It was the 1990s and the odds were against them. Charlie Trotter was plating braised veal tongue with black truffles in all his white tablecloth glory, while unfussy fixtures like Lawrence of Oregano and Big Bowl were ready to present less-than-authentic Americanized interpretations of cuisines from overseas. The bar was either very high or very low for those entering the Chicago dining scene, with not much of a middle ground.
Friends Donnie Madia and Ricky Diarmit, a bartender and nightclub doorman, respectively, agreed to partner on a restaurant. They found a chef, a space, and an architect, and decided upon a concept called Table — a communal dining-style restaurant with a single oval table. None of it worked out, of course, except for their then-little-known architect, Thomas Schlesser, who remained on board to design a different concept the group later named Blackbird. When the stark West Loop restaurant opened in 1997, its clean lines and cream-colored palette only enhanced up-and-coming chef Paul Kahan’s elegant, French technique-heavy plates built with locally sourced, seasonal ingredients.
Casual fine dining was never a thing in the Midwest until Blackbird came along, setting the standard for warm hospitality in a sleek, yet totally unpretentious space that intrigued luminaries including celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay and fashion designer Helmut Lang. Madia and Diarmit, along with Kahan and final partner Eduard Seitan, were on to something. And now more than two decades later, their little Blackbird—which has received pretty much every food, design, and hospitality award—is celebrating 20 years of business.
Randolph Street was a ghost town in 1996 when Madia and Diarmit settled upon a two-floor space along the empty West Loop strip. “We signed the lease … with no money,” jokes Diarmit. And no chef.
Through mutual industry contacts, Donnie heard that Kahan, a Frontera Grill and Topolobampo alum, was getting ready to decamp from elevated Lakeview fixture Erwin’s. And convincing him to join the future Blackbird team was an easy sell—Madia and Diarmit promised Kahan they had “the money” (which they did not), and ownership (which they delivered). “I wanted someone to dig in with us, and work as hard as we were going to work, and become part of the landscape of the project,” explains Madia of their decision to bring on a chef-partner as opposed to a salaried employee.
During the late ’90s, very few Chicago chefs were cooking seasonally. And Madia and Diarmit’s business plan to open a restaurant that changed its menu four times a year aligned with Kahan’s interests. “I was very much an Alice Waters disciple and wanted to do a Chez Panisse in the Midwest,” explains the chef.
Shortly thereafter, Seitan, who had worked with Diarmit at Club Lucky in Wicker Park, joined the team — serving as the final founding father of what’s today known as One Off Hospitality, the beloved dining and drinking outfit now responsible for 12 Chicago restaurants, including Avec and the Publican.
Ultimately, despite the curveballs — no money, incompetent contractors, no money, a little-known architect given almost complete autonomy to scheme a small space in a desolate part of town that didn’t even have sidewalks, and no money again — a dream team was born. To salute Blackbird’s 20 years of business, Eater spoke with the One Off Hospitality founders, in addition to several of the restaurant’s alumni now spread throughout the country, and asked them to share their best memories of the pivotal, seasonally inclined, American-French restaurant.
Brian Huston, former line cook at Blackbird, chef-owner of Boltwood in Evanston
On Blackbird as family: I always thought of Blackbird as an extension of my own family. After working at Blackbird, I moved to Colorado for six years. Paul told me I was crazy. He said — at the time — that there was no good food in Colorado. During that time, whenever I would get a break, I would come home to Chicago to visit. Most of the time I wouldn’t let too many people know I was coming back, as it would lead to too much running around, and I would feel pressure to see everyone. However, I would always come home to see my family up in Evanston, and I would always make the trip to see my family at Blackbird. After getting my rocky mountain high on and realizing Paul was right, I decided to come home to Chicago in 2006. Before I’d even packed my truck, I reached out to Paul to see if he could recommend a good kitchen to work in. He told me he had an idea he thought I would be perfect for. His idea was the Publican. When I decided to leave the Publican, Paul took me out and told me 100 reasons why not to open my own place. I joke that he left out a thousand more reasons.
Kimberly Galban, former hostess at Blackbird, managing partner and vice president of operations at One Off Hospitality
On Donnie’s attention to detail: It was maybe my first week at Blackbird working as a host. I was at the host stand, and was using a pen that happened to have a pharmaceutical name on it. Donnie walked up, gave me his raised eyebrows, and said “What is that in your hand?” I said, “A pen.” He said “Let me see that.” I gave him the pen. He said, “Let me show you something.” He walked outside the front door and threw the pen across the street. He walked back in and said, “It is all about details. We should never be using a pen that advertises anything. We should only be using the best black ballpoint pen for our guests. It is about consistency and showing ourselves on the best foot. What message does that send?” I responded with, “I completely understand.” As crazy as I thought that moment was, still today, when I see a pen anywhere that advertises anything other the brand I am working for, I can’t do anything but chuckle. He has a point!
