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Chef Paul Kahan on His New Diner and Why He'll Never Do Television

Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

Today, Eater is covering the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen live from the Eater Lounge at the Limelight Hotel. Right now: chef Paul Kahan
[Photo: Eater]

How's Aspen? Are you doing food here?
We're doing tomorrow at the Grand Tasting. We're pairing some sausage with a couple of Goose Island beers — mainly, Matilda and Sophie. We have a butcher shop in Chicago, and we're doing a blood sausage, which is more like interesting pork sausage with blood. It's a better texture. It's not a pudding. We make a Burgundy snail and brown butter sausage, which is quite good, too. We're doing a little set with each one to pair with the beers. And then on Sunday, I've been doing raw fish at a few of the Cochon events because Goose is a sponsor. We thought it would be interesting to do something very unexpected.

To do raw fish at a pig event?
Exactly. For a long part of my career, I've been considered a pig guy and now, of course, we have a restaurant called The Publican, and it's all about oysters, pork, and beer, but it's more about incredible vegetables. We're not changing it. We still process five pigs a week and make incredible charcuterie and things like that. It's a wonderful animal, but I'm kind of over the pig hype.

You're over bacon?
[laughs] Yeah, I actually am, a little bit. But I don't think goat is the next big thing, for the record.

What's the next big thing?
I think a place like Gjelina in Venice [California] and their super, hyper vegetable focus. We're opening up a new place in Chicago in August kind of connected to Big Star, but a new concept. It's going to be a little 42-seat diner, kind of Mex-Tex. We're really focusing on vegetables as much as everything else. When can you go into a little, cool, hip diner and listen to great music and eat vegetables, amongst other great things? I think vegetables are huge. I always tell people, "Go to The Publican and order fish and vegetables," and they're like, "Wow, that was fucking incredible. I didn't know you could do that."

What kind of vegetables dishes do you do in there?
Cosmo Goss is the chef there now. Brian Huston, who was the opening chef, six years ago, just opened up his own restaurant called Boltwood, in Evanston. He's a great friend and a super talented chef. Brian was a bit of a curmudgeon and Cosmos listens. I'm like, "More vegetables, more vegetables, more vegetables." We do a barbecued carrot dish, where we poached carrots in a broth with barbecue spice and then we grill them and serve them with a flavored yogurt. Things like that. We do fava beans and fresh anchovies that we sear on a super hot black steel pan with beautiful herbs and things.

It's not just vegetables. We just like everything. When it was in season, we were doing the Roman puntarelle—the famous one—they actually push it through a grate and soak it in water and they curl up. They do a salad with Pecorino, olive oil, and lemon juice. It's a very classic Italian salad. It's incredible. Just about everything that's seasonal right now, as it comes up in the Chicago market, we're using it. Beets, baby carrots, shell beans are just starting up. We try to stick with the Chicago seasons as much as we can.

What are your thoughts on the Beard Awards moving to Chicago?
It's incredible. Not to change the subject, but it's great for the community, of course. For me, I've been going for a gazillion years. With my Susan Lucci-esque—no, no, it's not that bad. But I think I've gone 10 times. I think I won on the third time for Outstanding Chef. And, whatever, it's like I've gone a ton of times. We do well in the the nominations, so this year we brought 20 people. It's super costly. New York is an amazing city. I love to go there. I would just prefer to go with my wife and dine out and run around and do fun stuff and go to museums. With that being said, I can't say anything negative about it, it's incredible.

Do you think you're going to host after-parties?
Absolutely. I hope so. For me, when chefs are in Chicago, like, I see Sean Brock in Big Star more than I see my mom. All the time. He's crazy about it. For some reason, it's like a chef magnet. It's so simple and fun. And we're expanding Big Star — the footprint of it.

How much bigger is it going to be?
Well, the actual restaurant is the same size. This year we expanded the patio by about 50 seats. We're moving the carry-out window to an adjacent building, and then we're landscaping the whole area in between.

There will be seating out there?
There will be seating out there, and we're building a giant kitchen. Then the other restaurant will be adjacent to that.

For the expansion, what is your timeline?
We'll be open in August.

