Invited by a friend to dine at Blackbird, Paul Kahan’s first restaurant, when it first opened in 1997, I was somewhat taken about upon first entering about how totally different it was from many of the restaurants of the time. The menu was farm-to-table way before the term had become a cliché, the setting minimalist with long communal tables (like a high school cafeteria I remember thinking) and menu items including an endive salad with pancetta and a poached egg on top which when punctured dripped a wonderful ooze of yolk into the dressing. It was, in other words, unique. Other restaurants opened in Chicago that year and many of those are gone but Blackbird remains and chef/restauranteur Paul Kahan has expanded his restaurant empire with such additions as Avec, Big Star, the wonderfully named The Violet Hour and the Publican.
With all this success, you’d think that during the last two decades Kahan would have come out with a cookbook or two or even more. Surprisingly though, his first, (Lorena Jones Books 2017; $40) was just released this fall. And in keeping with the eclectic concepts of his restaurants, which he describes as speaking to a place and not a time, it’s definitely different–an amalgam of recipes, insights, reminiscences, paeans to local food producers and autobiographical. It even contains poems.
So, what took you so long, I ask?
“I waited 20 yeas because I didn’t want it to be a half-assed,” was Kahan’s response. “We’re not run of the mill and I wanted the book to be unique, to follow the path of the Publican, include poetry.”
Kahan’s mantra it that he’s just a small part of the business and its success.
“We’ve all been here together since day one,” he says about his One Off Hospitality Group. “We’re all about the culture, the relevance and the continuity and the book is about that. I think our success has truly been about us, about trust, nurturing. We like to be innovative and approach things differently.”
Indeed, Avec, he says, was inspired by his first trip to France with his wife.
“She was in a real horrific motorcycle accident there and end up recuperating in Switzerland,” he says. “The culinary experience of Avec was built by the experience of going there.”
If each restaurant has a story, so do the recipes. Take the barbecued carrots.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a dish at The Publican that people have freaked out about so much. Even chefs,” writes Kahan in the introduction. “We did a charity event last year and served these, and there was a table of 25 big-name chefs just losing their minds over them. We’ve tried new variations, adding different spices, experimenting with other preparations, but it always comes back to this recipe. We use a barbecue rub that I ‘borrowed’ from Chris Lilly, the owner of Big Bob Gibson’s in Georgia and a world champion of barbecued pork shoulder. He came in to eat once, and we got embarrassed about ripping him off, so we quickly changed the name of these to Chris Lilly Carrots. We like to serve them with pecans that we get from Blain Farms in California, which are creamier than any other pecan, and then we top it off with an herbed dressing.”
Sourcing ingredients is, of course, super important as is forging relationships with farmers and food artisans. Finding them often takes Kahan to less exotic places than a trip to France.
One out of the way journey lead Kahan to tiny Medora in Southern Indiana, best known for its 1910 round barn and covered bridge—built in 1875 and the longest historic covered bridge in the United States. It’s also the hometown of Burton’s Maplewood Farm, owned by Tim Burton, a producer of highly valued maple syrup which is much used by chefs in both Chicago and throughout the U.S.
“I think I was the first guy Tim hooked up with at the Green Market,” says Kahan, a James Beard Award winner in the following categories Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America, Best Chefs in America 2004 and Outstanding Chef 2013.
Growing up in Chicago, Kahan was influenced by his father who owned both a Jewish deli as well as the Village Fishery and King Salmon, a small smoked fish business. He still remembers the slow cooked corned beef, the hanging sausages and the smoked chubs. Following in those footsteps might seem a given, but Kahan diverged at first, studying applied mathematics until the lure of cooking over took him.
Will it take another 20 years before we see another cookbook, I ask?
“I’m already working on a second cookbook,” Kahan says, noting that it’s already two years in the making. But then true to form, he goes from I to we, noting that Cheers to the Publican wasn’t just his work.
“There are a lot of people who worked hard on that book,” he says.
Recipe courtesy of Cheers to the Publican, Repast and Present by Paul Kahan.
Makes 4 servings
1 gallon water
1 cup plus
1 tablespoon BBQ Rub (recipe follows)
1⁄4 cup kosher salt
1 pound carrots, cleaned and halved
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
11⁄2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1⁄4 cup pecans, coarsely chopped
2 sprigs dill, torn
1 batch Ranchovy Herb Dressing (recipe follows)
In large pot, add 2 gallons of water, 1 cup of the BBQ rub, ¼ cup of salt. Bring to a boil.
Add the carrots and cook until ¾ done, about 5 minutes.
Drain the carrots, reserve for the grill.
Preheat the grill to medium-high.
In a bowl, toss the blanched carrots with 1 tablespoon of BBQ rub and extra virgin olive oil.
Arrange on a grill screen, and grill over direct heat until finished. Adjust seasoning as necessary.
Arrange carrots on a plate, drizzle with lemon juice, garnish with crushed pecans and dill yogurt sauce.
Dress the carrots with the Ranchovy Herb Dressing and serve.
Makes 1.5 cups
½ cup dark brown sugar
½ cup kosher salt
4 tablespoons hot smoked paprika
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
1 tablespoon onion granules or onion powder
½ tablespoon celery salt
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon ground cumin
Combine all in bowl, mix well, store in an airtight container.
2 cups mayonnaise (we like Hellman’s/Best Foods)
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1½ teaspoon white vinegar
1½ teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1½ teaspoon granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped chives
1 ½ teaspoon chopped tarragon
1½ teaspoon chopped oregano
Freshly ground black pepper
Whisk all the ingredients in a bowl and season with the salt and pepper. Taste and add more salt and pepper. Transfer the dressing to a glass container with a lid and refrigerate. The dressing will keep in the fridge for up to 1 week. Give the jar a good shake before using.