Road Tripping: Visiting New Holland With Paul Kahan, Part 5

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Jun 19, 2009 3:20PM

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(Today we wrap up our week-long series following chef Paul Kahan as he brewed beer at New Holland Brewing and planned a menu for an August 23 beer dinner at the Publican. If you haven't already, you can go back and read part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4)

Thursday, June 4 — We were in John Barbaras’s Audi having entered Indiana on the way back home, asking Paul Kahan questions about, well, basically the past twelve years of his career. Kahan was telling the story of how he met his business partner Donnie Madia and the two decided to become partners and open what became Blackbird.

“I’m always reminded that I said at that meeting, ‘I’ll go into business with you. But don’t expect me to hang with you socially,’” Kahan said to laughs. What struck me about that comment was that Kahan was so open with sharing it. After being around the man for two days, I still couldn't wrap my head around that directness, Kahan's seeming lack of ego, or his near-bashfulness when formalities were raised, like calling him "Chef". Early in the trip, he pulled me aside after asking some questions and said, "You don't have to say 'Chef.' I just don't do that.

"Call me Paul," he said.

Later that day, when a camera crew hired by Kahan's publicist arrived to film the menu planning session and Wednesday's brewing (Part 1 of that video can be viewed here), Kahan went up to New Holland's Fred Bueltmann as the crew set up outside the brewery and sounded almost embarrassed to have the crew in tow.

Chicago Reader lead food critic Mike Sula, who also had the opportunity to watch Kahan plan a menu as part of last year’s Whole Hog Project dinner, shared a similar impression. “I didn't find him guarded at all—maybe a little apprehensive about all the pre-opening hype surrounding the Publican at the time—but certainly honest, excited and eager to talk about the new place and future projects,” Sula e-mailed.

Michael Nagrant, whose byline appears just about everywhere, agreed. “The spirit that runs through Blackbird, avec, and now the Publican is in no small part due to Paul Kahan’s lack of pretension. Whatever’s going on at The Bristol, Mado, Paramount Room, Volo, etc. started (at Blackbird). In many ways Kahan saved us from a lifetime of ruddy steroidal steaks and out-of-season asparagus as much as Charlie Trotter, but more importantly he spared us the smug judgment, regimented dress codes, and sterile future of fine dining.”

On the drive home Kahan described Blackbird as “no jacket required fine dining,” which was what I was using to describe the Publican. It’s the latter restaurant and the accompanying reams of glowing national press that’s placed a brighter spotlight on Kahan he probably hasn’t seen since opening Blackbird with Madia twelve years ago. If there was any pressure on Kahan in the weeks leading up to the Publican’s opening last fall, he certainly didn’t show it.

“I knew the Publican was going to be a hit. We just knew that we were onto something with the concept,” Kahan said. And what if the Publican opened to lackluster reviews and poor customer feedback? “It wasn’t going to,” he responded matter-of-factly. “We just knew this was something that people would respond to positively.” Sky Full of Bacon's Mike Gebert once described Kahan's in his vision as “ the chef as showman, delivering all the surefire elements of blockbuster entertainment that the dining public wants and that he knows work."

“A showman is out to make sure you have a good time," Gebert elaborated. “The showman's mentality is toward doing what he knows will work to make everybody leave feeling they got 110% for their money. That's what I think Kahan is about. He's not about little frou-frou touches or dishes that you can't decide if you love or hate, he's about over-delivering satisfaction.”

Being a mentor to others and a natural leader are two more of Kahan’s trademarks. Name another chef who would have hired a 25-year-old like Michael McAvena to direct the beer program for a highly anticipated restaurant like the Publican. The list might be short, if it exists at all. “What I saw in Michael was his desire and enthusiasm, which is something I always value in people we hire. I want to work with those kinds of people," Kahan said. Talking with McAvena for only a few minutes, one sees that desire firsthand. Prior to the Publican, he worked as a barback at the Violet Hour for a year. “I won’t lie. I hated it," McAvena said. “But working at the Violet Hour got me into the company (Madia and Publican partner Terry Alexander own the Violet Hour; Kahan has a minor stake in the venture) and into a position to make the best impression when they started hiring for the Publican."

“Kahan's clearly a leader, but entirely comfortable in that role, confident in his own vision, and generous in seeking the input of his cooks and giving them the freedom to create," Sula observed. Nagrant concurred, “Like any good father, he genuinely wants his people, whether it’s Koren Grieveson, Mike Sheerin, or Brian Huston, to reach the same level of success and probably surpass him. If those guys do well, he understands that it’s a reflection of what he taught. That’s refreshing and rare in top kitchens across America.”

Some of Kahan’s most effusive praise while in Michigan was reserved for Grieveson, avec’s chef de cuisine and a recent James Beard nominee for Best Chef: Great Lakes region. “With the exception of 3 or 4 dishes, that menu is all Koren’s, and I couldn’t be prouder of what she’s done with avec." On Grieveson’s recent appearance on "Iron Chef America," where she tied with Cat Cora, Kahan sounded like a protective older brother. “I didn't think she had to do 'Iron Chef,' but I understand why Koren agreed to do the show. But she was a nervous wreck in the weeks leading to the taping. I had to pull her into my office and tell her to relax and that nothing is worth the level of stress she was putting herself through. And it worked: she smoked (Cora)," Kahan said.

The confidence Kahan has in Grieveson, Sheerin, and Huston gives him the freedom to step into his comfort zone: Blackbird’s kitchen. “I’m trying to be in the kitchen at Blackbird four days a week," he admitted. And that’s an optimistic perspective, given Kahan’s growing responsibilities as a restaurateur. In addition to this brewing trip to Michigan Kahan, Madia and Alexander have other projects, including the as-yet-unnamed concept they’re building in the old Pontiac CafĂ© space.

For now, the beer Kahan and McAvena brewed is quietly fermenting in New Holland’s brewpub. As the August 23 dinner approaches, that beer will be carbonated and pumped into kegs. As for the dinner menu, the task of making those dishes come to life will fall to Erling Wu-Bower, the Publican’s sous chef. After that, Kahan also agreed to participate in Fred Bueltmann’s annual Porkapalooza extravaganza in October.

A lot of ground can be covered in two days.