Monday, October 15, 2012
Publican Quality Meats and the School of Paul Kahan
On October 15, 2012, thirty-five members of the Chicago Chapter of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs ventured into the Fulton Market meatpacking district to learn from one of America’s most influential working chefs, Paul Kahan, at his latest project, Publican Quality Meats. This evening wasn’t going to be about tuxes and hushed reverence at a fine dining restaurant; rather, we were at the very casual PQM to roll up our sleeves and get educated about Midwest butchery, beef and bread and to experience forward-thinking seasonal food with an appreciation for the past.
Chef Kahan (for the record, it’s pronounced “con”) and his partners in the One Off Hospitality Group have created a series of innovative establishments in the Windy City: Blackbird, which anticipated the now ubiquitous farm-to-table dining craze; avec, which introduced Chicagoans to small plates and communal dining; The Violet Hour, which sparked our craft cocktail craze; The Publican, a contemporary American brasserie that pays homage to all things porcine and sudsy; and Big Star, a taqueria and whiskey bar with country music on the jukebox. PQM is something different, but no less innovative than these other concepts. Yes, it’s a terrific casual café that serves up an impressive variety of sandwiches (Chicago Magazine just recognized the PB&L—grilled house-made pork belly and lamb sausage garnished with cilantro and pipérade on a toasted lobster roll—as one of the top-five sandwiches in the city). In addition, PQM also houses two retail components: as its name implies, PQM is a contemporary American butcher shop, and also a neighborhood gourmet market selling house-made breads, locally sourced dairy products and artisan condiments.
Located right across the street from The Publican, members were immediately struck by PQM’s handsome space with its high ceilings, vintage-style light fixtures and crisp blue and white tiled floor and walls created by the One Off Hospitality Group’s go-to designer and architect, Thomas Schlesser. Untiled walls sport custom wallpaper depicting vintage tools of the Italian butchery trade. The place feels like it’s been around since the days when Chef Kahan’s father ran his fish smokehouse a few blocks away, but PQM’s doors just opened in February 2012.
Our reception began near the entrance of PQM, which is dedicated to the retail side of the operation. Mouths were watering as we gawked at case after case of picture-perfect cuts of all things meat—bovine, swine, lamb and fowl from the finest producers in the Midwest—as well as a remarkable array of sausages and charcuterie made in house from scratch. Fortunately, members weren’t limited to looking; we quickly made our way to charcuterie platters overflowing with house made deliciousness. Highlights included a remarkable chicken liver pate that incorporated a variety of Asian spices giving it a complex kick; a magical pork pie (it disappeared in ten minutes) made with pork shoulder, belly and bacon, its fatty goodness enhanced with sage, thyme, allspice and Vulcan’s Fire Salt; gorgeous blood mortadella made using organic pork shoulder and lightly salted beef blood flavored with nutmeg, clove, garlic and orange zest; a heavily spiced black pepper salami (PQM’s version of pepperoni) made with pork shoulder and aged for 8-12 weeks; salam d’la duja, a pure Berkshire pork sausage traditional to Piedmont, Italy that is cured in fat for a decadently rich and creamy texture; La Quercia ham, an American-style prosciutto that is aged in house for 12-14 months; pâté de campagne, a simple country pâté made with Berkshire pork and pork liver that had an unusually high fat content to give it a super creamy mouth feel; and an exquisite galantine made from turkey legs, foie gras, pancetta and pork shoulder.
One of the many lessons we learned throughout the evening was just how much Chef Kahan and his team value their relationship with small, local, organic farms in the Midwest.
Of course, these operations tend to be more economically and environmentally sustainable than factory farms. Most importantly, however, PQM obtains better tasting fresh product from farmers with whom it has meaningful personal relationships. All of PQM’s charcuterie incorporated meat from small Midwest farms, and it was clear the team knew each supplier very well: Jude Becker from Becker Lane Organic Farm in Iowa, Bob Archibald and Bronwyn Weaver of Heritage Prairie Farm just outside Chicago, Ken Kehrli of Kehrli Swine in Iowa, and Kim Snyder from Faith’s Farm near Kankakee, Illinois are among their fine suppliers.
