A chef’s journey from mastering the kitchen universe to finding joy in mentoring and collaborating with the next generation.
By Paul Kahan as told to Chris Mohney
Few chefs are as connected with Chicago dining as Paul Kahan, winner of multiple James Beard awards among many other accolades. Learning his craft with local heavyweights Erwin Drechsler and Rick Bayless, Kahan went on to open Blackbird, one of the city’s most successful restaurants and the foundation for One Off Hospitality, whose newer venues include The Publican and Café Cancale among a dozen concepts under Kahan’s collaborative direction. He also cofounded the nonprofit Pilot Light, which uses hospitality expertise to help educate kids about food.
My role has changed so much over the years. It’s impossible for me to say I’m working a week at Blackbird, and I’m working a week at the Publican. My bandwidth is too thin. I’m not capable of that. And so I bounce around, and sometimes I feel a little bit like a lost puppy. I probably should have gotten therapy, but I worked it out on my own. I know what I’m good at, and I know what makes our restaurants better and develops our people. I really cherish the whole creative process.
In the normal restaurant hierarchy, you have an executive chef, then chef de cuisine, then sous chef, whatever. When you have one or two restaurants, each chef de cuisine is still really guided by the executive chef. But when you go to 12 restaurants, as the executive chef, I can’t mentor every single one of these people like I mentored people at our first four or five restaurants. Now, these chefs really need to operate as if the restaurant were their own.
Do I still want to interact with them on the menu, and on special events, and on going to the market and getting seasonal ingredients, and just growing and developing the cuisine of those restaurants? Of course I do. But that’s easier said than done. As a company, having our chefs and operators take on full ownership, fully buying in with a super-high-level proprietary sense, has been the the biggest thing that I’ve been personally focusing on.
For example, we had a restaurant called Publican Anker in Wicker Park. It’s now Café Cancale. I felt the restaurant lacked a concrete vision. What I heard over and over was if I’m going to eat the Publican, I want to eat at the Publican, I don’t want to eat at the Publican Light or the Sort-Of Publican. And that makes total sense.
I talked with AJ Walker, who was the chef at the Publican Anker then and is the chef at Cancale now. He’s one of the longest-tenured chefs in our company, at about nine years now. We started talking about one restaurant in particular that we both loved, which is Neptune in Boston, probably the greatest oyster bar in America. It’s small. It’s quaint. It’s got a cool wine program. It just feels right in there, and the food is what we both want to eat.
So we started talking about oyster bars, and we started talking about New England, and we spent long days kind of trudging through menu ideas and the concept. I’ve cooked with AJ, and I mentored him for long enough that I know that he knows how to cook—at this point, he knows how to cook better than I do. He cooks with acid, and he cooks with great ingredients and flavor. He works with farmers.
We had this “eureka” together, because I was talking about my trip to the actual Cancale in the Brittany region of France, and he said, “why don’t we do a French seafood restaurant, a French oyster bar?” I’ve been to many of those in Paris. It was like a light bulb went off. And then, the sky was the limit as far as ideating and cooking together and talking about the food.
AJ’s a really thoughtful young man, and he wants to understand very clearly what my vision is for the restaurant. Then at a certain point, my vision becomes his vision, and his vision becomes my vision back around again, because—knock on wood—hopefully his ideas are so good and so solid. That’s sort of the way the process works. Then I have the opportunity to be inspired by him and by his great ideas.
It’s been a real pleasure to see AJ go from a young cook to a really mature man. He’s started a family, and he’s just changed as a person and as a leader. He’d always been very shy in the dining room before, and he just really aced a media opportunity with journalists last night and worked the table, and cooked for them, and did all the things that that I’ve been really pushing so hard for him to do, because they’re of great importance to the success of his vision and my vision. You know—our vision.
I feel like you’re born with a finite bucket of creativity. As you get older, more shit gets strapped on your back, your backpack gets more lead in it. Your creativity—I’m not going to say it disappears entirely, but it kind of drains as you have to deal with a lot of other stress and strain.
For a while that was my excuse. There’s nothing left. I’m going fishing. My desire to do anything new kind of waned. My creative bucket felt pretty empty. But then we started to empower our team, and not micromanage to the level that we always had, and really let them run the show. There’s a lot of pluses, maybe a few negatives that have come up, but it’s a learning and growth experience. Right now, there are five or six or seven young women and men in our company that are definitely ready to be chefs de cuisines. We want to provide those opportunities for them.
As for me, I’m a chef and restaurateur, but I don’t want to be defined as such. There’s more to my life.
I love music. I love gardening. I love fishing. I really love my wife and love spending time with her. A lot of people are great chefs. I’m not knocking them. I’m not them. I don’t want to be the guy who eats, sleeps, drinks, breathes—everything is about me as a chef. That’s not who I am, or who I’ve ever been.
I’m 57 years old now. That’s pretty old. I don’t feel 57. I feel maybe 40. But even that’s pretty old for a working chef, if you think about it.