Paul Kahan is a Chicago native who started working in his father’s delicatessen and smoked fish company as a teenager. He worked for accomplished chefs Erwin Drechsler and Rick Bayless and has grown into one of the city’s culinary giants, partnering with Donnie Madia and One Off Hospitality Group on restaurants like Avec, Big Star, Blackbird, Dove’s Luncheonette, Nico Osteria, The Publican, and Publican Quality Meats, plus The Violet Hour, a revered cocktail bar. The charitable chef, who contributes to Alex’s Lemonade and Pilot Light, also has three James Beard Awards on his mantle, including a 2013 Outstanding Chef award he shared with David Chang. I recently interviewed Kahan at a Goose Island Beer Co. Migration Week event that paired food and beer at Huron Substation in Los Angeles.
Joshua Lurie: If you were to spend an entire day eating just at your restaurants, what would be on menu? From breakfast through dinner.
Paul Kahan: I’d go to Nico Osteria, our Italian seafood restaurant, for breakfast. I’d probably have trippa alla Romana, tripe and eggs. This is an impossible question. At any rate, we’re one of the few restaurant groups where each concept is different. Our company’s called One Off Hospitality, so we have a little Mediterranean enoteca where everything’s cooked in a wood hearth. We have a modern American beer hall, The Publican…I worked for Rick Bayless for a number of years, so we have a down and dirty taqueria, Big Star. There’s a Norteño border diner called Dove’s Luncheonette. On and on and on.
JL: Any more specific dishes at each place?
PK: There are a ton of them. I’d have crudo at Nico. We get beautiful raw fish from Japan. At Avec, I hate ‘em, but people go crazy. It’s chorizo stuffed date wrapped in bacon in a piquillo pepper sauce. It sounds cliché, but it was a recipe my father-in-law introduced to me, and we put it on the menu at the beginning. People just go crazy over it. There are so many dishes, it’s hard for me to pinpoint, but the one thread that runs them all is attention to detail, quality and great ingredients. We have a butcher shop to control what kind of beef we serve in our restaurants that serve beef, which is a tricky thing to do. We can bring in great cows from different farms and distribute those throughout our restaurants. We bring in bread with locally milled organic flour. It’s just a way of maintaining a really high-quality standard.
JL: How much more can you take on, or are you even interested in taking on?
PK: That’s a tough one. I’m kind of a restaurant addict. The creative process is the most exciting part to me. I’ll come up with an idea and seeing it through to fruition is really a rewarding experience. Being in the restaurant when it’s humming and working and being able to say, “Wow, this works and it’s really good.” We constantly look at opportunities. We said we weren’t going to open anything in 2015 because we opened two things last year. We haven’t. We’re not, but I think we’re probably going to start exploring collaborations with some contemporaries, maybe from other cities, that we have a lot of respect for. It kind of depends on what properties fall in our lap…We look at each other, myself and my business partners, and we say, “We don’t really have to do anything more.” Our hands are full, but really, we have to do more for people like Justin Large, our Culinary Director, and Cosmo Goss, the chef at The Publican. That’s really the next generation. Our restaurant group can continue to grow. We do certain things that really stand out from an employee standpoint. We like to be really fair. We like to contribute to social issues and causes. We do a ton of charity work. We treat people with integrity, and that’s sort of our hospitality philosophy that we’ve run with all along. We want to feed our farmers, pay all of our bills, and knock on wood, we can. We’ve been successful. It’s a good company to work for, and who knows what the future holds.
JL: You must have been approached many times about opening outside of Chicago. What’s prevented you from doing that so far?
