Kahan spent much of his 20s at Batteries Not Included, a music dive bar at the then-derelict corner of Clybourn and Webster avenues. It was during a show by the power pop band Green that Kahan met his future wife, Mary.
"This is how he presented himself to me: Paul had a ponytail, curly hair, drove a VW bus and wore Birkenstock sandals," said Mary Klonowski. "But he was the gentlest man I've ever met. Still is, to this day."
Kahan's first two restaurant jobs were for chef Erwin Drechsler, cooking first at Metropolis Cafe, then at the American-bistro Metropolis 1800 (house-made pastas, small pizzas, cioppino — a Californian vibe to the menu). Drechsler's kitchen was a farm system of young food talents, including Mindy Segal, who would open Hot Chocolate, and the late Henry Bishop, longtime sommelier at Spiaggia.
Kahan had spent five happy years with Drechsler when he heard that Rick Bayless would open a second restaurant, Topolobampo.
"I didn't know if I liked or disliked Mexican food at that point," Kahan said, "I just wanted to work for people who I thought were amazing operators."
Kahan started as a line cook at Topolobampo in 1989 and within a year, was promoted to sous-chef.
Said Bayless: "What I remember working with Paul was his passion for sausage and meat in general. He would get so passionate doing new dishes that had elements he could relate to in deeper ways — headcheese, pig's feet, every part of the animal. But he was also one of those guys with the bigger perspective. You can always tell when you hire someone whether they can see beyond their station. Paul had that."
Kahan was never the kind of chef to scream in the kitchen. At Topolobampo, when he felt rage surfacing, he'd take a stack of poblano pepper crates and smash them against the Dumpsters in the alley. Kahan thinks he gets his quiet discipline from wrestling in school. He brings up wrestling mentality in conversations with cooks.
"It's like you keep getting smashed in the head," he said. "If you let it get the best of you, you'll be down and you'll be out."
Kahan spent nearly four years at Topolobampo, when his mentor Drechsler announced he would open a Lakeview restaurant, the eponymous Erwin. Kahan was offered the chef de cuisine position, and accepted.
Fast forward a few years to 1997. Restaurant manager/bartender Donnie Madia was seeking a chef for his yet-to-open, unnamed restaurant project. Madia found his man during brunch at Erwin. Kahan knew the investors had limited funding (build-out of the restaurant was $400,000), so he told Madia that in lieu of a salary he'd take an ownership stake. Kahan would no longer work for someone else; now he got to dictate his future.
Kahan was sitting on his back porch, watching his futile Cubs play one afternoon. After they gave up yet another home run, Kahan flipped the channel and landed on PBS. It was a documentary about France, where the farmer on screen compared the Merlot grape to a fat little blackbird.
The name stuck.
Seven out of 10 people mess up Paul Kahan's name. He no longer bothers correcting them. Let us state, for the record, that it's pronounced "Con," with one syllable, not Kay-han or Kuh-hahn.
Of those familiar with the man, none will say anything disparaging about him — on or off the record. He is maddeningly unimpeachable. They all speak along these lines, as his pal Anthony Bourdain told me: "Paul is probably the best-loved chef in Chicago. Each operation fulfills a need, even if we didn't know previously we had that need."
Blackbird's chef de cuisine, David Posey, said of Kahan: "I view him as much as a buddy as my boss. I think he's a real dude."
Dude. Not the throwaway crutch, but the heroic embodiment of the modern day Everyman. A dude is relatable. A dude is to be celebrated for his regularness.
A dude, insomuch as Kahan is one, prefers burgers over tasting menus, a cleaver over an immersion circulator. Food is not the be-all, end-all.
And yet, when Kahan hears critics say that the sequence of his dining concepts has moved him away from fine-dining gravitas — from four-star composed dishes (Blackbird), to communal small plates (Avec), to pork and beer (The Publican), to tacos and whiskey (Big Star) — he is not fazed.