Paul Kahan's first cookbook, 'Cheers to The Publican,' worth the 20-year wait

Nick Kindelsperger

Is it really possible that "Cheers to The Publican" (due out Sept. 19) is Paul Kahan's first cookbook? These days, it seems as though new chefs mint cookbook deals before the first restaurant reviews come in. But the chef behind a number of Chicago's best and most exciting restaurants hasn't indulged. That's even though it's been 20 years since he and One Off Hospitality partners opened their first restaurant, Blackbird, in 1997, and nearly nine since The Publican opened in 2008. Along the way, Kahan and company have racked up every conceivable restaurant award, from Michelin stars to James Beard Awards, but Kahan has never written a cookbook.

So does the normally mild-mannered and media-shy Kahan finally get to skewer chefs he despises or delve into the sordid details of how he personally overcame some addiction that he's never related publicly? Well, he does admit that he gained a little weight before opening The Publican, but then he joined a gym. Honestly, that's about the most personal detail Kahan relates here. If Kahan has some heartwarming story about learning to cook from his grandmother, he doesn't share it.

Instead, Kahan and co-writers Cosmo Goss and Rachel Holtzman have created a book detailing how chefs geek out about food. Personally, after thumbing through dozens of celebrity chef cookbooks each year, this feels revelatory.

In particular, Kahan spends the majority of the book discussing people who inspired the dishes of The Publican, his so-called ode to "oysters, pork, and beer." In the note about Waxman potatoes, named for the recipe developed by chef Jonathan Waxman, Kahan writes, "We like to give credit where credit is due." Talk about understatement.

Essentially every recipe here is credited to someone. A huge number of prominent Chicago chefs spent time in one of Kahan's kitchens, and nearly all of them pop up in the book at some point. Brian Huston, who once was Publican chef de cuisine and now runs Boltwood in Evanston, developed the elote recipe. Jared Van Camp (Nellcote, Old Town Social and Leghorn) never worked at The Publican, but he was a sous-chef at Blackbird for a time, and that's where Kahan first learned Van Camp's bread-and-butter pickles recipe. "We use these pickles for everything," writes Kahan.

Some attributions are hilariously specific. Former sous-chef Erling Wu-Bower apparently picked up the original idea for the smoked trout roe recipe from a college dorm blog about "drinking beer and making salmon roe." (I'd love that URL.)

It's clear that Kahan draws inspiration from just about everywhere. The alm salad is named for a small hiker's hut he stayed at in Switzerland. At one point he feels the need to praise the bologna at Brandon Meats and Sausage, a shop in the village of Brandon, Wis., which has a population of a little over 800.

About the cockiest thing Kahan writes in the whole book is that his kitchen has "perfected the process of turning pork skin into super-light, airy puffs," which still comes across as humble if you've ever stuffed your face silly on the crackly pork offerings. And while he calls the grilled chicken the "most famous Publican dish," he still finds the need to credit a Portuguese restaurant in Montreal and Zuni Cafe in San Francisco.

All of this attribution could come across as a real snooze - just give us the recipe already! - if the sense of discovery weren't so intoxicating. The Publican's irresistible dishes didn't come out of thin air; they were the result of a team of chefs hunting for the most delicious food possible.

Lots of restaurants highlight the need to source good ingredients, but few cookbooks dedicate so many actual pages to those business owners. Along the way, we learn that the Calendar Island Mussel Co. in Maine is the only place Kahan gets mussels from, and that Island Creek Oysters in Massachusetts developed a proprietary oyster, called a Tumblekin, for the restaurant. Some of the sourcing seems obvious (he likes burrata made in Italy), while some definitely is not (he prefers farmed shrimp from Indiana and prosciutto from Iowa).

Even with a nearly complete lack of personal details, this is one of the most honest chef cookbooks I've ever read. By ignoring the usual pitfalls and indulgences of most celebrity chef cookbooks, Kahan has created something truly memorable. Hope it doesn't take him another 20 years to pen another one.
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