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Blackbird’s Paul Kahan shares James Beard Award for outstanding chef

Paul Kahan Blackbird was one two outstanding chef winners 2013 James Beard Awards. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

Paul Kahan of Blackbird was one of two outstanding chef winners at the 2013 James Beard Awards. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 7, 2013 10:59AM

Paul Kahan, the South Side-born and Skokie-raised chef behind some of Chicago’s most celebrated restaurants, was named America’s outstanding chef Monday night by the James Beard Foundation.

He wasn’t the only one taking home top honors. David Chang of New York City’s Momofuku Noodle Bar tied Kahan for the award, presented at Lincoln Center in New York City.

Other local winners of James Beard Awards include Girl & the Goat chef Stephanie Izard, called “Best Chef: Great Lakes” for the region of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio, and the Aviary, winner of “Outstanding Bar Program.”

Kahan is the chef behind Blackbird, Avec, Publican, Publican Quality Meats and Big Star. His restaurants serve a wide array of dishes, from the haughty (Blackbird’s “roasted lamb saddle with fava beans, honeyed eggplant, endive and smoked ricotta”) to the humble (“taco al pastor” at Big Star).

“Tired of the same old culinary grind? Tired of looking at menus that sing the same old song over and over? Does the house salad bore you to tears?” wrote Pat Bruno, then the Sun-Times’ dining critic, when reviewing Publican in 2008. “The newly opened Publican in the Fulton Street Market District could be just the cure for what ails you. The culinary architects of this exciting new restaurant … have constructed a menu that is a thrill a minute.”

Kahan, 50, grew up working with his father, who owned a deli and smoked fish business one block from the Publican’s home at 837 W. Fulton Market. He graduated with a computer science degree from Northern Illinois University before working under acclaimed Chicago chefs Erwin Drechsler and Rick Bayless. Kahan won the James Beard Midwest regional chef award in 2004 and is credited with bringing fine dining to the Randolph Street corridor when he opened Blackbird there in 1997.

He’s not a culinary prima donna. Mostly eschewing the television limelight that has catapulted other chefs to rock-star status, the low-key Kahan once threw a backyard cookout for Anthony Bourdain on Bourdain’s show “No Reservations” and told Food & Wine magazine that, on some late nights, he gulps maple syrup straight from the bottle.

“It’s the least glamorous thing ever on Earth, period,” Kahan told the Sun-Times in 2003 about his job. “For some guys, maybe it’s glamorous, but, for me, when the sump pump in the basement goes out, I’m the guy who can go to Home Depot — it’s only happened twice — disconnect the thing, go to Home Depot, reconnect one, all in like 30 minutes, depending on traffic. There’s no glamor in that. It’s brutal.”

With the exception of Big Star in Wicker Park, all of Kahan’s restaurants, which are part of the One Off Hospitality Group, are in the West Loop.

That neighborhood also is home to the other local winners of 2013 James Beard awards. Girl & the Goat has been at 809 W. Randolph since 2010. Winner of “Top Chef” in season four, Izard went on to open the more casual Little Goat and Little Goat Bread across from Girl & The Goat in 2012. She is the author of the 2011 cookbook “Girl in the Kitchen.”

Izard beat out Dave Beran of Next, Paul Virant of Vie in Western Springs, Andrew Zimmerman of Sepia and Jonathon Sawyer, chef at Cleveland’s Greenhouse Tavern.

The Aviary, 955 W. Fulton Market, describes itself as a “cocktail bar, redefined” and features chef-inspired drinks in a space adjacent to the restaurant Next. The Aviary is owned and operated by Nick Kokonas and Grant Achatz, who won the 2008 James Beard “Outstanding Chef” award for his work at his restaurant Alinea. The Violet Hour, 1520 N. Damen, from One Off Hospitality Group, also was nominated for the award.

Other local nominees included: Grace for best new restaurant; Topolobampo for outstanding service; Donnie Madia of One Off Hospitality Group for outstanding restaurateur; Jimmy Bannos Jr. of Purple Pig and David Posey of Blackbird for rising star chef of the year, and Spiaggia for outstanding restaurant.

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