Homegrown chef Paul Kahan and the merits of being a dude
Heads up: At the Publican, Kahan displays a tray of pig heads, which are destined to be made into head cheese. (Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune)
In judgment, he renders halfway between snap and ponderous. This man is no head-tilting ruminator. Paul Kahan takes a bite (one-Mississippi-two) and issues a verdict:
"That burger is good. What's the meat?"
"It's sirloin and brisket," says Dennis Stover, sous-chef at Big Star, Kahan and Co.'s taco and whiskey bar in Wicker Park. It's Thursday night, and Kahan's at the bar nursing a Tecate beer and sampling the night's menu special, an homage-to-New Mexico green chili burger.
"I think it needs a little bit more fat," Kahan says. "The meat for me is a bit too tightly packed. I've had burgers that start with a ball of meat, they smash it with a spatula, then they score it with the side of the spatula, almost breaks the meat up a little. That's my thing."
Stover: "So you'd like that?"
Kahan: "Just get the ball, smash it with a spatula on the hot griddle, get a really good sear on it, then score it a bit, flip it, then it's done."
This is Kahan's life now, as consecrator of his dining dominion. He travels among his restaurants to taste, sip, suggest and, when warranted, offer his blessings to the 300 employees he and his partners oversee.
Fourteen years after Blackbird's opening, Kahan's viewfinder has zoomed out from up-close to wide-angle. He has traded in dishes for concepts. He's no longer behind the stove every night, but drops in to shuck oysters and butcher sides of beef when needed. To borrow an analogy from his beloved Cubs, Kahan is the utility bench player, pinch runner, third-base coach, defensive replacement, long relief innings gobbler and he's Tom Ricketts.
Paul Kahan is opening a butcher shop.
Actually, Kahan would like to correct this: "I wish people would say 'One Off Hospitality, from the people behind Blackbird, Avec, The Publican, The Violet Hour and Big Star, are opening a butcher shop.'"
Bless his modesty, but this will never catch on.
The news that Kahan is opening Publican Quality Meats in Fulton Market next week is only one-quarter true, but it's the most marketable headline. He and his three longtime business partners — Donnie Madia, Terry Alexander, sommelier Eduard Seitan — have equal stakes in this, their sixth project in Chicago. Still, Kahan is the brand, albeit a reluctant one.
The tandem of The Publican and Publican Quality Meats, located on opposite sides of Green Street, is perhaps closest in spirit to New Orleans' Cochon and Cochon Butcher: both have a pork/seafood flagship with an adjacent butchery serving sandwiches and house-cured meats. The Publican butcher shop also will carry food products curated from the staff's travels, such as drinking vinegars from Pok Pok, the acclaimed Thai restaurant in Portland, Ore., and Flo's Hot Dog Relish from Maine.
"I'll definitely spend the lion's share of my time here," said Kahan as we toured the unfinished basement of the butcher shop, "because it's the most near and dear to my heart."
That Kahan romanticizes butchers and delis is understandable. His father, Bobby, spent much of his career in the fish trade, owning a factory called King Salmon at 171 N. Green St., a block from where The Publican now stands. In high school and college, Paul Kahan drove barrels of chubs from Kenosha, wheeling the fish into the smokehouse, where it'd absorb the waft of straw fire and wood smoke overnight. In the morning, Kahan would remove a chub from the rack, tear its head off, peel back the skin and shovel the still-warm flesh into his mouth. That rich, smoked, oily taste memory was forever fused into his DNA.
In 1985, Kahan graduated with a degree in theoretical computer science from Northern Illinois University but realized the decent salary wasn't worth his misery. He decided to work for his father again. Kahan delivered fish in the company Econoline van to delis and supermarkets throughout Chicago, and was always met by some benevolent shop owner: "Kid, ya hungry? How about a corned beef sandwich and a Dr. Brown's cream soda?"
That Jewish deli smell of rich, cured meats with floating hint of pickle might be among Kahan's favorite smells in the world.
"I'm hoping the butcher shop smells like that," he said. "I think it will."