The Publican’s superstar Beer Director, Michael McAvena, thoughtfully selected three beers to complement our charcuterie extravaganza. The Liefmans’ Goudenband was a sour Belgian brown ale with rich, complex aromas and flavors of tart cherry, prune, apple, roasted malt, red wine vinegar and earth. We also enjoyed Verhaeghe’s Vichtenaar, another Flemish style sour ale distinguished by its eight-month lagering in oak tuns, which added complexity to its tart stone fruit and vinegar flavors. Last, but certainly not least, Michael was able to procure a special limited edition beer that was a collaboration between Dexter, Michigan’s Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales and Hawaii’s Maui Brewing Company named Sobrehumano Palena ‘ole (“superhuman” and “without limits”). This tasty brew was made with Michigan cherries and Hawaiian liliko’i (passion fruit). Like all Jolly Pumpkin beers, this very special brew was aged in oak barrels with wild yeast strains and lactic bacteria, which lent complimentary sourness to the already tart cherry tones.
Throughout our reception, small groups of Chaîne members were invited downstairs at PQM, where much of the action takes place. First, Chef Cosmo Goss, head of charcuterie at PQM, showed us the glass-fronted walk-in cooler that’s home to meat in various stages of butchering and aging. Inside the cooler, Cosmo not only pointed out the more traditional cuts and aging techniques, but several ongoing “experiments” (beef aged for 7-1/2 months?!) that The Publican was pursuing in collaboration with Swedish superstar chef Magnus Nilsson of Faviken restaurant. (Result of these experiments? Unknown. Enthusiasm of the PQM staff for the exercise? Boundless.) At the back of the cooler was a separate storage room. When we opened the door, the rich, spicy aroma of hundreds of hanging salamis and other tubular meats made everyone reluctant to leave. Each successive group left the meat locker a bit chilly but vastly more knowledgeable about meat.
The tour of the surprisingly expansive downstairs space continued with explanations of the butchering equipment, sausage makers and mixers, bread making tables and ovens, massive stock pots and burners where Chef Kahan was cooking solo (at least for the time being). Eventually, all Chaîne members returned downstairs to witness the butchering event, which was held on a 7’ x 12’ stainless steel table. With his boss looking on and asking questions, Chef Cosmo applied his trade to a very large piece of beef. We learned about butchery techniques and how they differ around the world, various cuts of beef (including PQM’s now-famous “flap” steak), grading beef, the differences between grain and grass fed beef, and how PQM uses the entire animal in its operations. We also learned that PQM supplies all of the bread and meat to the One Off Hospitality Group’s eateries, and other restaurants in town are beginning to buy its extraordinary products.
Following our educational tour and demonstration, we returned upstairs to two long communal tables meticulously set by Private Events Manager Grace Oplinger and her colleagues. Chef Kahan and his talented team treated us to three savory courses. Although we were eating in a space that typically serves salads and sandwiches, the PQM team successfully impressed Chaîne members with their ability to prepare beautifully plated dishes worthy of the best fine dining restaurants. Our first course was butter poached Hawaiian yellowtail tuna accompanied by local butternut squash, topped with a colorful sprinkle of crunchy pomegranate and pumpkin seeds and finished with Italian bottarga (cured and pressed red mullet roe), which added an intense briny punch to the luxurious dish. A 2009 Sonoma Valley Chardonnay from Auteur Wines—with lively green apple and lime flavors, good acid and plenty of minerality—paired nicely with the tuna.
Our second course was king crab from the Bearing Sea that was set on top of a healthy schmear of house made nduja, a wonderfully fatty and flavorful Calabrian-style spicy sausage made from pork belly, jowl and shoulder. The dish was finished with a dollop of airy butter pudding (a nod to Blackbird’s Chef David Posey), sorrel and ribbons of crunchy Nichols Farm delicata squash. This dish was paired with a 2010 Vogelzang Vineyard Birdsong Sauvignon Blanc from Happy Valley, one of the youngest AVAs in Santa Barbara County. This intense yet graceful wine, with spicy aromatics and ripe peach and nectarine notes, stood up nicely to this wildly creative course.
