After having been nominated for years, Chicago chef and restaurateur Paul Kahan — whose restaurant empire includes Blackbird, Avec, The Publican, Publican Quality Meats, and Big Star — finally won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef last week. In fact, the win was a tie with a fellow empire-builder, Momofuku's David Chang, a man with whom Kahan says he is "actually very honored and pleased to share" the award. In the following interview, Kahan shares why he's relieved to have the "rigamarole" of the awards behind him, and he explains his restaurant group's philosophy on the importance of empowering team members. Kahan also reveals why he's trying to remain tight-lipped about the new concept he's opening in downtown Chicago later this year.
You had been nominated for a few years now. How was it to finally win the big one?
It's nice. I won for the Midwest like seven years ago and then this was the fifth time I was nominated for Outstanding Chef. To be honest with you, it's a great honor and I'm excited to be nominated, but I just wanted to get it over with. It's a big rigamarole to go out there. Our restaurant group was nominated for four awards so we had 22 people that went up to New York. Several years I've cooked at the awards ceremony, which is a gigantic pain in the ass. It's an honor and everything, but it just gets to a point where there's so much stuff going on that you can't even do your regular job working the kitchens and managing everyone. There are so many demands beyond the normal everyday ones. So I just was really relieved to get it over with and actually very honored and pleased to share it with David Chang, who I love.
At certain points you're feeling like Susan Lucci a little bit and I think at number five I was getting there. I just wanted to get it done with. Every year you sit there. It's the last award, and it's a really long ceremony. I hate wearing a suit. I look at the suit hanging in the closet and I start to sweat. In fact, I don't think I wear a suit for anything except this ceremony over the course of an entire year.
So I'm happy to have won. It's great for all of our employees. Everyone is very proud. We have such an amazing team in all of our restaurants. They work super hard. I shy away from press and publicity at this point in my career and in my life. I like to give all the credit to all the chef de cuisines and all the pastry chefs and my business partners and everyone. I actually prefer to just sort of work behind the scenes and do what I love. But that's easier said than done most of the time.
Victory Beers for Paul Kahan and David Chang at the Beard Awards [Photo: Helen Rosner]
Yeah you mentioned in an interview afterward that you would have preferred David Posey to win his category.
I would have. He's got another year. Hopefully he'll win next year.
Your restaurant group is full of names like his that people recognize. Tell me about your philosophy of managing staff and giving them credit.
We really for the most part open up concepts with people in mind. We keep growing because we have a lot of incredible people that work in our company that we want to make a home for and eventually make them partners, and hopefully continue to grow our company long after myself and my partners are actively involved every day. And the only way to really do that is to empower people and let people make mistakes and help them grow.
If you make it to chef de cuisine in one of our restaurants you obviously have been working with us for awhile and know your way around the kitchen, but for me it's just working with them to make them better people. We try to lead in all of our kitchens and all of our business by being fair to people and listening to their voice and, like I said, letting them be leaders. It's all about empowering them.
Here's the thing. We interview people or we have someone that worked for another restaurant group come work for us and they're always kind of in awe. Like, "Wow, I didn't think this was possible. I thought I was supposed to get yelled at every day and the boss was an egomaniac and all he cared about was money." And that's really not our case. We actually do really care about people. I think that's what makes our company really special. If that means that a person has certain needs in order to grow or in order to be better at their job, we try to answer to those needs.
You can't always. There are financial constraints and you can only do things within reason. If you pay everyone a ton of money, you'll be out of business quick. So it's sort of a balance between being good business people and being really fair and just with people. And ultimately we all love — myself, Donnie Madia, Terry Alexander, Eduard Seitan — we all love to have a good time. We're all in this business because we love hospitality and we love food and we love wine and beer and whiskey. That's why we do it. In a nutshell, that's our philosophy. Ultimately I want to provide a landing place for all the hard-working, talented people that work in our company. That's not bullshit either. That's really true.
I was just reading an interview with [Avec chef de cuisine] Erling Wu-Bower saying exactly that. Why is empowering cooks such an important thing for you?
What's the point otherwise? I have won my awards and I love to cook, and I love to teach. If somebody has a great creative vision or a great mind for food, I want to learn from them. It's totally a two-way street. Erling and I were together at The Publican for a long time and every day we would sit down and write the menu with Brian [Huston] the chef de cuisine. We would have a constant three way discussion-slash-argument-slash-brainstorming session going. There's compromise and there's back-and-forth. That's just who we are as people.
We'd be foolish if we said, "You're a great creative chef, but this is what we want you to do and this is how we want you to do it." For a chef that thinks they're the be-all-end-all, sorry, I don't think they're going to ultimately be a great success. It's all about learning. At a certain point, you're just dispelling your knowledge that you have. If you're not open to listening and learning and reading and trying new things then you're nothing. That's really the main reason. It just seems like the dumbest thing in the world to me. It doesn't make any sense logically to be one of these guys that's like, "Hey, it's my way or the highway. This is the new dish, put it on the menu."
David Posey has three new dishes that he's been working on. I go over there, I taste them with him. Sometimes I say they're all great, I wouldn't change a thing. That's rare. Usually if I taste three, one was brilliant, one needed some work, and one I didn't like at all. So it's back to the drawing board on one of them. And we talk about what changes to make. We don't ever want something to be good; we want everything to be great. For that matter, include Dana Cree the pastry chef, in the conversation. If we can work creatively as a team to make the dish great, that's going to increase our level of hospitality. Ultimately it's about hospitality. It's not about the chef's ego.
