Sky Full of Bacon

Chef Portrait: Paul Kahan of Blackbird

Note: I’m often aware, as I film these podcasts, that there are aspects of the story that I can’t easily work into a finished video; they need to be told in words, not images (and certainly not in words yakking over images). In the case of my most recent podcasts, I thought it would be interesting to zero in on one or two of the chefs I observed at work and offer some observations beyond what made the final cut. Here’s a little portrait of one, Paul Kahan, chef-owner of Blackbird, Avec and The Publican.  The videos this goes with, of course, are There Will Be Pork parts 1 and 2.)

Paul Kahan is trying to explain how a chef from another restaurant botched the preparation of some meat from a farmer who supplies Kahan’s restaurant, Blackbird. The first problem is that he’s aware that I’m capturing the conversation on video, so he doesn’t want to say something that the other chef might take too much offense at. Kahan is a savvy operator in Chicago’s restaurant world, he knows better than to tick off, even in my obscure form of media, someone you’re bound to run into again.

But the other problem is, the person he’s telling the story to is also a chef, Jason Hammel of Lula Cafe, his guest in the basement of Blackbird as the two of them butcher a trio of heritage breed mulefoot pigs for a dinner later in the week. And so it’s important to Kahan to get this point across to Hammel in a truthful and exact way. It would have been easy to just say anything, to bullshit slightly in a way that would have saved the other chef’s face but allowed Hammel to read between the lines. But Kahan is not a bullshitter. He’s a joker; he laid in a special supply of camo-design Miller High Life for tonight’s butchering party, clearly tickled at the idea of turning the basement of one of America’s chicest restaurants into a Wisconsin lodge party after a day of hunting. But it is important to him, you can see him struggling with the self-imposed responsibility of it, to find the right word that somehow skates the line between mortally offending that other chef and being truthful to Jason Hammel about what was done to the meat. It is important to be precise about food. To tell the truth of it. It’s food, you owe it honesty.

“He overmanipulated it,” Kahan finally says.

* * *

At this culinary moment, Chicago is very close to being the global capitol of overmanipulation. The hot cookbook of this Christmas season is a gorgeously thick tribute to what’s often called molecular gastronomy, but might better be called conceptual dining. Or simply: art food.

But Kahan has carved out a place at the very top of Chicago’s dining, with Blackbird and its siblings Avec and The Publican, while rejecting that kind of food for art’s sake. Rejecting the idea of treating an ingredient as mere paint on some larger canvas that exists in your mind.

Kahan’s father owned a smokehouse and a delicatessen, so quality ingredients have never had the sort of theoretical nature for him that would allow you to treat them with such abstraction. He grew up among the kind of customers who gave each piece of meat or fish the gimlet eye before begrudgingly accepting it, and he still has relationships with some of his father’s contemporaries that are rooted not in being a James Beard Award-winning, Food & Wine 10 Best chef, but in being “Bobby Kahan’s kid.”

When he first started offering pork belly, the dish he’s most associated with, it was the kind of cut you wouldn’t have even thought of offering in a high end restaurant unless you had his comfort level with the gritty reality of the wholesale meat business. Now it’s trendy, and Kahan will talk the same environmental-local-family farm talk that other chefs do when they talk about using the “whole animal.” He’s obviously sincere about it (the dinner he’s preparing the mulefoots for is a benefit for Slow Food he’s arranged); but all the same, when other chefs talk about this stuff, they can sound like they’re auditioning to be the next Dalai Lama. When Kahan talks about it, you hear, somewhere in the background, a guy from Randolph Street who can’t believe what these schmuck chefs are paying for loin when pork belly is such a deal.

“Pork belly is something that we’ve always served here. I don’t think I invented serving it, obviously I didn’t,” he says. But he’s proud that he’s served nearly every part of the animal on his regular menu, and that his newly opened The Publican is doing so right now, when playing it safer might have been a smart opening gambit. “I think we’ve educated people, and we’ve never shied away from doing exactly the food we wanted to do.”

What Kahan wants to do is serve food that tastes like the best example of that food you’ve ever had, and his restaurants aren’t shy about using every trick in the professional chef’s handbook to make that happen. Dishes are heavily salted (though rarely obviously salty), and you often hear the chefs talking about adding acid to a dish, both techniques for delivering a trumpet blast of flavor in your mouth that seems more intense and dramatic than you could produce at home. Still, there’s a line they don’t cross, the point at which a flavorful meat ceases to be itself; dishes are never dressed up with extraneous flavors, weird combinations for combination’s sake.

Rather than the chef as artist, Kahan is the chef as showman, delivering all the surefire elements of blockbuster entertainment that the dining public wants and that he knows work. This has become especially clear with the opening of The Publican, the most obviously concepted of Kahan’s restaurants to date, an American beer hall that tries (not entirely successfully, to judge by the reviews to date) to combine Blackbird’s chic minimalism with old world gemütlichkeit. But all of his restaurants, in retrospect, had a high concept; as in Hollywood, it’s the quality of the execution that makes you forget the concoctedness of the concept and get lost in the story.

*  *  *

I see this executional prowess at work in the last few hours before the mulefoot dinner. Kahan has chosen and trained his people well, and though he probes here and there, he’s not going to tear down their six-course meal and remake it in his image at the last minute (as a creative director in advertising might do). When Justin Large of Avec, who’s preparing ravioli, announces his intention to pan-fry them, Kahan pushes back a little, but when Large seems confident in his decision, he lets him go ahead without further question. (He was right to do so; Large’s dish was possibly the best of a stellar night.)

But without ever appearing anxious, Kahan steadily ramps up his level of activity, coordinating the choice of glassware from storage across the street, the description of wines on the menu, the arrangement of tables, the placement of dessert on the plate, making sure everyone had a chance to grab a bite of staff meal before the night ahead. By the end he’s so active he seems capable of turning up in multiple places at once, yet he never raises his voice, he never has to tell someone how to do their job. Kahan can be street-kid blunt— when I asked him a deliberately unspecific question, “What does pork mean to you?”, the first response out of his mouth was “That’s a really stupid question”— but he isn’t like that with his people tonight, because his approach, his commitment to honest flavor, is something they already share and believe in.  They have his principles to follow, and if they’re true to them, the truth of the food will come out.

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