It was 1997 when Blackbird opened in the West Loop—a time when Chicago’s culinary landscape was dominated by swank steakhouses like Gibsons, and high-concept joints from Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. Donnie Madia—who snagged this year’s James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur—was one of its visionaries, while the kitchen was the domain of a hard-working chef named Paul Kahan, an alum of Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo. Few realized that Kahan’s focus on Midwest ingredients, showcased in a jeans-appropriate dining room, would become a major influence on the modern American restaurant scene.
A native Chicagoan and 2013 James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Chef, Kahan was inspired by his father’s work. “My dad had a Jewish deli and I was always stuffing smoked sable and lox in my mouth,” he recalls. Although whipping up creations from cookbooks was a regular habit (“My brother was babysitting me one day and I made potato bread from the Joy of Cooking”), he went off to college and studied applied mathematics with the intent of becoming a scientist.
Naturally drawn to chemistry, Kahan joined an organic food co-op “because I wanted access to better products. At the time I was going to a ton of rock shows and partying, but I was at that age where I was searching for my career.” Waking up at 3:30am to deliver smoked fish, he knew that future most assuredly involved working in a kitchen. Through the woman who would later become his wife, he made a pivotal connection at Erwin Drechsler’s Metropolis Café.
Nearly 18 years later, Blackbird—along with its smoked-mushroom beef tartare and wood-grilled sturgeon—remains One Off Hospitality’s flagship. Since Blackbird’s inception, the budding empire has spawned equally successful ventures such as Avec, honky-tonk Big Star, Italian seafood-centric Nico Osteria, and lauded cocktail bar the Violet Hour.
Chicago’s dining scene, undoubtedly propelled by Blackbird’s momentum, is now one of the country’s best. But Kahan thinks the Windy City has stayed true to its roots despite a smart and progressive evolution. “The food is exciting, but Chicago’s still a working man’s town and we have an honest, straightforward aesthetic,” he says.
Kahan’s days are hectic as he spends time darting between Tex-Mex diner Dove’s Luncheonette and the beer-fueled Publican. But after the success of the restaurant group’s on-site butcher shop, the chef is putting a little extra attention into Publican Quality Bread, the in-house and wholesale bakery that puts locally milled grains in the limelight.
“We aren’t trying to keep up with the Joneses,” Kahan says of One Off’s prolific expansion. “We are just passionate about hospitality.”
From smoked fish shared with his father, to abalone prepared by a French legend, here are ten dishes that ignited Paul Kahan’s cooking career.
Growing up my dad had a smokehouse, and one of my earliest jobs was going to Port Washington, Wisconsin, and picking chubs for him. I think I was 13- or 14-years-old, and back at the smokehouse we’d brine them in stainless-steel tubs and then let them hang from giant racks. It was literally a wooden room and we’d light a straw fire and close the door so there was no oxygen to smother and smoke the fish old-school style. When my dad opened the door, he tore the head off of one and pulled the skin back and scooped the flesh into his mouth with his hands. He gave a hunk to me and it was still warm. Super rich and succulent…to this day, it’s my benchmark for smoked fish. (Photo: trochronicles.blogspot.com)
Tomato Salad at Chez Panisse
When I was in college I met a guy who rode freight trains around America, and for three or four seasons we traveled all over the U.S. that way. From the Rockies to New Orleans to the Panhandle, we hopped trains or hitchhiked, and I was doing that down the coast of California from Olympic National Park. I had never cooked professionally, but I read a lot about Alice Waters and Chez Panisse and just happened to be doing laundry in Berkeley. I was kind of a hobo, but I went to the café. What stuck in my mind was the tomato salad with teeny currant tomatoes—some whole, some sliced and half-chilled on the plate. It just had great olive oil, salt, and herbs, but it completely changed my life as to what ingredients could do. (Photo: tomatogrowers.com)
Squab at Alain Chapel
About five years into cooking I went to Europe for the first time with my then girlfriend. After driving over the Alps into Italy, we went to Nice and the Rhône Valley, and then into Lyon for Alain Chapel. I remember there were just seven diners to a dining room, and when we got a tour there were like 19 cooks in a kitchen filled with copper pots. It was a seven-course meal, and I could tell you everything about it from the amuse-bouche on, but the interesting thing for me is that all these dishes were elaborate ones. Then at the end they wheeled out something like a Le Creuset with a beautiful roasted squab that the captain carved tableside and put on a plate. He spooned jus onto it and added pommes soufflés from another pot. It was this super rustic, country feel juxtaposed with super fussed-over food, and it was such a meaningful moment. (Photo: Wikicommons)
