
Once the dish is done and plated, he looks into the camera, right into the faces of the home chefs who will soon have the same amazing smells wafting in their own kitchens.
“I’m Yankel,” he says, lifting the lobster tails up, and smiling. “Go cook something!”