Our final savory offering was far simpler than the first two courses and involved an incredible taste-off. On one platter we had corn-fed beef from Slagel Family Farm of Central Illinois that had been aged in-house for 60 days. On another platter we had 100% grass-fed, un-aged beef from Rain Crow Ranch located in the rolling hills of the southern Ozarks near Doniphan, Missouri. The ribeye steaks were cooked in a hot skillet, seasoned with a bit of salt (grilled lemon optional), and then sliced thin. The medium rare corn-fed beef had a very rich, robust flavor, tender texture and buttery mouth feel. The grass fed beef was cooked on the rare side because it lacked the rich marbling found in the corn-fed beef. It had a deep, fresh, herbaceous flavor and was a bit more chewy that its corn-fed counterpart. Most members gave the win to the corn-fed beef, but everyone agreed the teaching exercise was both fascinating and delicious. The ribeye steaks were paired with a very interesting wine, 2001 La Rioja Alta Rioja Viña Ardanza Reserva Especial, from only the third vintage to be declared “Reserva Especial” after 1964 and 1973. A blend of 80% Tempranillo and 20% Garnacha, its sweet black raspberry and cherry flavors with smoky plum notes made for a memorable pairing with the beef.
Dinner concluded with a perfect seasonal dessert created by the Publican’s pastry chef, Anna Shovers. The fig cake with quince incorporated Seedling Farm raspberry and port reduction as well as San Francisco Tcho dark chocolate streusel for a bit of crunch with a side of rich goat’s milk ice cream. Not surprisingly, this dessert paired perfectly with a vintage port; the 1985 Offley Boa Vista had hints of plum, chocolate and caramel.
In keeping with our educational evening, Vice-Conseiller Culinaire Christopher Koetke, a pillar of knowledge and experience in the culinary world, gave insightful commentary on our cuisine to both of our communal tables. The Chaîne’s Vice Chancelier/Argentier Hilton Weinberg, subbing for Caviste Mon Roldan, provided astute observations on the wine pairings.
At the end of the evening Bailli Jane Tracy presented a special plate to Chef Cosmo and thanked him for the informative tour, educational butchering demonstration and delicious food. Earlier in the evening, a presentation was also made to Chef Paul, and I was struck by something he said as he thanked the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs for its own “awesome” commitment to learning. Chef Kahan recognized that the Chaîne is group of food and wine enthusiasts that get together for camaraderie and fun around the table, but the passion for fine cuisine and wines is based in education, and passing that knowledge to a younger generation is key to the organization’s success and longevity. The same has to be said about Chef Kahan. Yes, we respect his three nominations as James Beard Outstanding Chef and his victory as James Beard Best Chef of the Midwest. And we are proud that in March 2012, Bon Appétit Magazine recognized him as a visionary at the top of its “America’s Best New Artisanal Butchers” list. Perhaps we admire him most, however, for his superb mentoring abilities, passing on his prodigious knowledge and refined palate to a younger generation of chefs. The skills and passion of these talented men and women will continue to strengthen Chicago’s vibrant food scene long after Paul Kahan hangs up his apron. And that’s a legacy that Chaîne members will savor for decades to come.
Our October dinner will be a different Chaîne evening inasmuch as it will be primarily educational and with a capacity for 36 people. There will be steep and narrow steps and stairways to negotiate as we will be taken in small groups down into the basement of the shop and into the aging room to tour and eventually watch, while standing, a beef butchering demonstration. This is to advise those who might find this challenging. PLEASE NOTE EARLIER START TIME.
Chef/Partner/Restaurateur/Trailblazer Paul Kahan is no stranger to any of us. We have watched his direction with interest since the opening of the smart—‐urban—‐chic Blackbird in 1999. Steadily, uniquely and intelligently we have seen a diverse selection of dining options as he and his partners have given us Avec, The Publican, Big Star, The Violet Hour, and now the retail entity of the butcher’s shop in the West Loop.
Our evening will start in the shop’s main café with a broad selection of charcuterie, cheeses and breads baked in—house. There will be chefs who will explain the selections and plenty of opportunity to ask questions. During this reception, waves of small groups will be taken downstairs to tour the working kitchen and aging room. This will be followed by the beef butchering demonstration that will last approximately 30 minutes.
Our dinner will comprise four courses, and will include a family style comparative beef tasting between grass and grain fed beef and accompanied by appropriate pairings.