PK: It’s kind of a long story. Many years ago at a charity event, I cooked for Ross Perot and Ross Perot, Jr. in a yurt in the Tetons. It was one of the best meals I’ve ever cooked…They invited us to go to Dallas to look at this big development they were building, to open a restaurant there. We brought a friend along who was a very successful businessman. That morning, we got on the plane and the plane sat on the tarmac for two hours. He said, “The first you’ve got to ask yourself is, do you want to do this?” Do you want to take two hours from your life, or two days, or two weeks, to travel and do things in other cities? The answer for all of us was no. We know our market. We know real estate. My partners Donnie Madia and Terry Alexander do a great job of cutting deals. They understand our market and we understand the people in Chicago. To come to another market out of the blue seems a little scary for us, and we don’t really need to. We’ve looked at New York, we’ve looked at L.A. a million times and we’ve looked all over the country and we entertain ideas all the time. We’ve sort of learned that a lot of the time, the best deals are the ones you walk away from. We’ve done that a lot. When they’re right, we pounce on them.
JL: Who else do you look to in the industry at this point for advice or guidance?
PK: My business partner Donnie, he and Jeff Benjamin from the Vetri Group in Philly, they were looking at all these events chefs do and thinking, “Man, these guys get to network and talk about food and talk about everything they deal with all the time. Why don’t we do this for the front of the house?” They organized this conference and it’s the Barbara Lynch Gruppo, the Vetri Group, Suzanne Goin’s people. All these different groups from around the country participate. Danny Meyer, the Jose Garces Group, John Besh group in New Orleans and on and on and on. All these big names come…You see how other people do things and everyone wants to help everyone be successful. At least in the circle that we run in, there’s nobody who’s like, “We’re not going to tell you that. It’s secret.” We look to all the other successful restaurateurs that we’ve networked with, that we have a lot of respect for, and there’s a ton of them, both in the front of the house and the back of the house.
JL: Is there anybody you haven’t cooked with before that you would be really fired up to cook with?
PK: Of course. I’ve cooked for Jacques Pepin. He’s getting up there, but he was always a childhood idol of mine. I would love to be in the kitchen with him for a day. That would be pretty neat.
I did cook with Julia Child years ago at our first restaurant. That was pretty amazing.
I’m 52. Cooking is kind of a young man’s game. I feel like it’s up to me to establish a culture, and it’s up to these guys to forge forward with creativity and with ideas. Certainly I can help them focus and hone ideas of their own. You talk to most chefs, in their 20’s and early 30’s, they do the bulk of their creative work. It’s also physically challenging. I’m 52 and I’m ¾ in and ¼ out at this point. My wife and I bought a house in the woods and we’re going to try and spend a month of the year and enjoy my life before it’s too late. I’ve been working for 30+ years. Every opportunity has to be a smart one. I had an opportunity to go with a group of chefs in Chicago, we started a curriculum based education group to try and change Kindergarten through 8th grade and food in schools in the city of Chicago, which is a huge challenge. We got invited to a world conference to present and I had already committed to my wife that was going to be our month away, and our families are going to come visit. At a certain point, my partners got it. You just need to trust that. One day I’ll wake up and I’ll be 75 years old and I didn’t do a lot of the things I wanted to do and I didn’t relax like I should have. It’s interesting when I’m hanging out with guys like Jonny and Vinny and all the chefs I came up with. Each year they’ll be like, “We’re taking a month in a Hawaii.” We’re doing this. We’re doing that. Your priorities change. Who’s opening more restaurants? Who’s getting more press? Who’s more successful? We don’t really play that game, but that’s sort of the talk. Now your success is judged on how well you can live your life and how much of your life you can enjoy. It’s interesting.
JL: Finally, when people hear the name Paul Kahan, what do you want them to think?
PK: I want them just to think righteous guy, part of a great restaurant group. It’s important for me that people realize the success for a restaurant is not based on me. It’s really the sum of all the parts. Often times the press overlooks that. My business partner Donnie just won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur. I’ve won three and I think it’s hard for him because he works every bit as hard as I do, probably harder, to be perfectly frank. I want them to think of great restaurants, great cook, great creative restaurant group, treat people well. Normal, easygoing guy, but we try to be really righteous in the way we handle ourselves and do business. That’s what I’d like for people to think.