Chicago’s Culinary Rockstar
Paul Kahan was ahead of the farm-to-table curve when he opened Blackbird in the West Loop, he brought the city communal tables and small plates with Avec, a pig-lovin’ gastropub with the Publican, followed by Big Star taco bar in Wicker Park and now the artisanal butcher shop Publican Quality Meats. The serial restaurateur is a quiet revolutionary, training an army of employees in the art of hospitality, while successfully shining a light on Chicago’s vibrant food culture. We talk with Paul about PQM’s charcuterie, the Windy City’s up-and-coming chefs and what’s on his playlist in the kitchen.
AndrewZimmern.com: You’ve opened some of the most acclaimed restaurants in Chicago. How did you begin your culinary career?
Paul Kahan: My culinary career started when I met my wife. I was driving a delivery truck for my dad’s smoked fish business, which followed a short stint in computer science after graduating college. She had a pal that was a pastry chef at a small, everything-from-scratch restaurant called Metropolis Cafe. I never looked back.
AZ.com: What inspired Publican Quality Meats?
PK: Probably two things inspired PQM: necessity and the opportunity to become more artisanal. The Publican basically out grew our kitchen space. The decision to move the entire meat operation into another space allowed us to add another brunch service, and give us a little breathing room in the kitchen. But more exciting, is the opportunity to expand on our sausage and cured meat programs as well as sourcing amazing animals and products. PQM contributes to the quality of all of our restaurants.
AZ.com: You’ve done fine dining, a gastropub, cocktail bar, taco joint and more. What’s next for you?
PK: You’re gonna have to wait and see. I don’t wanna let the cat out of the bag.
AZ.com: What three characteristics make for a successful restaurant?
PK: Hospitality, hospitality and hospitality.
AZ.com: We hear you are a music fan. What’s currently on your soundtrack in the kitchen?
PK: Loaded question. Lots. I am currently loving a couple albums that I bought at a record release show for a Chicago jazz bassist named Joshua Abrams. His new album Represencing is an amazing collection of tribal rhythms. The other disc is from another Chicago band called the Cairo Gang (The Corner Man). I love Calexico’s new album Algiers, anything from Yo La Tengo and am pretty deep into an artist that Shawn Brock turned me on to, Junior Kimbrough.
AZ.com: Chicago is one of the most exciting food cities in the world. Who are some up-and-comers we should keep an eye on?
PK: Man, there’s a bunch. Curtis Duffy is not really an up-and-comer, he’s here, and his own restaurant opens soon (Grace); I love Jason Vincent’s work at Nightwood, he also won the national Cochon 555 deal; Mikey and Pat Sheerin at Trenchermen are incredibly talented. Then, there’s the list of kick ass talent in our company – Erling Wu-Bower, the new chef at Avec, David Posey’s food at Blackbird kills me it’s so good and our pastry chefs at Blackbird, Dana Cree and at the Publican, Anna Shovers are both kicking some serious sweet ass.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
PK: Grass-fed yogurt from Cedar Summit Farm in MN. Kalles Kaviar fish spread from Sweden, some ratatouille that my wife made, assorted beers that I steal from the Publican, lots of veggies and condiments, cooked steel cut oats and hard-boiled organic eggs.
Check out Paul’s recipe for Shaved Brussels Sprout Salad with Burrata Cheese & Lemon.
One Off Hospitality Group’s Executive Chef/Partner Paul Kahan has become the nationally recognizable face for a new guard of Chicago chefs, with an ever-growing list of international accolades for Blackbird, The Publican, avec, Big Star and Publican Quality Meats. Passionately seasonal, unconventionally creative and dedicated to the inspiration of classical cuisine, Kahan has earned the praise of many who claim him to be one of America’s most influential working chefs. He has been honored by Food & Wine, has been a James Beard nominee for Outstanding Chef in 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2012, and he earned the title of James Beard Best Chef of the Midwest in 2004.