There’s a good reason why Chicago chef Paul Kahan wasn’t nominated for any James Beard Awards this year: He’s already won them all. “I’ve won some great awards and I’m certainly happy with that, but that was never the driving force,” Kahan says. “We want to make people happy, we want to serve great food, and we want to provide great career opportunities for a lot of amazing people who work for us. But beyond that I could care less.”
Kahan—who holds the medals for Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America, Outstanding Chef and Best Chef: Great Lakes/Midwest—is executive chef of a slew of Windy City institutions including The Publican, Nico Osteria, Avec, Blackbird, Publican Quality Meats, The Violet Hour and Big Star. He recently opened Dove’s Luncheonette to accomodate the Mex-Tex loving overflow from Big Star, and Publican Quality Bread to get heritage-grain loaves to the people. This year Kahan will open two more concepts, a Publican Tavern in O'Hare International Airport and an as-yet-to-be-revealed restaurant in Wicker Park.
Playboy talked to Kahan about why he’s keeping his restaurants in Chicago (for now), why he’s suddenly so excited about vegetables, and the crises restaurateurs are really facing. Hint: It doesn’t have anything to do with tipping.
Your 10th and 11th restaurants are opening later this year. What can people expect from those?
The first is going to be a Publican Tavern at O’Hare airport. It’s our first foray into airport dining, which is of course extremely challenging. We want to be considered one of the best airport restaurants in the world. It will be a slightly stripped-down Publican, but we aren’t going to pull back anything in terms of quality. We’ll have a burger, which we don’t do at The Publican, that we worked really hard on and I hope it will just blow people away. People are more blown away by a great hamburger than they are by a ‘great’ anything else.
Then the other is a space in Wicker Park that’s right up the street from Big Star and Dove’s and The Violet Hour. We’re not really letting the cat out of the bag on that one except to say that it’s going to be pretty low-key and fun. It will be a place that’s really easy to go in and have a couple of drinks and have some really cool, casual food. I’m not talking bar snacks. We have some really neat ideas to do something, I hope, that’s going to be really different.
Do you think diners are looking for more casual places to eat today? What else are diners looking for?
The idea in Wicker Park, at least in our minds, is to pick up where The Publican has left off. The Publican started as a restaurant that was all about the way people used to eat: a lot of pork and beer. That’s still a focal point there, but it’s really hard to eat a meal and feel good when you drink a lot of beer and eat a lot of pork. And so it kind of evolved to have a very vegetable-centric menu.
We have this famous dish that’s barbecued carrots. They’re carrots that are poached in barbecue spice and then grilled on the wood grill and dressed with our interpretation of a ranch dressing, if you will. But people just go berserk over them. I always say to people, come into The Publican and order all vegetables and seafood and finish with one meat dish like pork belly. Or any of those other sort of over-the-top things. It’s a much nicer way to eat. Peoples’ tastes have switched from just wanting to eat crazy like that to wanting to eat a lot more vegetables and a lot more seafood. And so I think for the new restaurant we’re going to pick up at that point.
Is that how you personally eat as well?
It’s funny. I go through this cycle: when we open restaurants, I generally get fat and then I trim up again. I’m 53 and in much better health than I was 15 years ago. I’m probably 30 pounds lighter. I’m actually consulting on a quick-casual juice concept now that’s all about healthy eating. That is the way I prefer to eat. Big, multi-course meals with a lot of protein just destroy me. I actually have no desire to eat that way.
What’s keeping you in Chicago? Why not expand to other cities?
I’ll be honest with you. It’s difficult enough as it is. We have upwards of 800 employees right now. And me and my business partners are all Chicago boys. We know the city. We’re comfortable here. My business partners seem to be able to orchestrate really great real estate deals here, so why would we go to another city and pay a crazy number for real estate? Or enter a market we don’t necessarily understand?
And it all translates to quality of life. I don’t want to be that guy who the people in the restaurant see once every two months. What do you have to have, like 50 restaurants? Ten or 11 is already too many. There’s an internal dialogue among myself and my partners: How much more do we want to do? How much is necessary? Do we have to keep up with the other restaurant groups that are opening restaurants and a frenetic pace? Sometimes they are just mediocre at best. I say no, I don’t want to do that. Over the next five or eight years I’d like to spend more time up at our house in the Northwoods and more time fishing. Doing more things that I love to do. I could drop dead in the next two years. People die in their 50s in this career—not that I think that’s going to happen to me—but you know, what’s the point?
