It would not be a stretch to call Paul Kahan the crowned prince of Chicago’s restaurant scene. Under the umbrella of his restaurant group, One Off Hospitality, he has a taco joint (Big Star), a James Beard Award-winning cocktail bar (The Violet Hour), a fine-dining institution (Blackbird), and everything in between.
Two weeks ago, he defied his own rule to do make every concept “one off” and opened a second version of his hit European-inspired beer hall, The Publican (the new one is called Publican Anker), this time with a slightly more vegetables-and-small-plates slant. Fresh off of the new opening, we sat down with Kahan to chat about his growing roster of projects, Chicago’s place in the restaurant world, and how his places are keeping up with the ever-changing dining scene.
Why did you first decide to open Blackbird? What the vision for that restaurant?
The restaurant was really born out of me not wanting to work for anybody anymore. I was working for Rick Bayless — I was the sous chef/chef de cuisine at Topolobampo, and I had the opportunity to collaborate with him on a project — but instead I left and went traveling, just trying to figure out what my next thing would be.
Then I met my business partners, and I had a friend who was willing to do James Beard Award-winning design for nothing. I cooked for all of them, they got excited, and we started to collectively build a vision. We wanted to do super seasonal, very delicious food, and that’s what I hope we’re still doing today. At the time, everyone was saying the words, “seasonal” and “local,” but few people — with exceptions like Rick Bayless — were actually going to farmers’ markets. Chez Panisse was a big guiding force and always has been in my culinary career. I wanted to try to emulate that. Nineteen years later, and we’re still going strong!
You opened that spot in 1997. What was the dining scene like then?
It was a time when Charlie Trotter was at the top of his game, and when people were selling giant trophy wines. Neither of the two economic crashes that have happened since then had come to pass. We wanted to do high-end food in a much more energetic and casual environment — that really did not exist. We were the first to do relaxed fine dining in the city. [Read more…]