January is a smart time for a chef to take a few days off. Business goes slack. Farmers' markets in colder regions of the country are closed, or should be. In their kitchens, cooks sort through potatoes, potatoes and more potatoes, like poker players dealt low cards. "By this time I've exhausted every root vegetable known to mankind," says Paul Kahan, chef of the Chicago restaurant Blackbird and an F&W Best New Chef from the class of 1999. "I'm just waiting for anything to come up out of the ground again."
If you live in Chicago, the January weather is another reason to get out of town. The standard cure is to go south. Heading north is counterintuitive. Heading north to a frozen Wisconsin lake to match wits with fat, lethargic fish in subzero temperatures is just perverse, but that is what Kahan and a few friends have done each winter for the past seven years. The cold, the stillness, the flat acres of ice and snow, the contest between man and trout that is more evenly matched than the man might like to admit--Kahan has found that these things focus the mind admirably. "At the restaurant, the amount of background noise is staggering," he says. "Out on Green Lake, it's complete and utter peace and quiet. The colder it gets, the quieter it is."
Aside from the tonic qualities of Wisconsin silence, there may be another reason Paul Kahan heads north instead of south: He belongs to the Midwest. He was born, raised and schooled in Chicago, where his father owned a string of delicatessens and a smoked-fish concern. After working at Rick Bayless's Topolobampo for three years and change, in 1997 he opened Blackbird on West Randolph Street. Blackbird is the prototype of the modern Chicago restaurant. Smallish, informal but smartly designed, it specializes in unfussy but detail-oriented cooking built from Midwestern ingredients. An excellent roasted Illinois rabbit hops on and off the Blackbird menu but remains in the memory of those who have tasted it. Kahan's regional appetite is so highly developed that during the three-hour ride to catch (and eat) his favorite Wisconsin fish he will stop to buy (and eat) his favorite Wisconsin cheese and his favorite Wisconsin jerky.
The next morning, Kahan and company rise before dawn. At a small landing on Green Lake, they load a sleigh with tackle, extra socks, a boom box, bags of groceries, beer, whiskey, sharp knives, a deck of cards and other necessities. Dennis Walker, a recognized expert on fishing Green Lake ever since he was 12 years old and pulled a 34-and-a-half-pound lake trout from its waters, hitches the sleigh to his red pickup and tows the men and their gear to a shanty about a mile offshore. Inside and around the shanty, Walker bores a few holes in the ice with a gasoline-powered auger and helps the men bait their hooks and drop them to the bottom of the lake. Then he drives away, and the waiting begins.
"In the summer, the trout are hungry," Kahan says. "In the winter, they're not that into eating. Lots of times you'll pull the bait up at the end of the day and it hasn't been touched." On days like that, when the thermometer reads negative five and a Canadian front is whipping across the lake, the guys spend a lot of time inside. The shanty is made of little more than tar paper and plywood, but after the door is bolted and a fire is lit in the Franklin stove, it quickly warms up.
Somebody tunes the radio to the local swap meet. Cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon circulate. From time to time, the guys glance at a black circle in the ice in one corner of the shack, where a wooden bobber floats with a turkey feather stuck into it. A hundred feet below the surface, a trout may be eyeing the hook with hunger, or suspicion, or boredom. If the trout nibbles, the feather trembles. If he bites and runs, the feather disappears under the ice. Right now, it stands motionless. After a while, one of the guys looks over to see what Paul's doing.
Paul is slicing and chopping. First order of business is a pot of lentil soup made with every root vegetable known to mankind, more or less. It bubbles away on the stove, waiting to be ladled out with a shaving of Pleasant Ridge Reserve's Gruyère-style cheese from Wisconsin, which Kahan calls "one of the best cheeses I've ever tasted."
The guys will help themselves to soup whenever hunger calls, but there will be real meals, too. Breakfast is cornmeal pancakes, with corn kernels in the batter, fried on the griddle and topped with soft-boiled eggs and crème fraîche. A touch on the fancy side for shanty cooking, but satisfying. Later Kahan will toss some sausages on the skillet--rabbit sausages, if the guys are lucky, from the same Wisconsin butcher that sells the jerky. Once browned, the links are served with marinated carrots and potatoes in a tangy whole-grain-mustard dressing. That will be lunch.
Dinner is still at the bottom of Green Lake.
Sometimes the turkey feather will obligingly dive underwater, but the men usually have to leave the shanty and fish outdoors with a jig pole, tugging the line so the bait will do a little jig and rouse the fish's curiosity. With any luck at all, by sunset one of the guys will hook a trout longer than 17 inches, the legal minimum. Skinned and gutted right on the ice, it will be firmer and sweeter than anything sold in Chicago, or anywhere else. With a fish like that you can make a fine meal following a mediocre recipe, but Kahan happens to have a great one. He carves the trout into fillets and sears them on one side before simmering them with leeks in butter and white wine. The dish is rounded out with boiled fingerling potatoes, fresh thyme and bacon until it lies somewhere between campfire food and big-city restaurant cooking. It fortifies the guys for a few more hours of waiting for the turkey feather to wiggle and reminds them why they bother.
"It's so cold out there that the speed of life slows down to almost nothing," Kahan says. "We're like the fish. We don't move at all." Kahan says the tranquillity of winter fishing helps rekindle his culinary imagination, giving him time to fill a few pages of his notebook with some notions he'd like to try out back in town. On the other hand, he has also said that his weekends on the ice are "basically an excuse to drink an inordinate amount of beer." Possibly, both claims are true.