2357 N. Kedzie
Chaos in the kitchen is something good restaurants work hard to avoid; meals can be inconsistent, dishes can take too long, and presentation can suffer. Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds managed to avoid all that when they opened Lula Cafe in Logan Square in 1999 by thinking small. Despite their tiny staff–they had a three-man kitchen back then–and a roster of ever-changing specials, things flowed smoothly because Hammel and Tshilds kept the food relatively simple: using one stock as a base for everything, for example, and limiting the specials menu to three to five items.
Over the subsequent years the restaurant has become a well-oiled machine, where specials stay on the menu for weeks at a time, making regular reappearances after being tweaked until they’re just right. “Now we typically make four to five stocks at any one time, and we have ten items on the specials menu,” says Hammel. “And we’re more interested in development. It’s just what happens when you get busier and become a larger organization. When the system becomes larger it forces you to do that. And there’s a certain degree of satisfaction in working on a dish over time.”
Still, says Hammel, “we missed the spontaneity and impulsiveness of the early days.” So last spring the couple, who got married in September, intentionally threw a wrench into the works by adding a weekly three-course prix-fixe special called the Monday Night Farm Dinner. The meal highlights seasonal farm offerings and ingredients that the restaurant might not usually have access to–like ramps, which are typically available for just one month each spring–or a special find. “Two weeks ago a farmer said to me, ‘I have a lamb shoulder. Do you want it?'” says Hammel. “There’s no dish on our menu that uses lamb shoulder, but that Monday we did a rustic lamb stew with tarragon and peas and ramps, with rye bread. That one ingredient inspired the whole meal.”
Sometimes the menu is built around the first harvest of a vegetable that has yet to make it into the regular rotation. “A really good example is asparagus,” says Hammel. “We just got some from Kinnikinnick Farm in Rockford. It was really warm last weekend, so he had it early. So at the last minute you’re putting asparagus on everything.” It showed up at last Monday’s Farm Dinner in a raw porcini-and-asparagus salad.
Lula has a reputation for using and promoting locally raised, organic produce and meats. On any given day the menu will name-check several midwestern farms: Chicago’s City Farm, Plapp Farm near Rockford, Swan Creek Farm in Michigan, a consortium called Homegrown Wisconsin. Hammel spends up to 20 hours a week on the phone with farmers, placing orders, requesting specific varietals, and learning about new products. But Chicago’s climate makes it impossible to stick to local produce year-round. “A lot of people who are interested in these concepts come from this California sensibility, where the earth is the bounty and you only need to focus on local farms,” Hammel says. “But that doesn’t work here.” He’s working on preserving seasonal produce, whether it means flash-freezing ramps or increasing the life span of fruit by canning and making compotes.
Hammel and Tshilds are particular about which farmers they’ll work with, local or not. “I’m not opposed to buying things from the west coast or Florida if I know the person and if I can have it picked one day and sent to me the next,” says Hammel. “It’s about how they do it, how they care for things, and what kind of people they are.” The couple is a regular presence at the Green City Market in Lincoln Park in part, Hammel says, “because it’s important to get face time with the farmers.”
Since he and Tshilds don’t know until Thursday or Friday what surprises their purveyors might have in store, the Monday night dinner is less formal and more improvisational than the rest of Lula’s menu. “The whole weekend we’re thinking about it. But on Sunday night we write up the menu and finish everything on Monday,” says Tshilds. “It’s a little bit back to the roots of Lula, where we would just go for it.” One of them will come up with an entree, the other might suggest a salad and dessert, and then they give and take until they have a good combination. They don’t actually get to taste the finished product until about 5 PM on the day it will be served, a situation that charges the process with a bit of risk. They’ve never had a disaster, but Hammel admits that there are certain dishes that have never been revisited. He claims they’ve escaped his memory by now.
“It’s a different kind of challenge to cook more intuitively and more quickly, because you’re not developing a dish over the course of weeks,” he says. “The dishes are more impulsive and rustic; it was something we were doing for our own cooking enjoyment. It’s a little like getting food together for your family, using stuff that you have in your cupboard. But we have a really great cupboard.”
The Farm Dinner also has an economic function: encouraging people to order the nightly specials, which are more expensive, but also more elaborate and elegant, than the regular menu. Hammel estimates that only 60 percent of Lula’s dinner customers order from the specials menu, and by offering three courses for $24 they hope to make the menu more accessible.
A chef’s idea of rustic is different from yours or mine. What I had two Mondays ago at Lula seemed pretty fancy to me. A spread of paper-thin, home-cured wild salmon–made from parts of the fish not used in the regular salmon confit special–was topped with cucumber slices, pickled garlic cloves, and a ramp leaf and drizzled with creme fraiche and a sweet pea puree. For the main course, tender slices of perfectly marinated grilled skirt steak were piled over a mound of early-season watercress and a rye bread pudding. And dessert consisted of a scoop of rhubarb sorbet (rhubarb season just started) surrounded by a moat of cold strawberry-muscat soup.
Hammel and Tshilds have no idea what’ll be on the menu this Monday. “We won’t know until that day,” says Hammel. “We have a number of people who call up every Monday and ask, ‘What’s on the menu tonight?’ If it’s something they’re really into they’ll show up.”
Lula Cafe will be closed on Memorial Day.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.