Paul Kahan Cooks With a 'Wrestler's Mentality'

Chicago chef warns diners to think twice before dissing dish brains on toast.

Sept. 17, 2010 -- 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.

He eventually decided to open his own restaurant, and in 1997, he and a business partner opened Blackbird. On their opening night they couldn't afford to feed more than family and friends, but the experience changed something for him personally and professionally. Not only did he realize his decision to break out on his own had been the right one, but his longtime girlfriend finally agreed to marry him.

"At that point everything gelled," he says.

When it came time to choose a location for his restaurant, which later grew into multiple restaurants -- avec, The Publican, and most recently, Big Star -- Kahan knew Chicago was the best choice for them. "We love this city, we know this city, and we're not going to venture out," he said.

For Kahan and his partners, he says their business decisions haven't been aimed at making loads of money, but instead doing what they enjoy.

"It's always been, 'This is going to be great, this is going to be fun, I love this food, it's delicious, it's right for the spot, it just feels right,' and that's the way our partnership works," he said. "We all have input, we all are Chicago guys, we feel our way through it."

The result has been four different restaurants with very different vibes, but certain themes remain constant. "They're all very unique; they're all close quarters, high energy. They're all about very creative food," he said, citing The Pelican's penchant for using every part of the animal, something that apparently has not gone over well with a few Internet reviewers.

"Don't get online, don't go to Yelp, don't read any of that stuff because there are so many people from all walks of life with so many different opinions," he said. "A lot of people don't want to eat brains on toast, but there are a lot of people that do. So we cater to those people, and there are a lot of people that don't get it and don't want to get it. For them, that's fine, but I don't need to get online and read that they were grossed out by the fact that we were serving brains on toast here."

'There's Been a Lot of Sacrifice'

It's been a lot of hard work, no doubt, but Kahan is pleased where he is today.

"There's been a lot of sacrifice. When my friends after college would be out having a good time on Saturday night I'd be cooking, but I truly loved it then, and I still love it now for different reasons. But being a line cook for 12 or 13 years: the rush, the adrenaline, the intensity, the quest for perfection every day was there and I loved that. It's the same now, but in a different form."

Kahan himself has a bit of a reputation as a coach in the culinary world.

"Everyone says, 'Boy, you know how to pick 'em,' and that to me I'm like, 'I know how pick 'em, but we also groom people to be successful, we also provide people with the tools.'"

He is quick to give credit where it is due.

"The [chefs] run the restaurants, they are the restaurants," he said. "There are sous chefs below them in each case that do almost the same amount of work that hopefully will move into a position like that at some point in the near future."

When asked of his impressions of the next generation of chefs -- those who've come up in the field having been exposed to reality TV shows and the like, Kahan said people sometimes do come to the kitchen with slightly different perspectives. Although the shows can expose a lot of people to food they might not otherwise see, he said, "They can also contribute to an attitude among some young chefs that cooking is more about fame and fortune than about how good their food tastes.

"When those people come in the kitchen and have those unreal expectations it's very challenging," he said. "But to the same degree there's still the passionate individuals who walk in and say, 'I love what you do, I want to work here.'"

While Kahan still enjoys the creative side of the restaurant business, he says "the scale is starting to tip."

"I still love cooking, [but] I love cooking at home maybe a little bit more than I do at the restaurants at this point. I'm with my wife sitting in the yard eating a roasted chicken and drinking some rose. I want to embrace some of the finer things in life for me at this point."

Not that he's ready to hang up his chef's whites entirely.

"I don't want to give up creative license. I don't want to stop growing and coming up," he said. "Each restaurant is different. We really don't talk about franchising. We want to do one-offs that are very unique design-wise, very unique food-wise, very unique concept-wise, and we've got a bunch more in us so we're going to keep chipping away."

CLICK HERE for more chef profiles from the "Nightline Platelist" archive.