Paul Kahan Cooks With a 'Wrestler's Mentality'

Photo: Chef Paul Kahan: Chicago Chef Dishes on Restaurant Biz and Doles Philosophy: "If Its Not Broken, Break It"
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Chef Paul Kahan lives life by what he calls a "wrestler's mentality." It involves a lot of hard work, but more than that, it involves an unrelenting persistence -- even when you're getting beat. Kahan, a champion wrestler throughout his high school years, recalls a particular match that would later define him.

Even he admits that it sounds like a movie script: it's the sectional championships, scouts are in the stands, and he's up against another kid with an undefeated record for the season.

"He was an animal," Kahan says now, "He looked over at me at the front table, and he growled, and I was like, 'This guy is going to kill me.'"

To make a long story short -- Kahan didn't win.

"He kicked my a**, but he didn't pin me. He didn't crush me, and it was sort of, at all costs, keep moving forward," Kahan said. "Failure, success, keep pushing -- and that's the way it's been for me in every kitchen. If you put up a dish, and the chef says, 'This is crap,' you say, 'Why?' instead of going and crying in a corner you learn from your mistakes, you learn from what you did wrong."

It appears that this mentality has worked for the Chicago-based Kahan, who is executive chef and part-owner of the award-winning Blackbird restaurant along with other well-known Chicago establishments including avec and The Publican. Kahan was nominated for the James Beard Outstanding Chef award in 2007 and 2009, and he was James Beard Best Chef of the Midwest in 2004.

Kahan grew up around food. His father owned a delicatessen and smoked fish factory, and Kahan recalls how every day his dad liked to go into the smokehouse, take the freshly-smoked fish and scoop their warm flesh into his mouth.

"If you like smoked fish it's something we've tried to emulate here [at The Publican]," he said. "Smoked fish that's cool and congealed is completely different than smoked fish that comes right out of the smoker."

His father's legacy stays with him today.

"I'll go up the street to buy fish and they'll be like, 'You're Bobby's kid!' and... 'Man, your dad was a character.' And he was an amazing character," Kahan says. "He had a really interesting life, and he loved food. He taught me about food, or taught me an appreciation for food. That's ultimately why I ended up here in the market in Chicago cooking this rustic food."

CLICK HERE for Kahan's recipes for Pork and Duck Rillette and Market Salad

Kahan's Path to the Kitchen

Kahan initially turned his sights elsewhere in college, majoring in math and computer science. He noticed that he enjoyed spending so much time cooking for roommates and getting involved with an organic food co-op, but it wasn't until he was half-finished with his degree that he realized he wanted to cook.

Stuck with computer science after graduation, but then dropped it.

"I did it for about 6 months -- I thought I owed myself to try it," he said. "I just bailed. I hated it, it was brutal... I loved to have fun. That's one of the reasons why I cook and am involved in restaurants – because it's a lot of fun."

Kahan took a job in the kitchens of Erwin Drechsler, and stayed there through his 15-year apprenticeship and advancement. He also made an effort to develop his own relationships with Midwestern farmers, and would incorporate their bounty into the dishes he created at Drechsler's Metropolis and Erwin, and then later for award-winning chef Rick Bayless at Topolobampo.

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