Last week, I was in Chicago for the James Beard Awards. One of the first events I attended was an anniversary celebration for restauranteur Paul Kahan, who opened his first restaurant, Blackbird, in 1997.
It had actually been 20 years since I last was there – when a friend invited me to the opening. We were somewhat taken aback when walking in because it was totally different from any restaurant I’d been to at the time.
The menu was all about farm-to-table and local producers, which outside of California was still a new concept. The setting was minimalist with long communal tables, which reminded me of being in my high school cafeteria.
The dishes were distinctive, such as their Endive Salad with Pancetta topped with a softly poached egg. The idea was, when you cut into the egg, the yolk would flow into the dressing and add a touch of gooey richness. It was not something very common back then, or even now. It was unique.
Other restaurants opened in Chicago that year, and many of those now are gone, but Blackbird remains. Kahan now owns several restaurants, including Avec, Big Star, The Violet Hour and The Publican.
Since many chefs write cookbooks once their restaurants become well known, you’d think Kahan would have one or two by now. But it took two decades for him to write his first, “Cheers to The Publican, Repast and Present: Recipes and Ramblings from an American Beer Hall,” winner of the 2018 International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook Award in the Chefs & Restaurants category.
In keeping with the eclectic concepts of his restaurants, which he describes as speaking to a place and not a time, it’s definitely different – an amalgam of recipes, insights, reminiscences, paeans to local food producers and autobiographical. It even has poems – not something typically found cookbooks.
So what took you so long, I asked him?
“I waited 20 years because I didn’t want it to be half-baked,” he says, as I substitute “baked” for what he actually said, because this is a family newspaper. “We’re not run of the mill, and I wanted the book to be unique, to follow the path of The Publican.”
Kahan doesn’t take credit for his food empire’s success, saying he’s just a small part of the business.
“We’ve all been here together since day one,” he says about his One Off Hospitality Group. “We’re all about the culture, the relevance and the continuity, and the book is about that. I think our success has truly been about us, about trust, nurturing. We like to be innovative, and approach things differently.”
Avec, he says, was inspired by his first trip to France with his wife.
“She was in a real horrific motorcycle accident there and ended up recuperating in Switzerland,” he says. “The culinary experience of Avec was built by the experience of going there.”
If each restaurant has a story, so do the recipes, such as the one for Barbecued Carrots.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a dish at The Publican that people have freaked out about so much, even chefs,” he writes in the introduction. “We did a charity event last year and served these, and there was a table of 25 big-name chefs just losing their minds over them. We’ve tried new variations, adding different spices, experimenting with other preparations, but it always comes back to this recipe. We use a barbecue rub that I ‘borrowed’ from Chris Lilly, the owner of Big Bob Gibson’s in Georgia, and a world champion of barbecued pork shoulder. He came in to eat once, and we got embarrassed about ripping him off, so we quickly changed the name of these to Chris Lilly Carrots. We like to serve them with pecans that we get from Blain Farms in California, which are creamier than any other pecan, and then we top it off with an herbed dressing.”
Sourcing ingredients is important, as is forging relationships with farmers and food artisans.
Finding them often takes Kahan to less exotic places than his trip to France.
One out-of-the-way journey lead him to tiny Medora, Ind., best known for its 1910 round barn and a historic covered bridge.
It’s also the hometown of Burton’s Maplewood Farm, owned by Tim Burton, a producer of highly valued maple syrup – much used by chefs nationwide.
“I think I was the first guy Tim hooked up with at the Green Market,” Kahan says.
Growing up in Chicago, Kahan was influenced by his father, who owned a Jewish deli, the Village Fishery and King Salmon, a small smoked fish business.
He still remembers the slow-cooked corned beef, the hanging sausages and the smoked chubs. Following in those footsteps might seem a given, but Kahan diverged at first, studying applied mathematics until the lure of cooking overtook him.
Will it take another 20 years before we see another cookbook?
“I’m already working on a second cookbook,” Kahan says, making sure to note that “Cheers to The Publican” wasn’t just his work. “There are a lot of people who worked hard on that book.”
Makes 4 servings.
For the carrots:
1 gallon water
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon BBQ Rub (see recipe below)
1/4 cup kosher salt
1 pound carrots, cleaned and halved
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/4 cup pecans, coarsely chopped
2 sprigs dill, torn
1 batch Ranchovy Herb Dressing (see recipe below)
For the BBQ Rub:
1/2 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 cup kosher salt
4 tablespoons hot smoked paprika
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
1 tablespoon onion granules, or onion powder
1 1/2 tablespoons celery salt
1 tablespoon ground cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon ground cumin
For the Ranchovy Herb Dressing:
2 cups mayonnaise
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons white vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons Tabasco sauce
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon chives, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons tarragon, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons oregano, chopped
To make the BBQ Rub: combine all the ingredients in bowl, and mix well. Store in an airtight container.
To make the herb dressing: whisk all the ingredients in a bowl, and season with the salt and pepper to taste. Transfer the dressing to a container with a lid, and refrigerate.
The dressing will keep in the fridge for up to 1 week. Give the jar a good shake before using.
To make the carrots: in a large pot, add the water, 1 cup of the BBQ Rub and the salt. Bring to a boil.
Add the carrots, and cook until 3/4 done, about 5 minutes.
Drain the carrots, reserve for the grill.
Heat the grill to medium-high.
In a bowl, toss the blanched carrots with remaining 1 tablespoon BBQ Rub and oil.
Arrange on a grill screen, and grill over direct heat until finished. Adjust seasoning as necessary.
Arrange carrots on a plate, drizzle with lemon juice, garnish with crushed pecans and dill.
Dress the carrots with the Ranchovy Herb Dressing and serve.
– Recipe from “Cheers to The Publican”
Jane Ammeson can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing to Focus, The Herald-Palladium, P.O. Box 128, St. Joseph, MI 49085.