Taste Talks, a food-centered conference that launched in Brooklyn in 2013, returns to Chicago this weekend for its third year. A day full of panel discussions and chef demos is bookended by several events dedicated to eating food rather than talking about it—most notably the All-Star Barbecue on Sunday, with chefs including Jason Hammel (Lula Cafe), Brian and Jennifer Enyart (Dos Urban Cantina), Jared Van Camp (Leghorn Chicken), and Chris Pandel (Swift & Sons).
Hammel, who’s taken over the role of event coordinator from Paul Kahan (One Off Hospitality), is also creating the menu for the opening-night party on Friday, called Flavors + Sound. Glenn Kotche of Wilco, a friend of Hammel’s, will provide a coordinating soundscape. “When [the Taste Talks team] came to me, I said I wanted it to be a little more interdisciplinary,” Hammel says. “I’d like to see some musicians be involved, some other artists. That was a natural fit for me: my wife is a musician, Lula has always been kind of a musicians’ place.”
That collaboration is still under way, so Hammel isn’t sure yet how it will turn out, but he says he wrote the menus “based in a color palette with the hope that that would be what [Kotche] would need to weave into his own musical world.” Hammel says he often thinks about food in terms of color anyway, making it a natural fit. “I separated the dishes into individual colors. The red category—all the food doesn’t have to be red, but it would have a connection to red. Like red rye berries after you turn them into bread.” There may also be lighting changes at the party to coordinate with the various dishes, Hammel says.
While the opening party is intended to be a fun start to the weekend, Hammel hopes that the panels on Saturday delve into some of the complex topics surrounding food. “I just got back from the Mad Symposium in Copenhagen [a nonprofit food-education group founded by Danish chef René Redzepi]. The conversations there are very restaurant centered and yet still push out of that industry to connect people in a multitude of ways—in terms of social connections with their communities, giving back, how chefs connect to their outer world.”
Hammel, who’s a cofounder of Pilot Light, an organization in Chicago that partners chefs with teachers to educate kids about food and nutrition, knows what he’s talking about. “One thing I see in my work with Pilot Light is that food does have this preternatural ability to level the playing field in terms of people’s ability to converse and discuss and come together,” he says. “I think there are a lot of ways that the food community, because of its incredible power to connect, can reach outside of its small footprint and really make an impact for the better.”
In one of the panels Saturday, Hammel will discuss how restaurants reshape neighborhoods with Matthias Merges of Yusho and John Manion of La Sirena Clandestina and the new El Che Bar; in another he’ll be talking with Beverly Kim of Parachute and Andy Ricker of Pok Pok about working conditions for restaurant employees in a panel titled “New Models for Economic Change: How to Fix the Broken System.” Other panel topics include sourcing, foraging, and sustainability in the kitchen; how chefs create consumer products that can be sold in grocery stores; and the rise of the “upscale casual” restaurant. Sarah Grueneberg of Monteverde, Paul McGee of Lost Lake, Jimmy Bannos Jr. of Purple Pig, and Abe Conlon of Fat Rice will do cooking (and cocktail-mixing) demos.
Hammel is particularly excited about a panel he suggested on the forgotten history of Chicago restaurants, which will be led by Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia. “The industry is so fetishistic about the new, the hot, the young,” Hammel says. “There’s so many great stories that come out when you talk to people like Tony, or Carrie Nahabedian [of Naha], or Matthias [Merges], or anybody from the old Trotter or Carlos’s crew. If you ask any of my cooks, “Do you know Carlos’? Or Le Francais? Or even Charlie Trotter’s? And none of them know this history in their own city. Matthias . . . he’s like freaking Yoda to me.”