Blackbird Chicago's braintrust. Donnie Madia, Rick Diarmit, Eduard Seitan, and Paul Kahan.

It was a fluke. Six degrees of separation, really: my college boyfriend’s soccer coach’s wife’s niece was dating a really nice guy who was a chef, and he had made them a delicious Greek salad for dinner one night. I was in school at the CIA, looking for an externship. They suggested I call him, since he had just opened his own restaurant and might want the extra help. I thought it couldn’t hurt to talk to the guy; he had worked at Erwin, one of my favorite restaurants, and if nothing else he could help me get an interview there. So I picked up the phone, called the restaurant, name-dropped the girlfriend’s aunt to get him to the phone, then talked with Paul Kahan until we decided that I would do my externship at the small restaurant he had just opened, called Blackbird.

About

Project: Blackbird

In the last sixteen years, Blackbird has emerged as one of the most influential restaurants in America. I spoke to more than 40 former employees, media and chefs about Blackbird and its impact on the food world. We are proud to present the complete story, with accompanying archive photos and videos, here.

That was sixteen years ago, but so many experiences from my six months there are set in my mind. The expression on Paul’s face when I presented a dish with about five elements too many; his disappointment when I made basil oil with canola instead of olive oil; the fact that he cured his own duck and made his own pâté, unheard of at the time.

I laugh when people talk about doing a memorable stage in Paris, because those six months in the basement prep kitchen and working the line were my Paris. They shaped my culinary point of view like nothing else before or since. What happens when you drown a perfect ingredient with excessive components. That style and sophistication do not preclude hospitality. How welcome your guests feel when they are greeted warmly and offered everything possible to make them feel at ease, from an opening amuse course to a few mignardise bites at the end.

I am not the only one who feels this way. Countless chefs and food critics cite Blackbird as the restaurant that turned the food world’s attention away from the coasts, setting a higher standard for chefs everywhere and sparking interest in the Midwestern culinary renaissance.

If one of the overriding characteristics of the American spirit is that nothing is out of reach to anyone, then Blackbird exemplifies that quality as the modern American restaurant, offering a four-star dining experience that is accessible to people resistant to spending six hours and hundreds of dollars on dinner. You can wear jeans and a sweater; no penguin suit required.

This is the story of how four men
changed everything.