Rocco DiSpirito’s Whole-Roasted Lamb
After opening Blackbird in 1997, I was named one of “America’s Best New Chefs” by Food & Wine in 1999. I was very naïve at the time, but it was an incredible class of chefs, including Marc Vetri, John Besh, Suzanne Goin, and Rocco DiSpirito. They announced it in New York and had a dinner party for all of us afterwards at Union Pacific, where Rocco was such an amazing chef. He did this tasting menu for 40 or 50 people and it absolutely blew my mind. He always made these amuse-bouche flights where the classic one featured a scallop in its shell, but the final savory dish was a whole-roasted baby lamb. The rack, loin, and shoulder were all cooked so perfectly, served with braised romano beans and tomato, and presented by an army of servers. I never imagined you could eat a baby lamb like that. (Photo: Facebook/Rocco DiSpirito)
Abalone at Les Maisons de Bricourt
For my 50th birthday my wife asked me where I wanted to go. Wylie Dufresne had loaned me a video on French chefs and Olivier Roellinger stuck with me. I always wanted to go to his three-star restaurant but I couldn’t since he closed it. Instead, he and his wife have a small hotel in Cancale, so we stayed there for five days with our friend Thomas Schlesser, who designed all our restaurants, and his wife Claire. We ate in the dining room every evening. My friend Lior Lev Sercarz had interned with Olivier, so he set me up to have coffee with the chef, where I learned he’s just so passionate about spices and food. On the last night I ordered abalone sautéed with a little tomato and teeny chanterelles, finished with white port, spices, and foraged sea greens. There were three thick but tender pieces of abalone from Brittany on the plate and it just exploded my brain. (Photo: tripadvisor.com)
On that same trip we cut through Brittany, driving through the woods to the famous oyster port of Belon. The tide was out and there were crooked boats sitting in the sand. There were a lot of oyster beds, but we found the only place you can sit and eat. We ordered the biggest size of oysters with freshly baked brown bread and butter that we drank with an amazing bottle of cider we brought in the car. I must have eaten at least a dozen double zeros the size of a fish. It was cold and wet during the entire trip, but that one day it was sunny and just the best. (Photo: pangeashellfish.com)
Marc Vetri’s Rigatoni with Chicken Livers
Marc works with this childhood cancer charity, Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation. Every year he puts together this dinner for it with more than 40 chefs and everyone scratches their head and says, “Man, that’s the best meal I’ve ever had.” There’s hot charcuterie, cold charcuterie, whole-roasted pig, and pizza, and there’s Marc’s rigatoni. It’s basically ground chicken livers with a lot of butter, sage, onions, and Parmesan. It’s something I’ve seen him make and something I’ve made with him, and it’s mind-boggling how good it is. (Photo: vetriristorante.com)
Suzanne Goin’s Suckling Pig
The government took a group of us over, so I went to Spain with Suzanne and a few other chefs—Wylie, Gabrielle Hamilton, Michael Schlow. It was a great bonding experience and we all decided to do a farm dinner in Chicago. Suzanne did this dish, and she still does it, where she confits whole suckling pig in duck fat and picks the meat and packs it back together with residual duck fat. She cuts a square of skin and puts it on top of the suckling pig so it’s like a burger, then serves it with Tuscan kale cooked with shallots and pancetta. Every bit of moisture is sucked out and it gets super intense and chewy, finished with a simple salsa verde. It was amazing and I’ve used so many aspects of that dish over the years. If I ever write a cookbook there will be a whole homage to Suzanne. (Photo courtesy Serious Eats/J. Kenji Lopez-Alt)
Pasta at Da Enzo al 29
This restaurant in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood is notoriously inhospitable to non-Italian speakers, but I’ve been there a bunch of times and everything’s been so pure and delicious. I don’t remember the exact shape of this one pasta but it was dried and bought from their friends. The pecorino and guanciale in it were DOCG-fresh, and it was the best pasta I’ve ever eaten. (Photo: Tripadvisor/Da Enzo)
David Posey’s King Crab
Our last chef de cuisine at Blackbird, David Posey, is a super-duper talented guy who is soon opening his own place. Through our years working together I watched him evolve from all the complicated stuff he did at Alinea to something more elemental. The one dish that sticks with me is his king crab—little clumps with sherry butter and a really smooth celery-root puree finished with dehydrated sauerkraut. It has such angular flavors and acidity. This guy has it going on. (Photo: Flickr/Boris Kasimov)