When asked to name the top chefs in Chicago, avid foodies across the country can easily rattle off a list of names.
There’s Rick Bayless, the master of Mexican cooking; Grant Achatz, whose restaurant, Alinea, is considered by some to be America’s best and Stephanie Izard, owner of Girl and the Goat, and the only female winner of Top Chef.
But to a Chicagoan, any such list has to include another name: Paul Kahan, who oversees a collection of restaurants, ranging from The Publican to Blackbird to Big Star, that are packed every night with locals and tourists.
2012 is clearly Kahan’s moment. Last month, Chicago Magazine named him one of the 100 most powerful people in the city, a group headed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. This week, Kahan received his third nomination as the country’s Chef of the Year by the James Beard Award Foundation, while his upscale cocktail bar, The Violet Hour, was nominated for best bar program.
The recognition comes just as Kahan and his partners in One Off Hospitality have opened their newest venture, Publican Quality Meats, a butcher/bakery/café, that may be the dearest to his heart.
Far from letting it all go to his head, Kahan (pronounced “con”) finds the attention funny. “I got a good laugh out of it,” he says of the Chicago Magazine ranking. “It’s certainly flattering. But, what is power? I don’t think it’s very apropos.”
Kahan has wielded influence in one visible sense. Over the past 15 years, he's been a big mover behind the development of the city’s meat packing district, which lies west of the Loop and across I-90. It’s a working class area, where restaurant patrons still vie for sidewalk space on weekdays with men in blood-spattered white coats. Kahan remembers when it was even tougher.
His father ran a fish-smoking business in a building that Kahan can see from the front door of The Publican on Fulton Market Street. He helped out as a kid, and drove a truck for his dad as a teen. Even now, he’s excited about working in a historic part of the city, with cobblestone streets that give motorists a jolt. “At the turn of the century, it was an unbelievable spectacle,” he says.
Kahan had that heritage in mind when was picking the spot for his first restaurant, Blackbird, a wine bar and fine dining spot that opened in 1997.
“It was kind of a strange pocket,” he says of the neighborhood. “It was in between downtown and points further west” like the United Center, where the Bulls and Blackhawks play.
“It was kind of skid row-ish, with a lot of rundown buildings, although they were beautiful old buildings," he says. "I wouldn’t say it was undiscovered but it was undeveloped.”
Parking then was easy, and rents were cheap, no longer true today, says Kahan, who’s already negotiating with his landlord on leases that expire three years from now, and wondering if he can afford to stay.
As his empire grew to include Avec, which was in the leading edge of the small plates trend, Kahan developed a respect for the craft of house-prepared food, especially meats.
He put that fascination into high gear at The Publican, the rowdy Belgian style beer hall/brasserie that he opened four years ago. It’s a charcuterie paradise, with house-smoked meats, the city’s best frites and crispy, airy pork rinds.
But with demand for his meats outgrowing Publican’s kitchen, Kahan decided he’d open a separate business that just sold meat. Then, he decided to also bake bread, not a humble ambition, and offer cheese and dozens of grocery items.
The result, Publican Quality Meats, offers the warmth of an old-fashioned corner grocery store.
Kahan presides over all his places like a genial father of the bride, happy to schmooze for 20 minutes about his philosophy and what’s in stock that day. Down the road, his future may hold a New York venture, a project he’s entrusted to one of his chefs, although he says the odds of doing it are running 60-40 against.
In the meantime, there’s plenty to do in Chicago. It's a city that's embraced him for 15 years, after all, even if New York only started to notice the veteran chef a couple of years ago.
“All of our restaurants are extremely busy, so they love it,” he says of his customers. “And that’s the most important thing to me.”