The restaurant business is notoriously difficult, full of long hours and backbreaking work. It’s crucial to have the right partner.
So when Paul Kahan, the Skokie-raised son of a smoked fish king, met Donnie Madia in 1997, the timing was perfect. They opened their first Chicago restaurant, Blackbird, to wild acclaim in 1997.
“Fourteen years and four stars later, we’re still together,” laughs Madia.
And what a partnership it has been. Their updated wine bar, Avec, opened in 2003; The Violet Hour, “Chicago’s first hand-crafted artisanal cocktail lounge,” followed in 2007. Next up was The Publican, a beer hall and temple of seafood and pork products, in 2008; “honky-tonk tacqueria” and whiskey destination Big Star had a 2009 birth. Their latest, Publican Quality Meats, a butcher/deli hybrid featuring charcuterie, salume and breads, opened in February.
Numerous national awards (including James Beard Best Chef Midwest 2004 for Kahan, James Beard Outstanding Restaurant Design for Blackbird, avec and The Publican, and a 2012 James Beard nomination for Outstanding Chef) attest to their accomplishments, but perhaps the most important indicator is how Chicago has responded to their restaurants: with fanatical devotion. Reservations, where taken, are hard to come by.
“We had no idea that we were ever going to be successful when we first started. We had a dream. It was hope and luck,” offers Madia.
“We wanted Blackbird to be cosmopolitan but casual and still sophisticated, driven by great food, wine and service,” adds Kahan. “And now it’s healthier than it’s ever been.”
And the opening of PQM allows them to continue what they started 15 years ago. “It’s a viable business that will make the other places better,” says Kahan. “We’re doing almost everything ourselves. Our restaurants are artisinally driven, and having a great baker, and butchering product ourselves, allows lateral integration and sustainability.”
Kahan learned from some of the industry’s best, working for years with Erwin Dreschler and Rick Bayless. “Rick told me, ‘You have to continually reinvent your restaurants, keep making them better, keep turning the screws.’ And that’s what we’ve been doing.”