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."
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."
The owner of Batteries Not Included happened to be a chef from the Caribbean. Kahan picked his brain about joining the restaurant trade, and the short answer was: "Forget culinary school. Just start cooking."
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.
"There's just as much juice creating an amazing pastrami sandwich as there is behind a 12-course tasting menu," Kahan said. "At this point in my life, I rarely want to have a serious fine-dining menu — almost never, to be honest. I feel like my time is too precious."
(Regarding time: Kahan turns 50 this year. He could not care less.)
Now the Dude has time for things like yoga (that and exercise have helped Kahan drop 20 pounds in the last year). It just happens Mary, his wife of 14 years, teaches yoga.
Kahan appreciates yoga's central tenet of being present in the moment; it's why "fame" strikes him as a four-letter word.
He was asked to compete on "Iron Chef America" and "Top Chef Masters" three times each, but turned down all six invitations.
He has started and stopped on his cookbook project twice, because he thought the end product would be mediocre.
Shortly before President Barack Obama was inaugurated, Kahan was invited to Washington to interview for the White House chef position. Kahan was flattered, but declined. He said he'd rather cook for his wife.
Back at Big Star, sous-chef Dennis Stover returns 20 minutes later with a report on green chili burger, Take 2.
"You're right about the technique," Stover said. "I just did it. You are so right."
Kahan makes the parabolic noise of a baseball flying onto Waveland Avenue.
"There's one over the fence," Kahan says.
A fitting illustration of a dude, as told by Kahan: "I remember going to the South Beach Food & Wine Festival three, four years ago. It's super scene-y. I went once; I'll never go again. Anyway, they're doing this event called the Burger Bash, where chefs create a burger and people would vote for their favorites. Like a thousand people at this thing. I was helping my buddy Michael Schlow cook burgers on the grill, whose burger won the year before.
"So I see Guy Fieri walking around with his camera crew, tons of guys with sunglasses on their necks, this big entourage with him. He's interviewing chef Michael Psilakis. Then he walks by our booth, and he must have thought Michael Schlow isn't enough of a hotshot, so Fieri walks around him and interviews Bobby Flay!
"Now this was one of those giant tents that's 70 feet tall. I took two hamburger buns and some grease and wadded it up as tightly as I could. Fieri was off to the side. I launched it in the air, and on the first try, I swear, it went all the way up to the top, came down and bonked him on top of the head, and exploded. Crumbs went everywhere. He went crazy. Guy Fieri was calling his guys over, trying to figure out who hit him in the head with a burger bun. Look, he's probably a great guy, probably does a lot of charitable stuff, but I just had to settle the score with him. I'm a (expletive)-head, I'll admit it."
Paul Kahan, Donnie Madia, Terry Alexander and Eduard Seitan — the foursome behind One Off Hospitality — are already several projects into the future. They're in talks with a Rick Bayless-spearheaded project that would bring a Publican burger bar as part of an all-star Chicago chefs food court to O'Hare's international terminal. Urban Belly's Bill Kim is also in talks to participate. One Off is also considering opening an Avec in New York. Avec chef Koren Grieveson would head that kitchen as well.
The project Kahan's most proud of is Pilot Light, a collaboration with Chicago Public Schools that would introduce food science and nutrition into the school curriculum. For the last year, Kahan and program co-founder Matthias Merges (Yusho restaurant) have tested a pilot program at Disney II Elementary Magnet School in Old Irving Park. The selling point is chefs cook lunch for students using ingredients discussed during class. The program hopes to expand to six schools this year.