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Road Tripping: Visiting New Holland With Paul Kahan, Part 3

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Jun 17, 2009 3:20PM

(This is Part 3 in our week-long series following the evolution of a beer dinner at the Publican, from conception to the actual dinner. IF you haven't already, read Part 1 and Part 2.)

Wednesday, June 3 — Amy Cook and I were talking over fresh arugula, pork pies, chicken liver pate and some of the largest hoophouse-grown beefsteak tomatoes I’ve ever seen in the middle of Fred Bueltmann’s expansive farm in Fennville, MI. “My husband said, ‘Fred’s having a couple of people over for dinner’”, said Cook, wife of New Holland brewpub chef Matt Millar. Then she looked to her left past the 30-plus people on Bueltmann's farm to a small circle of chefs, where Millar and Paul Kahan were getting to know each other over chef stories and a hot grill, and nodded wryly. Bueltmann arranged a potluck farm dinner in honor of Kahan’s visit. Kahan was matter-of-fact when he told the gathered guests, “I hate to say that anything is in my honor. I prefer to be hanging here with all of you.”

Millar and Cook ran the Journeyman Café and Rye Public House in Fennville until state authorities seized the businesses for unpaid taxes last year. The Journeyman, in particular, earned a well-deserved positive reputation for Millar’s cooking and his focus on local and seasonal ingredients. I thought the localvore concept would have been a no-brainer in Western Michigan, but Cook set me straight. “Most restaurants still get their supplies from Sysco and the other large distributors here”, she said.

After the state seized their businesses Bueltmann (Millar and Cook’s neighbor) offered Millar the job of the brewpub’s Executive Chef in February. “We saw what was happening with the food at other brewpubs across the country and decided that a self-examination of our food was in order”, Bueltmann explained. “And we found ourselves lacking.” Millar is still working out the kinks in the kitchen but has added some new dishes to the menu like a rich, buttery whitefish brandade — “I love spreading shit on bread, but how many times can you go to a brewpub and find artichoke dip?” said Bueltmann — and a smoked pork belly sandwich that punched me in the mouth with flavor.

When told he was cooking for a contingent of visitors from Chicago including the Beard Award-winning Kahan, nerves set in. “I was scared shitless”, Millar exclaimed, “I mean, (Kahan) is one of the chefs I’ve looked up to for a long time.” The nerves were evident upon our arrival the previous day when Millar stood in the background and waited for an opportunity to gift Kahan with an framed poem called “The Perfect Publican” he found at an antique shop:

A Publican must be an Autocrat, an Acrobat, a Doormat. He must be able to entertain Prime Ministers, Pick-Pockets, Pirates, Philanthropists and Police - and be on both sides of the Political Fence - a Footballer, Golfer, Bowler, Tennis Player, Dart Champion and Pigeon Fancier.

He has to settle arguments and fights, he must be a Qualified Boxer, Wrestler, Weightlifter, Sprinter and Peacemaker.

He must always look immaculate when drinking with Bankers, Swankers, Commercial Travellers and Company Representatives even though he has just stopped a beer- throwing contest in the Public Bar.

To be successful he must keep the Bars Full, the House Full, the Tanks Full, the storeroom Full and NOT get himself Full.

He must have Barmen who are Clean, Honest, Quick Workers and Thinkers, Non-Drinkers, Mathmeticians, Technicians, and at all times be on the Boss's side the Customer's side and stay on the inside of the Bar.

It is said that the Publican: Home-wrecks, takes Weekly Wage Cheques, in other words Saturates, Confiscates, Deteriorates and Propagates.

To sum up: He must be Outside, Inside, Offside, Glorified, Sanctified, Crucified, Stupefied, Cross-eyed, and if he is not the strong silent type there is SUICIDE.

Kahan was genuinely touched by the gift. Later that day, at a family-style dinner at the brewpub, Millar wowed everyone with roast chicken brined in Mad Hatter ale, a tabbouleh as good as any I've eaten in Albany Park, and some wicked chocolate truffles, Millar seemed more at ease around Kahan and their dialogue flowed.

By the time the farm dinner rolled around, Millar was much more comfortable around Kahan. If he had any questions about his cooking standing up to Kahan’s he needn’t had worried. Millar’s charcuterie more than matched Kahan’s.

After the grill was cleaned and a fire pit started, Kahan and Bueltmann riffed about further collaboration for the dinner. They talked music and found common ground with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus. They talked about punk rock. Meanwhile, McAvena was trying to persuade Haggerty to send him some of the pear and raspberry ale we sampled during the brewery tour the previous day to the Publican for the dinner. Suzanne Wolcott, McAvena’s girlfriend (who’s the cheesemonger at Binny’s South Loop) and I discussed the differences between bourbon and New Holland’s straight-malt whisky.

Later, Kahan, Bueltmann and McAvena discussed naming the bière de garde. Names like “New Garde” were bandied before a bottle of New Holland Knickerbocker gin was passed around and the names became more scatological. When we left Bueltmann’s farm at 2:30 a.m. the host was still going strong, even as the fire pit was dying. “This is a perfect night. I think I could sleep out here”, Bueltmann declared.

I’m wouldn't be surprised if he followed through on that.