Eat to the Beat: Paul Kahan

The Chicago chef serves up his thoughts on snacks, grub, and rock & roll.

Paul Kahan is the award-winning chef and owner of Blackbird, Avec, The Publican and Big Star, all in Chicago. Here he serves up his thoughts on snacks, grub, and rock & roll.

What do chefs and rock stars have in common?

All artists are passionate about what they do, and I think most good chefs and most good musicians share the same passion. But personally, I think of myself as more of a craftsman than an artist. I don’t share the artistic vision of someone like Grant Achatz. I don’t think anyone does.

First times: what’s the first record you bought? First meal you cooked?

The first record was Ted Nugent, Ted Nugent, in 1975. Me and my buddies went to see him when I was just starting to drink beer, in 7th or 8th grade. My hearing still hasn’t recovered. Around the same time I started dabbling with my mom’s cookbooks, and one night I decided to make some whole wheat bread.

Let’s talk starters: what’s your ultimate side one, track one, and what’s your ultimate appetizer?

My favorite appetizers are really pure East Coast oysters with a little squeeze of lemon. And along the same lines, jamon iberico bellota is just spectacular. So those two together would be the ultimate starter. For music, it’s either “London Calling” by the Clash, or the live version of “Sweet Jane” by Lou Reed off Rock & Roll Animal.

Let’s talk seduction: what’s your go-to soundtrack for getting it on, and what’s your go-to meal for getting a lady in the mood?

My wife goes bonkers when we cook really simple food, say, a nice piece of fish, vegetables, roast sweet potato. For music, one random one is this song by Dave Alvin called “Fourth of July”. It creates this super romantic summer picture that takes me somewhere else.

On the road: what’s your ultimate road food and what are the best driving songs?

Road food is totally regional, so if I’m in the South West, I’d like good Mexican food, but if I’m in Maine, I’d want a lobster roll. For music, I love everything, but on the road I go for country, like Buck Owens.

Food and music pairings – can you pair a dish with:

Hank Williams:
Pork country ribs, corn on the cob and beer. It’d be more about getting drunk than eating.

The Rolling Stones: Well, let’s assume it’s 1965, and they just came to Chicago for the first time. I would’ve taken them to the Maxwell Street Market for a bone-in porkchop sandwich. It’s one of those places with garbage cans on fire and guys standing around who’d been up all night drinking and playing in blues clubs. I’d want to see what they got up to with all the musicians hanging out there.

The Clash: I don’t know if I’d want to hang out with the Clash altogether. I’d probably be scared. But I love Joe Strummer, and he was really into the bonfire thing, so I’d cook for him in my backyard and just listen to records all night.

Wilco: A lot of those guys already eat in my restaurants, but I’d take them to a pizza place called Great Lake. It’s a husband and wife team, and it’s just amazing.

Kanye West: Another Chicago guy. Something tells me he’d want to go to a steakhouse, like Gibsons. I don’t know if anyone would recognize him there, so it’d be surreal going with him in one of his crazy outfits.

If you could invite all of your favorite artists to a dinner party, who would you invite?

Joe Strummer is first on the list, then jazz guys like Charlie Mingus, Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. Gram Parsons, Willie Nelson, Keith Richards, all of Yo La Tengo, D Boone, definitely, maybe Curtis Mayfield. And Lemmy from Motorhead. He’d be the odd man out.

What would you cook?

I’d want to do something in the summer in the backyard. Grilled porchetta, homemade sausages, a couple chickens, vegetables from the garden. And we’d drink a lot of good beer, wine and whiskey.

What kind of music is good for cooking?

Blackbird has a pretty intense kitchen with a lot of younger cooks, so we listen to a lot of hip-hop. At the Publican, it’s an open kitchen and we’ll listen to everything from Grateful Dead to Hip-hop to jazz. And at Big Star, it’s all vinyl, all country.

What’s the one restaurant that you haven’t eaten at that you’re looking forward to?

Manresa, outside San Francisco. It’s very modern, sort of minimalist, farm-to-table. It really appeals to me. I’m not into a lot of tricks anymore, just into really pure, really well-crafted food.

What is your rock & roll fantasy?

If I could see any band ever I’d want to go to San Pedro in Southern California in 1982 and see the Minutemen. Maybe the Meat Puppets open for them, and then Black Flag. That would be the ultimate.

If you had access to a time machine and could have a meal anywhere, any time what would it be?

I’d definitely want to go to Provence, but the time period is kind of irrelevant. Would I like to have a meal with Escoffier? Sure. But I’d rather have some beautifully roasted vegetables in Provence in the summer, with a bottle of rosé, some great bread, great cheese and meats. For me, it’s more about the company and the food and the place than the time.

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