Chefs do some things outside of the kitchen. Some of these things are interesting. To chronicle what some of these things are, here's Out of the Kitchen, wherein we'll hang out with chefs (and other interesting food people) outside of their kitchens. Here now, Chicago chef Paul Kahan.
It's 8 AM on Sunday and everyone seems to be asleep at Paul Kahan's house. I knock and knock — gingerly — but no one comes to the door; I peer inside through a window, but it's Virgin Suicides dim in there; a "Chef, I'm at your door" text goes unanswered. A few minutes pass, and I resolve to knock harder. It works. A bleary-eyed young man, not terribly thrilled to see me, opens the door and points me in the right direction: Kahan's already out back in the garden.
"I pull some coffee and come out here every morning for at least an hour to make sure I'm maintaining this," says the 48 year-old chef as he begins to explain the modest though impressive patch of land before us.
As the story goes, when Kahan and his wife moved into their Albany Park home twelve years ago, they found the backyard a mess, "a disaster zone with weeds everywhere." Kahan convinced his wife to let him turn the backyard into his project, much like he had done as a child, when he persuaded his mother to let him learn gardening in the family's new suburban home (they had moved from the South Side in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination).
And much like his career as a chef, this garden is an autodidact's project. Kahan never went to cooking school and he never took a class in gardening: "The story of my life is lots of trying and failing and trying again," he says with a chuckle. But just as his lack of formal or academic training hasn't kept him from developing a formidable empire of Chicago restaurants that includes avec, The Publican, and Blackbird, he's figured out how to take a medium-sized backyard and turn it into a vibrant garden with help from a few books and the willingness to "get a little dirty."
This is not a particularly labor intensive morning, and Kahan is mostly surveying the terrain to make sure everything's doing OK. It's no less exciting than an all-out dirt and heat day, though, since on a first visit it's practically impossible to keep track of all the neat stuff he's got going on back there.
First there are some bright volunteer flowers, which he started planting last year. Then, the edible stuff: a big old square of kale, which he favors for its tendency to grow like a palm tree — as long as you clip the bottom frequently — and for the way it sweetens in colder climates; shell beans, which he first introduced to the garden as seeds from Italy (that's illegal, by the way); some anise hisop he found at a Korean grocery shop in San Francisco that now serves as one of the key components in a buttermilk and cantaloupe soup at Blackbird; cylindra, chiogga, and red beets; intensely flavored mint he pulls from the ground and lets me taste; leeks, lovage, borage, celery root, arugula, mache, and more.
Why does he do it? "Because I'm alone and no one's bothering me," he responds, offering the shortest explanation of the morning. There might be other ways to read the hobby, however. With some measure of sadness, Kahan describes how he can't possibly work the line every night, and that as his restaurant group gears up for even more expansion (a butcher shop and bakery across the street from The Publican is first on the agenda), his role has increasingly taken the form of manager and of mentor to his growing roster of chefs. The garden is an almost too obvious way to get his hands dirty, to craft, and to "sweat like mad." It's probably just fun, too.
It would be interesting to see what happens once winter comes around.