By Brenna O’Dea
Chicago chef, Pilot Light cofounder, James Beard Award Winner, and all around good guy, Paul Kahan brings big flavor and big fun to everything he does here at Pilot Light and beyond. Today, he inspires young minds to cook and create magic in the kitchen and classroom…but let’s go back to where the magic began…
“The family business was food,” Chef Kahan explains. While there were no Pilot Light-like programs around back in the day, “except Home Ec I guess…” Paul Kahan got goin’ in the kitchen young. “I remember very vividly smoked fish at my dad’s place, this lake fish called chub…and my mom made this sick grilled cheese. It wasn’t just regular old grilled cheese. She would smash it down and I would jam potato chips in there…and my grandma was a great cook.” Paul begins to paint a picture of all the dishes she used to create ranging from chicken with apricot jam, pineapple chunks, ketchup and barbecue sauce, to the classic London broil…AKA “this thick meat slab roasted in the oven.”
Of course he had to balance out all that meat n’ cheese in some way. Luckily, Chef Kahan has a green thumb on top of it all. “I was an adventurous eater, I tried everything. We cooked at home at a very early age and had a home garden at a young age.” When asked about his least favorite food as a child, Paul promptly replies, “None, I even liked vegetables. I was a green bean fanatic.” Yep, you heard me. Here’s hoping that this voracious appetite for veggies rubs off on our students in our lessons!
The years went on, and during college Kahan continued to express his creativity through food and in other ways as well, “I thought I wanted to be an architect…but halfway through school I started working in an organic food coop and started baking and cooking a lot more. Even though I was studying science, my food interest started to grow.” Then finally, it happened, “I got a job as a prep cook and never looked back.” And we are certainly thankful for that.
I asked Chef Kahan if he had any advice for young people interested in a career in food. With a hearty chuckle he imparted his wisdom…”the perception of the food and chef industry today is distorted a little. It’s all based on food tv and the celebrity aspect of it.” Kahan’s point of course, was that this glitz n’ glam side to things is not the reality for most people in the food industry, especially when you are just starting out. His suggestion: “Ask yourself, do you really like hard work? If yes, do you really love food and are you passionate about it?” There it is. Plain and simple. Sounds easy right? Of course not. The life of a chef, especially this Chicago star, is demanding physically, mentally, emotionally, creatively, and in basically any every other way possible. But for Kahan, it is all worth it.
He explains that one of his favorite parts of his work is watching his employees learn and grow, just as he does in the classroom. “It’s the process of seeing young men and women mature and fulfill their dreams…hiring someone as a young lunch cook…seeing them become chef de cuisine or executive chef and open their own restaurant…from a young girl to a woman, a boy to a man, ya know? To see them have the same ideals that I do as far as how we treat the people and the earth…” Ah, that’s the good stuff right there. That’s why Kahan keeps cooking and creating in his restaurants and in your kids’ classrooms.
So what does Paul love most about Pilot Light today and what does he hope to achieve in this work? “My favorite part is sort of everything, but it’s the fact that we identified a need in society and we are actually facilitating change. To be honest, it’s the days in the classrooms. Seeing the kids, seeing how excited they are, actually learning. Learning about food inspires them to learn other things, to explore. Curriculum based learning about food really doesn’t exist outside of what we are doing.”
Kahan reminisces about one of his favorite lessons, back in the early days, a lesson called Noodles to Neighborhoods, “We had a girl from our restaurant of Chinese descent, she actually made noodles in the classroom!” It is easy to tell from the excitement in his voice, he truly loves and cares about this work. And when I asked Chef Kahan about one takeaway message he wants our readers to remember…
“We push kids to want to change and ask questions. The food in the cafeteria, where does it come from? We empower students and families to want to make change.” And finally he leaves us with this message, one that I think should be obvious to us today, but often is forgotten or squandered, “Young minds have this capacity for learning that is unlimited, and when their eyes open up they have unlimited potential.”