So is that a lot of what you're doing day-to-day, working with each of the chefs?
Since our butcher shop is the newest restaurant, I spend the most time there. I have a ton of meetings because each restaurant has financial needs. We're growing quite a bit. We're opening a new concept in November downtown and we're expanding Big Star. And we would love to at some point in the near future expand a couple of our other concepts. We're sort of outgrowing the capabilities of certain kitchens and we hopefully have opportunities to grow those restaurants and we want to do that. That requires a lot of financial work by my partners.
Part of running a successful restaurant group is communicating. Today at nine o'clock [we had] a Publican Quality Meats meeting, which we have every other week. There were about 20 people there, from the purchaser to the chef and sous chef to the head butcher to my business partners. We look at what areas are strong and what areas are weak and we talk about how we're going to improve them. Then at 10 I had a Publican meeting. Then I went across the street after that to work on a couple menus for special events. I'm involved with this group called Pilot Light. We work with school children to build a curriculum based on food for Chicago public school students.
So I have a totally full plate. I go to farmers markets in the season a lot. I taste all the new dishes with the chefs and I work on some of the new dishes with them. When it's busy at Publican Quality Meats, I cook with the guys downstairs. I just really float between The Publican, Publican Quality Meats, between Blackbird and Avec. I'm all over the place.
Yeah, sounds pretty busy. And you mentioned your new concept, is that the Sutton Place Hotel restaurant?
It's actually not the Sutton Place anymore. It's going to be at Thompson Hotel.
Can you tell me a little more about what you guys have in store?
Not really. We haven't announced it to the press yet. We're kind of figuring out exactly how we want to do that, who's going to be in charge of the kitchen, etcetera etcetera. The PR team that we've enlisted, we're meeting with them this week and figuring out a plan to move forward. In the past, I get so jazzed up about our new concepts that I tend to blab my big, fat mouth all over town, and invariably somebody opens up a concept that's similar before we get to it because we move kind of slow and deliberately. So I've hopefully learned to just keep my mouth shut. When the team decides to release it to the press, that's when we do it. But I think it's going to be great. I'm very excited.
Can't wait to hear what it is. And how do you know when a concept is right for your group? How do you develop these great spots?
They're all different, to be honest with you. We work as a team. We discuss ideas. To this day, I think my business partner Terry came up with the idea for Big Star. I mean, the idea of it being a taqueria. And he says that he thinks that I came up with it. So we can't even figure out who came up with it because we come up with an idea and we discuss every aspect of it.
We want there to be historical relevance. Like with Big Star, we knew we wanted to take whiskey and tequila and smash them together in some way that made sense, but we couldn't figure it out. In Bakersfield, California, in the '20s there was a huge migration of workers from Mexico and Texas to work in the farms. We kind of looked at that and were like, wow, that's where Merle Haggard and all these outlaw country guys came from. There's great Mexican food culture and there's whiskey and there's tequila. That all kind of made sense.
Avec came from a trip to Europe where we stayed up in the Swiss Alps and cooked in a wood hearth. My business partner Donnie was really excited about trying to make communal seating work in Chicago. No one had done it successfully up to that point. So we put our heads together.
We don't do things because they're cool. We do things because we're passionate about them. We see things in other cities and other countries and we like those and they inspire us. And we like to bring very unique dining concepts to Chicago. We're all Chicago guys. We love Chicago. And we want our city's culinary scene to be great, and hopefully we contribute to that. Our architect, his name is Thomas Schlesser, he really plays a large part in the development. He's a food historian and his wife is a culinary antiques dealer. A lot of the concept comes from his research and comes from sitting around a big table talking about ideas and talking about what style of service we want it to be, the vibe that we want to go for and what the whole thing is all about. We painfully hash through every detail.
What do you look for in spaces? Or neighborhoods?
That's a tough one. Big Star, as an example, I think that's a location that everyone wanted forever. It just so happened it kind of fell into our lap. The woman that owns the property approached a friend with the property and she said, "I don't really want it, but I know someone that does." And connected with Terry Alexander, my business partner, and Peter Garfield. That's how we got that. That's a no-brainer. Giant foot traffic and great outdoor seating and all kinds of great stuff.
But that's really more the specialty of my business partners. Donnie found the location for Blackbird before there was anything over there. It's a great location. It's close to downtown, it's close to the United Center, it's close to the Expressway, it's close to everything. I think that's why they chose that location. I think we just put our feelers out and find places that we think people will come to and have big urban characteristics. We also like to open restaurants next to other restaurants or across the street. We kind of play a little bit of a chess game. In the case of Avec, we took that spot because we didn't want someone else to take it. And we had a great chef that we wanted to give an opportunity to. So it worked out well.
Makes sense. People say that you seem to have your finger on the pulse on what's going to happen in restaurants, which I think is interesting given what you said about others opening similar concepts before you can get open.
It's my partnership, it's not me. It's all of us. We try to make trends, not follow trends. I know that sounds a little arrogant, but I think we're all very creative guys and we have a really individualistic signature, as does our architect. I just feel like ultimately it's just going to bring more business to us. If somebody rips off our idea, I think we're going to do it better. I'm confident in that. We travel and try to bring unique things to our city. If that's us having our hand on the pulse of what's new and cool, I don't know. We want to do stuff that we're passionate about. Maybe we're lucky enough that that helps define trends in our city.