It’s been a big couple of years for Chicago chef Paul Kahan. First there was his Italian entry in the Gold Coast district with Nico Osteria (making it a dual debut in both cuisine and neighborhood). Then came Dove’s Luncheonette, the Tex-Mex diner that’s nestled next to his first Mexican foray, the Bakersville-scored Big Star, and Publican Quality Breads, which supplies fellow restaurants with daily baked goods.
Then again, every year is a big one for Kahan, who has given Chicago its fair share of cravings — Mediterranean-inspired small plates at Avec; pork and oyster smorgasbords at Publican — since the 1997 opening of Blackbird, which stemmed entirely from his European culinary inclinations. And with eight projects under way and no signs of slowing down, it’s that European simplicity that Kahan calls upon to bring him back to what matters most.
“At the end of the day, I would trade it all in for a tiny little restaurant where we could touch every single diner,” he says. “That’s certainly our goal with our spots.” Here, Kahan shares why the Midwest is best, how hospitality should go beyond valet and where he finds inspiration, from Rick Bayless to beer.
How have you seen Chicago's dining scene change since the opening of Blackbird in 1997?
It’s changed a lot. Blackbird was a great indicator of what direction the market was going in: high-quality product and high attention to detail, from service to design to food. Offering everything that high-end restaurants were offering but at a much more reasonable price and in a much more laid-back atmosphere. I think that’s carried through and opened the arena for people to do concepts that are much less traditional. I think the sky’s the limit now. You can be much more creative, and people are open to it.
Why is Chicago such a great restaurant town?
The Midwest mentality and the Midwestern honesty is part of it. People are friendly and open and like to drink and have fun. It’s an international city and big enough to attract a lot of tourism and a lot of convention business that will drive a great restaurant scene, but it’s not too big. New York is enormous. If you were to say, “Tell me about a couple of good places in NYC,” it’s difficult because there’s a lot, and it’s all spread out. Chicago also has this kind of “tear it down and rebuild it” mentality because of the Chicago Fire. There’s not a lot of pretense — what you see is what you get.
What are three things that continue to surprise you as you open spots?
The big one right now is the lack of quality cooks in the market. It’s just always really hard to find cooks with the right mind-set and the right work ethic. We’re always at a loss for great key people. I’m continually surprised by how much more food costs now than what it did two years ago. People expect things to cost the same as they did 10 years ago, but our costs have quadrupled and more. And I’m constantly amazed by how many restaurants continue to open. It never stops.
Beyond helping a new restaurant get on its feet, how do you gauge which restaurant needs the most attention?
There are always problems that manifest themselves that need to be taken care of, whether it’s a shortage of labor or a problem with food or consistency. It’s really based on the need of the chef. We’re really deliberate about numbers and food costs and labor, so we go through the numbers weekly, and when there’s a problem we attack it. We obviously dine in the restaurants and listen to criticism with open ears. I bounce around a lot, tasting food and tweaking dishes with chefs. Sometimes no one’s screaming or crying, and at that point I go on vacation.
Chefs often work on honing a specific cuisine, but you've tackled several — Italian, Mexican. Does the range stem from a personal pursuit or otherwise?
All of our restaurants — Big Star might be an outlier — follow a similar formula. The ingredients and style of cooking produce very simple and honest food. For me, it was always the European cuisine: French, Italian, Mediterranean. The first time I went to Europe, my wife and I spent time with a friend in Switzerland who has a house in the mountains, and we cooked in a wood hearth and drank a lot of wine. That was the culinary inspiration for Avec. With Publican, I love beer, so that was an obvious one. I worked for a number of years for Rick Bayless, and when we got that space on Damen Avenue, we didn’t want to make it upscale at all. We thought, “Neighborhood, cheap, fun, drunk,” and it seemed like a taqueria was the perfect fit for that. It’s not like, “Oh, my God, I need to open a Mexican restaurant.” Or “Oh, now we have to do Peruvian.” There are connections and inspiration behind everything that we do.
What was the biggest takeaway from your dad, who was also in the food business, in terms of entering the culinary world?
My dad lived life to the fullest and was very passionate about food, and I hope that I got those things from him.
Partnerships in the hospitality industry frequently fail. What has contributed to the success of your collaboration with your longtime business partner, Donnie Madia?
We’re very much alike. For many years we fought, and we realized we were fighting for the same thing. We’re both strong-willed and have strong opinions about how things should be done. Ultimately, we both love hospitality. Over the years, Donnie has taken people to the airport because they were going to miss their flight, or driven them to the opera — just gone way, way further than most people would to provide great hospitality.
How has your shared love for the industry played into the projects you take on?
If we were all about money, we wouldn’t be here. We have a butcher shop and a bakery, and those are really to just make our supply chain and the level of what we do better at every restaurant. I don’t think many people would enter into businesses like that where it’s really difficult to make money. There are a lot of reasons why there aren’t a lot of butcher shops around, because to serve and process whole animals is really, really expensive, and people aren’t used to it. They’re used to buying crap from the masses. If people become more conscious about what kinds of food they should eat, and where they come from, we want to provide that. We want to serve the best beef, the best poultry and the best everything at all of our spots. It all comes down to hospitality and wanting to do things in an old-fashioned way and really take care of people. I think that’s the tie. And we’re both too stubborn to quit, no matter what.
Nico Osteria: 1015 N. Rush St, Chicago, IL 60611, 312-994-7100, nicoosteria.com
Dove’s Luncheonette: 1545 N. Damen Ave., Chicago, IL 60622, 773-645-4060, doveschicago.com
Big Star: 1531 N. Damen Ave., Chicago, IL 60622, 773-235-4039, bigstarchicago.com
Avec: 615 W. Randolph St., Chicago, IL 60661, 312-377-2002, avecrestaurant.com
The Publican: 837 W. Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607, 312-733-9555, thepublicanrestaurant.com
Blackbird: 619 W. Randolph St., Chicago, IL 60661, 312-715-0708, blackbirdrestaurant.com
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