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paul kahan Michael Salisbury

Paul Kahan named MenuMasters Innovator of the Year

Chicago chef and restaurateur to be honored at awards celebration in May

Paul Kahan, the award-winning chef and operator of some of the most popular restaurants in Chicago, has been named MenuMasters Innovator of the Year. He will be honored at this year’s Nation’s Restaurant News MenuMasters gala, sponsored by Ventura Foods and held May 18 at The Drake Hotel in Chicago.

Kahan is executive chef and partner of One Off Hospitality, a Chicago-based restaurant empire with a dozen concepts including fine-dining landmark Blackbird, the crowd-friendly Publican, a high-end cocktail bar called The Violet Hour, and Big Star, a super-casual two-unit taqueria and honky tonk.

The company also operates avec, Publican Quality Meats, Nico Osteria, Dove’s Luncheonette, Publican Quality Bread, Publican Tavern O’Hare, Publican Anker and Pacific Standard Time. 

The James Beard Foundation named Kahan the best chef in the Midwest in 2004, and it named him Outstanding Chef of the nation in 2013 — an honor he shared with David Chang, head of the Momofuku restaurant group.

Kahan’s cookbook, “Cheers to the Publican, Repast and Present: Recipes and Ramblings from an American Beer Hall,” won the 2018 award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals in the category of “chefs and restaurants.”

Kahan cites fellow chef and Chicagoan Rick Bayless as an important influence when Kahan worked at Bayless’s fine-dining Mexican restaurant Topolobampo. He gained critical acclaim himself with the 1997 opening of Blackbird. In 1999 Food & Wine magazine named him one of the country’s ten “best new chefs.”

Although he remains critically and financially successful, Kahan says his greatest accomplishment is his work as a mentor for young chefs. He is a supporter of Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for pediatric cancer research as well as Pilot Light, which is dedicated to enhancing school children’s perception of food through hands-on education. 

“Paul Kahan’s distinctive culinary style, and the ease with which he and the chefs he has mentored move from excellent fine-dining food to excellent casual food should be an inspiration to other chefs,” Nation’s Restaurant News senior food & beverage editor Bret Thorn said. “The pork rinds I had at The Publican tasted like Cheetos made by angels, and I still dream about the papas bravas I had more than a decade ago at avec. I can’t wait to see what he has in store for the MenuMasters gala.”

Among previous winners of the Innovator of the Year award are independent chefs Stephanie Izard, David Barzelay, Jonathon Sawyer and David Burke as well as corporate chefs including Dan Coudreaut, Kurt Hankins and Robert Okura who were at McDonald’s, Applebee’s and The Cheesecake Factory, respectively, at the time.

MenuMasters is an invitation only event for foodservice executives. To learn more about MenuMasters visit On the website you can also submit a form to Request an Invitation. You will receive notification of your invitation status by email within two business days. Only current restaurant and non-commercial operators will be considered for an invitation. 

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