On Paul’s approach to running a kitchen: Paul’s day-to-day today is vastly different from 20 years ago. Back in the day, I was mesmerized watching Paul come up with dishes — always with his team, of course — and hearing his thoughts on flavors, textures, and presentation. Always giving the best product possible and never charging what we should. It was about giving perceived value so diners felt good about what they were spending. Today, Paul can still surprise me. While not in the kitchens on a daily basis, he still finds time to taste new dishes with the chefs, share his experiences with them, and be open-minded to new ways of doing things 20 years later. He remains a leader that is humble, supportive, and dedicated to the success of his chefs. Paul has always been about promoting others over himself. He would rather not be in any spotlight, which is why it probably took 20 years for the first cookbook to come out!
Jeremy Kittelson, former sous chef at Blackbird, culinary director at Edible Beats restaurant group in Colorado
On Paul’s ability to empower those around him: Paul empowered and trusted his team. Everyone was allowed and encouraged to contribute. Everyone felt part of Blackbird’s success, because we were. I think this really helped to make him so successful. He knew that we would make some mistakes, but he was always there to teach us. You felt confident to make decisions and do what he wanted us to do. Trust is a very inspirational and powerful tool. He is a very humble and kind person and that’s why he is so beloved. He made everyone around him better.
On Paul’s lack of ego: Paul is able to get the best out of people by fostering their talents and creativity. There wasn’t just one good chef in his kitchen, but a whole team of chefs. Kitchens are really ego-driven places and Paul was never driven by that. He made Blackbird a fun and great place to work that did really amazing food. I remember the first time he and I worked on a dish together. Its was this really beautiful scallop dish that he let me put together, and of course he helped adjust it so it was was next level. Soon after, a Bon Appetit article came out announcing the 50 best restaurants in America, and Blackbird was on it and the writer mentioned that dish. It was a very proud moment for me, and Paul shared that success with everyone. It wasn’t all about him; it was about us.
It would have been very easy for a chef of Paul’s caliber to take all the credit, but he never did. He was always very thankful to his team and made sure you felt it. I don’t live in Chicago anymore, and it’s been over 10 years since I’ve worked there, but every time I go back, he makes me feel so welcomed and special. Its almost like I never left. Paul deserves all the accolades he receives as a chef for his talent and work ethic, but I know he’s had more success because he is a great person to everyone he meets.
Paul Virant, former private events chef at Blackbird, chef-owner of Vie in Western Springs
On Blackbird as a Midwest Chez Panisse: Paul Kahan’s Blackbird took on a similar role to what Chez Panisse did in Northern California in the ’70s. It really embraced seasonality and the resources of the Great Lakes region. Paul looked for inspiration through the products that farmers produced. A truly old-school approach to food that has existed since the beginning of mankind. This philosophy really started to change the dining scene in Chicago. A Great Lakes cuisine began to emerge. Everything was done in-house, charcuterie programs developed, and chefs cooked seasonally by supporting the farmers through the Green City Market and beyond. Blackbird was at the beginning of Chicago becoming a stellar food culture, and it inspired many chefs to help seal that deal.
Patrick Fahy, former head pastry chef at Blackbird, executive pastry chef of Four Seasons Hotel West Lake Village in California
On that time Albert Adria came in: In the summer of 2010, in my first pastry chef role, I was a rookie at Blackbird. Unexpectedly, on a random night, we received a special guest. Unbeknownst to me it was Albert Adria, who had stopped in for a visit to Blackbird. He was only interested in tasting something sweet as he had just come from dinner at Avec. Having far less experience than I do now, I quickly called my wife explaining that the most famed man in pastry was about to experience my desserts. Her advice to me was, “Pretend you’re cooking for your mom.” And that is what I did. I prepared small bites of what was on our menu, which included criollo chocolate with tonka bean ice cream and a honey parfait with Campari liquor candies, amongst a few other things.
Having no expectations following his experience, rather just the hope that he enjoyed what was sent to his table, 20 minutes later I received a message that Albert wanted to speak with me. I remember going downstairs to meet with Albert and noticed the very serious look on his face. With a casual smile and an animated gesture of approval, he complimented my dishes and gave me praise for their surprise element. This included the tiny chocolate sphere with liquid chocolate inside. He also loved the pearl-sized sugar-candy shell encasing the Campari syrup. We stood in the middle of Blackbird’s dining room speaking for only a few short moments, but the memory will last forever.