The Collectors: Chef Paul Kahan Is a Connoisseur of Teak-Wood Pepper Mills
The mills were designed by Jens Harald Quistgaard for Dansk in the '50s and '60s
Welcome back to The Collectors, a series in which we profile the people behind impressive private collections.
Imagine Paul Kahan’s commute when things are normal: he’s a partner in a dozen establishments across Chicago’s Northside and a longtime bike commuter. “I have a weekly route,” says the James Beard Award-winning chef, “going from restaurant to restaurant,” which often means from stress to stress. Kahan and One Off Hospitality have added to two new restaurants in the past two years to their slate of Chicago exemplars like The Publican and The Violet Hour, as well as outposts in O’Hare International Airport and Wrigley Field.
You could see him start in the Fulton Market, passing by Publican Quality Bread and Publican Quality Meats, to Avec in West Loop, then it’s over to Wicker Park to see Big Star and Dove’s Luncheonette. Twice a week, between Avec and Big Star, Kahan makes a stop that’s just as routine and key to his happiness: Dusty Groove, the record shop in Ukrainian Village.
After perusing the “new arrivals” bin, Kahan then ducks into Circa Modern, a furniture shop specializing in mid-century modern design. More often than not, he’s in search of something very specific: a new pepper mill to add to his collection.
Kahan has what he calls “major collector fever,” adding “It’s all stress-related.”
“Retail therapy?” I ask.
Kahan laughs, “Retail therapy.” But it’s not about spending exorbitant sums of money, he says. “I just like the hunt.”
His pantry wall is covered in vibrant pots and pans, his drawers full of sleek knives, and he’s a self-proclaimed “chair-a-holic” too, boasting about 30 different models, primarily in a modern aesthetic.
But the most unique display in Kahan’s home kitchen is likely his collection of Jens Harald Quistgaard-designed Dansk pepper mills. They are dark teak wood and smooth to the touch but not polished, featuring a near endless array of shapes: cylindrical, cuboid, spherical, tall, thin, stout, with or without ridges. Some of them look like chess pieces — a particularly intricate rook, a twisting queen, two pawns joined head-over-head. Kahan points out an image of a mill he doesn’t have yet, comparing it to a spaceship, two wooden UFOs floating on top of each other.
Dansk, a home products company founded by Quistgaard that embodies the principles of Scandinavian Modern design, manufactured the mills in the 1950s and 1960s. A lot of them still work, Kahan shows, cranking a few; a testament to their lasting Peugeot Lion grinding blade mechanisms. When talking, Kahan holds a few favorite pieces in his hands. It’s the form that attracts him, the way each mill looks on the shelf and the way they fit and turn in his hands.
In his restaurants, the kitchens are stocked with classic Peugeot pepper mills, which have their own virtues. “This is a workhorse,” says Kahan about his French spice-grinding instrument. But they always seem to disappear or break in restaurant kitchens, and perhaps this fungibility influences his attraction to the teak mills — something to display and preserve.
If Kahan has the spirit of a collector, it all goes back to his love of vinyl. Collecting can sound solitary, but for Kahan it is part of a familial language, too. It was his oldest brother, Gary, who gave him his first record (Chain Reaction by The Crusaders, aka The Jazz Crusaders). “I started building amplifier and pre-amplifier kits when I was a kid because my brother got me into Hi-Fi,” he says, recalling that first kit he built at 13 or 14 years old. That led to Kahan’s most significant obsession: his 8,000+ record collection and custom-built speakers.
As a college student, scouring record shops was his haven after nightmare-inducing tests: “If I did good, I’d treat myself. If I did bad, I’d treat myself.” And then, as a young cook, thrift shops entered his rotation on a similar routine. For Kahan, browsing became its own reward, and the hopes of finding a hidden gem, even just a vintage T-shirt or an undervalued record, became his escape from stress.
It was his second-oldest brother, Richard, an experienced picker, who called Kahan years ago and asked, “Do you want a teak pepper mill?” He became enchanted with “the form” of the mills. “And I’ve been collecting ever since,” he says. These days, he still gets the occasional call from a yard sale in the East Coast with a picture of a mill. “Do you have this one yet?”
Describing his routine, the chef and restaurateur conveys an image of accumulating stress that eventually flips a switch, a “mechanism that goes off in your head.” When “in the hunt,” as he puts it, Kahan can decompress. Previously troubled by all the questions and demands on his attention, his mind frees up.
But he’s no hoarder, adding, “I have to balance because I hate clutter.”
As a collector, Kahan has more in common with an archaeologist than a pack rat. Kahan scoffs at eBay and websites that aggregate huge collections ready at your fingertips. “Online ruins everything because you can get anything” as long as you’re willing to pay the price. But Kahan loves to scour, to search, to smell the mold and dust, to feel the way history has settled on certain objects. If hunting in record shops, thrift stores and resale shops is not your thing, you might recoil, but Kahan feels at home in that atmosphere. “It’s kind of a good smell.”
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