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Five Minutes With Paul Kahan and Richard Blais

By Kim Bellware in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 3, 2011 7:20PM

Illinois farmers, renowned chefs and a handful of artists came together for the first-ever Cultivate Festival, a new effort from Chipotle to foster discussions and ideas related to food, farming and sustainability.

Each of the chefs--the lineup included culinary stars like Jonathan Waxman and Amanda Freitag--were busy with cooking demos and Q&A sessions with the festival attendees throughout the day, but we managed to steal a few minutes with Chicago's own Paul Kahan (avec, Blackbird, The Publican, Big Star) and Atlanta-based Richard Blais (BLAIS, Flip Burger Boutique). We asked each of them for their thoughts on sustainable eating, cooking and what prompted them to team up with the new face of fast food.

Paul Kahan

Chicagoist: Why did you get involved with Chipotle for this event?

Kahan: It was an opportunity to showcase the farmer and to do as little as possible with the food. I like that [Chipotle] is trying concepts that are unlike anything else. They're "fast-casual" or whatever you want to call it, but they do things the right way and have managed to make a business model that works. We have to reverse what was very wrong with food. Something went wrong with food - in the '70s or something - with the way we eat and understand it. There's a group of chefs in Pilot Light, where we try to teach kids at a young age about food, how to connect with it in an urban setting, learn where it comes from...all that.

C: Can you talk some about your relationship with farmers and the idea of cooking and eating sustainably? From early on you've been interested in organic farming and food co-ops.

PK: I am, I still am. I like working with the farmers. I like to sit down and take time with them. There are a lot of food icons in this city that are just out to make a name for themselves; we [at Kahan's restaurants] care about the way people eat, and that starts with the farms. From day one it's been like that. What I care about, what I want to leave behind is that we changed the way people eat and believe in what we do.

C: What do you think are the biggest barriers to people--chefs and regular folks--cooking and eating sustainably?

PK: Money. You have to pick your battles, and make sacrifices. You have to have a strong food and people culture. Get people into your restaurant first, then you can afford to buy more sustainable products. Maybe you can't buy all organic and sustainable food for your kitchen at first, but you pick and choose. You have to start somewhere.

Richard Blais

Chicagoist: How did you get hooked up with the folks at Chipotle?

Richard Blais: I'm a huge fan of Chipotle and am always tweeting them. I'll be eating at their restaurant with my family and update "I'm at Chipotle with my kids!" or something. They probably just reached out to me because I tweet about it so much (laughs).

C: As a chef you're known for being "the guy with liquid nitrogen" and doing some pretty high-tech stuff with your food. But you actually enjoy preparing food in a very simple way, too.

RB: It's something I've always emphasized. I'm much more into organic and "nose to tail" cooking than people think. You get so much more when you know your farmers, when you know where all this food comes from. I'm still a big believer in farm-to-table, I'm just more of a "farm-to liquid nitrogen-to table."

C: When you consider things like cost, accessibility or education, what do you think are the big barriers to people cooking and eating more sustainably?

RB: Definitely cost, but you have to choose. Maybe you want to get organic onions and non-organic lemons. But definitely make that commitment--it's for your body, it's for your family--you'll eat that way and you're going to feel a lot better. I'm not a doctor, I'm not into all the research on it, but I know that when I started eating this way, everything feels better. Pick and choose where to spend. With that local onion versus, say, local meat, you can make a bigger impact with on over the other.

C: Do you think more restaurants are moving towards sustainability in their food or chefs still adopting this idea slowly?

RB: I think chefs at my level and above are trying to do this. But you have to start somewhere and it's easier when other people in your community are building that aspect. If you can't afford to do [best sustainable food practices] all at once, do it a little bit at a time, because you can't change anything if your doors aren't open. You need to have that restaurant open to make your positive impact on the development of the industry. I like what's happening in Chicago; it's such a great food community.