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 admitKahan 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.