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Despite Accolades Chef Paul Kahan Avoids Spotlight

by Caryn Rousseau
Thursday Mar 27, 2014
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Paul Kahan is one of the most award-winning chefs in America, but don’t go looking for him on television.

In fact, the former computer scientist turned last year’s James Beard Award winner for best chef shies away from the spotlight almost entirely. Instead, he chooses to focus on his family and the handful of Chicago restaurants he runs with his partners - nationally known eateries like Blackbird, avec and The Publican.

"Do I want to compete and do I want to hang out with a bunch of chefs, or do I want to hang out with my wife and work in my restaurants and go home on a beautiful Sunday afternoon and sit in the yard in the garden and drink a bottle of ice-cold rose?" Kahan said during a recent interview at his newest Chicago restaurant Nico Osteria, which opened in December.

"Which sounds better to you?" he said.

Kahan’s working relationship with food started with slow-cooked corned beef and hanging salamis at his father’s deli. And when he was 15 he worked at Village Fishery and King Salmon, his father’s smoked fish business in Chicago. But that didn’t inspire his career. At least not then.

Instead, Kahan went to Northern Illinois University on a wrestling scholarship and studied applied math and computer science.

"Culinary school wasn’t a real viable option," he said. "I never thought, ’Wow, I could be a chef.’"

Turns out he wasn’t a fan of cubicle life, either. So Kahan left the computer field after three months and spent more than 15 years working with popular Chicago chefs Erwin Drechsler and Rick Bayless. It was a good call.

Today, Kahan is executive chef and one of the owners of One Off Hospitality, working together with his partners - including Donnie Madia, nominated for best restaurateur in this year’s Beard Awards - to run seven restaurants in Chicago. He counts among his fans Anthony Bourdain and first lady Michelle Obama, and last year shared the Beard Award for best chef with New York’s David Chang, the man behind the Momofuko restaurants.

The honor puts him in a select category that includes famous Chicago chefs Bayless, Grant Achatz and Charlie Trotter. Kahan said even though he never was driven to win and hates competing, he’s proud of the award. But he’s also quick to deflect the praise, saying the award was "a reward for everyone’s hard work."

And that work continues to pay off. His restaurant group is up for another four Beard awards this year.

"I think it’s political to a certain degree," he said. "I’m sure that I could have capitalized on it, but I don’t care."

What he does care about is the food.

Kahan’s comfort with a broad range of flavors, styles and cuisines is impressive. Consider his restaurants: Big Star offers Mexican street food; Nico Osteria has Italian seafood; The Violet Hour specializes in artisanal cocktails; avec is a Midwestern take on Mediterranean food; Blackbird focuses on local, farm-fresh food paired with a contemporary approach, and Publican and Publican Quality Meets sport butcher shop-meets-beer hall qualities.

But his restaurants have more in common than their menus might suggest, he said. Their cuisines all draw from the same Mediterranean pantry of salt, olive oil, olives, capers and lemons.

"That’s the way that I cooked at Blackbird," he said. "It was American country French. We’re sort of a less is more company. We want to do really minimal, really developed flavors."

As executive chef for the restaurant group, Kahan says he tries to foster a nurturing atmosphere in his kitchens. He will cook dishes with his chefs at his house or send them to study with his culinary friends around the country. An avid gardener, Kahan has been known to bring garbage bags filled with vegetables and produce to the restaurants for his chefs to use in dishes.

"I don’t raise my voice," Kahan said. "I really let them run the restaurant and they rely on me for creative inspiration. They rely on me for bouncing thoughts and ideas off of."

Nico Osteria’s chef de cuisine Erling Wu-Bower said Kahan inspires loyalty because he encourages his chefs and gives them freedom "so they feel the food is really theirs. The food is always first, not dollar signs."

Bayless said he saw that potential for leadership without ego when Kahan worked for him.

"He’s never been egotistical, he just likes good food," Bayless said. "He runs a kitchen like I do, which is very calm. He’s not the big performance-type guy who’s going to be out there doing stuff. That’s just not his personality. But clearly he has inspired so many chefs."

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