Chef Paul Kahan has become the nationally recognizable face for an emerging generation of Chicago chefs thanks to his ever-growing list of international accolades for such restaurants as Blackbird, avec, The Publican and Big Star, each in Chicago. Kahan was selected as a James Beard nominee for Outstanding Chef in 2007 and was recognized as the James Beard Best Chef of the Midwest in 2004. And just this year he was named a 2011 James Beard Outstanding Chef Nominee.
FE&S: What learning experience shaped your career the most?
Paul Kahan: My first job was as a bicycle mechanic. When I showed up for my first day's work, the boss was nowhere to be found. I stood there for a few minutes, when the hippie bike mechanic said, "I don't know about you dude, but I would take a box down from up there and start building a bike." I built a few before the boss got back. Good career start. Initiative is the key. I don't want to hold every cook's hand that walks in the door. Come in, use your head, kick some butt!
FE&S: What was your first job in the foodservice industry?
Paul Kahan: Dishwasher/prep cook. I worked in pastries at my first cooking job. I actually enjoy it.
FE&S: What were some other jobs you held outside of the foodservice industry?
Paul Kahan: Stock boy at the Jewel (a local grocery store), apprentice to a pipe organ tuner, fish factory worker, fish delivery guy, computer lab attendant, computer scientist. I think I may have missed a few early jobs but I think that covers it.
FE&S: What overall influence did food have in your childhood?
Paul Kahan: The biggest influences were working for my dad in his delicatessen and smokehouse. Also, as the product of a divorced family my dad would take me out to special dinners every week and that exposed me to a lot of food. And having to cut weight for wrestling influenced my relationship with food. I loved the big Sunday feast after a wrestling weekend.
FE&S: That said, what is your favorite food memory?
Paul Kahan: Smoked chub with my dad. I’d roll the chubs out of the smokehouse and my dad would rip the head off, peel back skin and scrape out the smoked fish. It was delicious. Occasionally we'd have it with bagels, toasted, with chive cream cheese but mostly, we just ate the chub.
FE&S: When you were in school before becoming a chef, what were your strongest academic interests?
Paul Kahan: When I was young I wanted to be a design engineer. At one point I wanted to be a scientist. Math, computer science and physics were the game. Cooking and foraging were hobbies that turned into passion as I became disinterested in school and more interested in beer and parties. Poetry and math were still pretty fun. Halfway through college, I kinda knew I would not enjoy computer science and math. I owed it to myself to give it a try. No go. I started cooking after about five months on the job.
FE&S: How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a chef?
Paul Kahan: 20-something.
FE&S: When you first got the taste for the food world, how did you decide to become a cook?
Paul Kahan: I used to cook out of my mom’s Joy of Cooking cook book. That was about sixth grade. Bread was the first thing I made from the book.
FE&S: What obstacles did you overcome in your early career?
Paul Kahan: Low pay, long hours, burns, hemorrhoids, athlete’s foot and hangovers. I also became a business owner with virtually no money.