When you have 50 restaurants, who are you even doing it for anymore?
Certainly not my ego. A lot of people are very ego-driven. And you know what, I’ve won some great awards and I’m certainly happy with that, but that was never the driving force. We want to make people happy, we want to serve great food, and we want to provide great career opportunities for a lot of amazing people who work for us. But beyond that I could care less. I don’t need to be on the freakin’ S.Pellegrino top 50 restaurants in the world list. It’s all subjective anyways. I sit down in restaurants like that and I’m like, yeah, they spent $1 billion on china and they’re crazy anal about every detail. To me, that’s devoid of soul. It’s like a parade of ego. But you know what? On any given day you can go to any of our restaurants and have a dish that you can really feel and really get excited about. And to me that’s more important. Not that I’m bashing all the great Michelin 3-star and 2-star chefs in the world; it’s just not my thing.
What are the biggest issues facing Chicago restaurateurs right now? The end of tipping? The lack of cooks?
Honestly in the grand scheme of things, those issues are pretty inconsequential. The issues that I’m worried about are us running out of fish, global warming and education for our children. Finding good quality cooks is an issue. But it’s not a big issue. We’ll get by. We’ll find cooks. And if they’re subpar, we’ll train them and make them better cooks. I care about our planet melting.
For centuries people would fish in certain areas that were really accessible, like Georgia’s bank on the east coast. It got all fished out of cod and other things like swordfish, but through careful management, they brought a lot of those populations back. The problem is now there are fleets that have the technology to get fish everywhere on the planet and they do it 24/7. They’re just sucking everything out of the ocean. All the populations are on the decline. We can’t support the demand for fish with the growing world population. So how does that affect us? We only buy sustainable fish. We follow the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s recommended fish site religiously. There’s a lot of stuff that I would use all the time years ago, but it’s not around anymore. It’s kind of depressing.
I hate to use the word karma, but from the very beginning we thought it was really important to treat people and the earth well. We’re very persnickety about where all of our product comes from. We could make a lot more money at our restaurants if we skimped on what we served and how we treat people—from the dishwashers to the host at the front door to our farmers and producers, and most importantly, to our customers. I think people see that and feel that.
You run a charitable organization in Chicago schools called Pilot Light. What’s the goal with that?
I created it with Jason Hammel, Matthias Merges and Ryan Poli, three other Chicago chefs. The tagline is teaching through food. It’s all about integrating food curriculum with everything else that the kids study. Teaching math through food. Teaching science through food. Everything relates back to it. Four times a year we have a pair of chefs that meets with every teacher in every grade level. We find out what the kids are studying at the time and we build a food-based lesson around that. And then all the chefs converge on the cafeteria that day and cook a super-healthy lunch based on what they did in each classroom. Last year we reached about 3,000 students. It really does change their life.
We have a poetry lesson called you are what you eat. We have another lesson about time and temperature—it’s actually about plate tectonics—for 7th graders. I teach a lesson about immigration to 2nd graders. I relate it to the foods from different countries that people who have immigrated to the United States eat. And without actually saying it, I kind of loop in my feelings about what Donald Trump stands for and how he’s very un-American in so many ways. But the point is, these 2nd graders are so smart. They’re from every race, creed, color and socioeconomic background. And I see a lot of hope in their eyes. Actually I see the only hope in their eyes.
So we’ve developed a library of this curriculum and a library of menus from the lunches. Alice Waters and Marc Vetri want our curriculum. We’ve added five schools. We believe we have figured out a way to scale it up, mostly through professional development of teachers and through buy-ins from the schools. We want this program to be in every Chicago public school. We realize that’s maybe too lofty of a goal, but if we can do 20 schools and touch 12,000 or 15,000 students every year, we can have a ton of influence. I think it’s going to be incredible. It’s a long process but we’re making a lot of headway.
Alyson Sheppard writes about restaurants and bars for Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep