Paul Kahan and Donnie Madia reflect on their trailblazing third restaurant which turns 10 this month
Paul Kahan still remembers the quote written on the very first Publican sweatshirt: “No lumpers.”
“Lumpers were the guys who used to hang around the meatpacking neighborhood and wait for the big semi trucks to come in. They’d ride on the running boards of them and give drivers routes to avoid low bridges, and they’d help them unload their supplies,” says Kahan. “It was a whole culture at the time.”
The time was 2006, and Kahan and his business partner, Donnie Madia, were looking at spots for their next venture. They had already reinvented Randolph Street as a dining destination with Blackbird and Avec, and the future for them was Fulton Market — known then as Chicago’s Meatpacking District.
“When Keith McNally opened up Pastis in New York’s Meatpacking District in 1999, it totally put more force of attention on that neighborhood than anything else was doing at the time,” says Madia. “We had grand illusions that we could do the same in Chicago and totally transform the area.”
They were originally eyeing a diner called Dino’s, which they were hoping to buy and turn into a restaurant that would emulate a French truck stop. It was on their walk back from that site visit that they encountered a space at the corner of Fulton and Green that stopped them in their tracks. “The landlord was digging it out with a backhoe, and we got to chatting with him,” recalls Kahan. “It was the first time we had seen that space, and it really got us thinking about the possibilities of owning something in this part of town.”
It was a brave venture in a neighborhood that most Chicagoans were content to quickly pass by in transit to lively hubs like the Loop and River North. By day it was bustling with meatpacking business, but by night it was desolate, dimly lit, and drew less than desirable crowds. There were dining options here and there — some greasy spoons and a restaurant or two that seemed well ahead of its time (Kahan fondly remembers Follia, in particular). But for the team that helped to spearhead the area around the corner from what’s now known as Restaurant Row, it was perfect. “We figured that if we do it right and it’s an exciting concept that offers something unique, that people will come,” says Kahan.
That concept was the Publican, a beer-focused restaurant specializing in pork and oysters. Before opening, Kahan and his wife spent 10 days with architect Thomas Schlesser and his wife, traveling through breweries, beer halls, and Trappist monasteries of Belgium and northern France gaining insights. Upon returning home, it was settled: They wanted to create the best beer-driven restaurant in the world.
To help matters was the building itself — a cavernous space built in the early 1900s with large timber columns in the center and cast-iron columns surrounding its exterior — perfect for gathering large groups. “We signed a lease that was completely undervalue, and it had been undervalue for years,” says Madia. That didn’t last long, of course. In the 10 years that have passed, the neighborhood has seen the arrival of Google, WeWork, and Ace Hotel, along with a bevy of restaurants and bars, such as Swift & Sons, the Aviary, and Duck Duck Goat, to name a few. As a result, the restaurant’s rent has quadrupled.
The Publican evolved right alongside its neighborhood. Though Kahan is known for his prowess for pork, he began seeing a difference in the way he and his fellow Chicagoans were eating. “The way I like to eat and the way I’m seeing most people like to eat has changed over the years — we really love our vegetables now,” he says. It was a realization that further bolstered the restaurant’s reliance on farmers and A-grade suppliers, a practice resulting in a constant shuffling of dishes depending on what’s fresh that day. “The menus are really driven by what comes in the back door, and that changes a lot,” says Kahan, who notes that the team might swap out as many as 10 plates for any given service. The kitchen’s nose-to-tail approach is still at work, too, a practice that led them to open sister spot Publican Quality Meats across the street, where they make and store a wide-ranging selection of cuts and sausages.
It’s just one of the ventures that has spun off from the restaurant since 2008 — others include Publican Quality Bread in 2012 and Publican Tavern at O’Hare Airport in 2016. It’s all enough to say that the shot they took 10 years ago on Fulton Market has paid off — and though decidedly Midwestern in its hospitality and local sourcing, the restaurant’s East Coast inspiration lives on. “We collectively had a dream, and that dream came true,” says Madia. “What happened in New York is exactly what happened to us, and I’m glad we were at the forefront of that.”
To commemorate a decade of dishes at the restaurant, here are Kahan’s picks for the Publican’s five most iconic dishes, from Maine-sourced mollusks to pork ribs.
1. Farm chicken
“Donnie and I were in Montreal doing research and development for the restaurant, and we went to a Portuguese chicken restaurant we had read about and sat at the counter. They were grilling 20 of these chickens at once that were marinated in something we deduced to be smoked paprika, cayenne, olive oil, garlic, and oregano, and they served them atop a bed of french fries. Donnie and I looked at each other and were like, ‘This is a concept in and of itself for a restaurant in Chicago.’ We had a goal to do it better. We use Mexican oregano, which is a little more minty, Espelette pepper instead of smoked paprika for its sweet, spicy tones, and sliced Fresno chilies. We tasted about 10 different birds from 10 different farms before we landed on the one from Slagel Farms — it was the best. We make Belgian-cut French fries. This dish is all about one moment: when the fries soak up the flavor of the juice but still retain their crunch. It’s been on the menu since day one.”
2. Pork country ribs
“My first cooking job was at a place called Metropolis Café at North and Well in the late ’80s. I cooked beside a guy named Jason Munro and his wife, Diana. In the early days of Blackbird and Avec, my wife and I would throw these huge Memorial Day parties. By the time we did the last one, it felt like Woodstock — 350 people were at our house, and we went through 14 kegs of beer. Jason and Diana would always bring pork country ribs in a marinade in big, Ziplock bags, and it was always the highlight. Jason is a very methodical cook, and he insisted they were so good because he triple-dipped them in the marinade throughout the cooking process. I told them they’d end up on our menu one day because they were so delicious. We changed the soy sauce marinade to tamari so they’re gluten free, and we pair it up with whatever is in season, whether it’s charred broccolini with chile flakes and garlic or yellow cherry tomatoes with watermelon.”
3. Charcuterie plate
“We always offered a charcuterie plate at Blackbird, where we’d do a homemade sausage, pate, terrine, and a bunch of homemade pickles. Now with Publican Quality Meats, we have a plethora of sausages, from simple ones to boudin blanc with brown butter and snails. We still like to feature a sausage, pate, and terrine, all of which we make now at PQM. It’s a great way to kick off the meal with some beer or wine — it helps to define the style of the restaurant.”
“We started sourcing mussels from a woman in Stonington, Maine, named Ingrid Bengis — she’s who Thomas Keller had been sourcing from as well. These days, we get our mussels from Peter Stocks. We worked really hard to create a strong interpretation of this dish with the best possible products. We tried it out with different beer, wines, vinegar, and many other ingredients before we ended up with our final version, which uses sour beer as the alcoholic component. We serve it with a demi baguette that we bake at Publican Quality Bread.”
5. Ham chop in hay
“We always try to have a big-box item on the menu — something that can be shared comfortably between four and five people. In the River Cottage Meat Book there was a recipe for mutton cooked in hay. It’s a thing that peasants would do in England — they’d roast a chunk of meat in a pot with hay, and it would stay moist and warm over the course of the morning, so that by lunchtime it was ready to eat. It’s a laborious process. We get a giant, triple thick-cut pork chop, brine it like a holiday ham, then remove it from the brine and dry it overnight. The next day we smoke it and Cryovac it in a bag with thyme, butter, and hay. We put it in a pot with hay over the hearth in the restaurant to bring it back up in temperature, slice it, and serve it with grits and charred chicories.”
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