So everything is going to open all at once?
We're going to open the commissary for a week to make it all happen. Then we'll open up the restaurant whose name I cannot mention yet.

How are things going at Nico Osteria?
They're going great. Super busy. I'm very happy with the food. It's great to go through the first seasonal cycle of products. I'm super happy. Erling [Wu-Bower], the chef there, once spent a month with Marc Vetri in Philly, and he's my great friend and he totally nailed the pasta thing. We're doing a pasta now that's squid ink shells and we make a sausage with tuna, instead of meat. So it's tuna Italian sausage that we sauté in the pan with shells and green garlic. It's phenomenal. We're doing really interesting, unique pastas. The crudo fish we're sourcing is from Japan and Korea and the US. It's amazing. I'm very happy with it.

Do you feel like it's getting easier to open restaurants as you've opened more throughout Chicago? Or is it always just a pain?
No, it's much easier. We have a super huge talent pool in the group right now. I think we have a really great team in place. That makes it pretty easy. Yeah, it gets easier and easier. It gets a little harder and harder to come up with unique concepts, but I don't know if we'll ever repeat anything or not. We'll see.

What's your process for coming up with a concept?
It's really an organic process for me, myself, and my partners. Sometimes it starts from a space, a restaurant space that we see or we like, or a neighborhood we want to be in. I always come up with the culinary point and we go from there. For Publican, for example, it was just a soundbite of "serve pork and beer." We're in a great beer neighborhood. Goos Island is right up the street. That turned into a research trip for our architects and myself and our wives to Belgium and the South of France. We came up with this idea for a modern American beer hall. You just kind of flow and get over excited. If there's too much attached to the idea, we pare it back, and we get in a room and have a think tank.

For this new, little concept, I'm just super duper excited. It's going to be, like somebody said, "Wow, that sounds amazing. There's no place like that anywhere." We really pride ourselves in starting trends and defining new and interesting things to do in restaurants. We're out of the box guys. We don't want to do it based on any kind of formula. We have a lot of fun with it.

Do you find it challenging not to fall back on a formula, as your group gets larger?
No. We can't. It's just not our thing. The inspiration can come from anywhere. We had been talking about Italian food forever, sort of the only food I like. I like to travel to Italy now, exclusively. I'm totally in love with that country. The food is so simple and beautiful. This year I spent 10 days at a friend's olive oil farm, just going to the market and cooking and drinking. It was amazing. So [Nico Osteria] was my partner, Donnie Madia, a super Italian guy, you know, "Let's open an Italian place." Erling, who's the chef there, had been working with me for about six years, and he lived in Rome, and he's just a fish-oholic. I put two and two together and started to develop the idea. It worked out.

What's the craziest deal you've said no to?
Craziest deal we've said no to? You know, we're super no guys. We've said no to five hotel opportunities. The Nico one is the first one we took. I can't think specifically.

No, no, no, no, no again. No. Any TV — Iron Chef, Top Chef, Top Chef Masters — absolutely not. If any of my chefs that work for me want to, they're welcome to. It's just not my thing. I hate it. I think it's absurd. It's good in one way for our industry. It's interesting to be here in Aspen and see when I was Best New Chef in '99 and was all about the best new chefs. It was before anything on TV. Now, I think the Top Chefs have sort of encompassed the best new chefs, which to me, sends the wrong message to young cooks. There's good and bad in that.

So that idea is always a no. Honestly, our marketing/PR girl Jenna, once a week, is like "Just gotta run it by you, I'm sure it's a no." It's like a TV pilot. I've done a few, small [things], like I did a Munchies video. It was really fun. They're like, "Dude, you should have a show." And I'm like, "No, I shouldn't." Ultimately, I like to go in my garage when I'm home and pop a nice Goose Island beer in the fridge. I like my time with my wife and I like my free time. With seven businesses currently and soon to be eight and nine — we're building a bakery for our group — I could have meetings 24/7 and I could be in the kitchen 24/7. I cherish my free time. I'd much rather be with my wife or my friends or my family than a group of chefs competing to make the best food out of some obscure basket of crap.

· All Paul Kahan Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Aspen 2014 Coverage on Eater [-E-]

Limelight Hotel

355 S Monarch St, Aspen, CO 81611