Chicago's Lula Cafe conquers the hospitality algorithm

Produced and written by Elina Shatkin

Pasta Yiayia, a deceptively easy pasta dish of bucatini, brown butter, cinnamon, feta, and garlic, has a Greek spin. Photo by Carolina Rodriguez.

As we've learned over the past three years, there's a lot more to running a restaurant than serving food. At a time when pleasing the diner is more difficult than ever, we thought it would be useful to speak with a restaurant veteran known for progressive policies as well as excellent farm-to-table food. Jason Hammel is the executive chef and owner of Lula Cafe in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood. He opened the restaurant with his now wife Amalea ("Lea") Tshilds in September 1999. He has finally written the story in The Lula Cafe Cookbook.

Evan Kleiman: Welcome to Good Food. Just to give us a historical context, when did you and your now-wife, then colleague and friend, Lea, open Lula?

Jason Hammel: September 2, 1999. 

Had you had lots of experience as a chef before you jumped in and did that?

No. Zero experience as a capital C "chef." I had worked in restaurants in the past. I went to graduate school in Illinois to study writing. At that time, I sort of ran out of money and turned to the guy next to me at a bar and I was like, "Look, I need to get some money. What do you do?" And he's like, "Well, I'm a cook. You can come join me tonight on the line." That was literally the first time I had worked in the kitchen of a restaurant. It was sort of an off-brand California Pizza Kitchen off the highway. It was no fine dining. But it wasn't until I actually opened a restaurant and found myself at the helm, as a leader, before I could ever say that I was a chef. So I sort of owned a restaurant before I was a chef and it was an accidental career but it's one that sort of took over my life immediately when we opened the restaurant.

I was struck by how you described how Lula began as, "We came together to do something creative and fun without pressure or consequences." It's so different than what young people face now when opening a restaurant. You say that your ethos was to embrace change and assume the best of all. It's an outlook with an extraordinary lack of cynicism.

Thank you. I still really believe in the power of hospitality. I found that belief fortified post-pandemic, in a way, because it was so challenged by the pandemic. I think under duress, it made me double down. 

I've often said a restaurant like Lula could not happen today. We started with no money, no concept, and no one was watching. We didn't get a starred review in the paper of record here in Chicago until we were 17 years old. We definitely flew under the radar, so to speak. At the same time, I feel like the food scene in many major and minor American cities right now has the ability to produce these kinds of experiences in the form of pop-ups and other more transient and ephemeral dining experiences. I do see the same kind of energy happening again. So I think that a restaurant like Lula is possible. But for the most part, now that food is this sort of cultural sport, you can't not expect reviewers and diners with a highly critical sensibility to descend upon you right away and make judgment of you immediately and not allow for sustained, organic growth, which I think is really too bad.

Jason Hammel had "zero experience as a capital C chef" before opening Lula Cafe in Logan Square in 1999. Photo by Carolina Rodriguez.

Let's talk hospitality. You say that a diner has to trust the service to believe in the food. Can you read the paragraph that begins with "Let's say, someone orders a bowl of soup"?

Yes, of course. 

"Let's say someone orders a bowl of soup. Normally, it's a four-minute pick. Toast the bread, heat the soup, mount with butter, garnish, etc. If there are a lot of orders on the board, the cook might take eight, ten minutes, a long time, indeed, just for soup. But now let's say that the server sets down a soup spoon right at minute number five, just to the right of the customer and it is the correct size spoon, clean and polished with a nice deep bowl, clearly for no other purpose than to eat soup with. It is placed with confidence and poise and with a nice firm yet subtle, anticipatory tap on the table. The customer thinks, "Oh, yeah. This place has got its shit together. My soup is being made and everything is fine in the world." The wait goes by pleasantly and when the soup arrives, it is hot, beautiful and deeply satisfying. Best soup ever. But let's feel 10 minutes without the spoon or even seeing your server until after the soup is set down and left to get cold and the customer needs to raise their hand and ask for the spoon. That is when the soup starts to taste weird and maybe over-seasoned and not at all as good as the customer remembers from the last time, actually not at all as good as the canned soup she has in her pantry back home."

It's so true and yet that touch, that thing to do can be incredibly difficult.

It can be. I compare it to grammar in a sentence, which is also quite difficult to learn and to master. I think that the sense of confidence that you build from the service elements, like the technical delivery of a product, creates the potential for feeling. Without service, without getting the things that one needs in the right manner, then you certainly are not going to feel good. Feeling doesn't just wash over any kind of lack of service. 

What I talk about in that section a lot is the idea that these two things, service and hospitality, may be considered separate from each other — service being that technical delivery of what you want and hospitality how you feel when you get the thing you want — but they're intertwined in such a way that you cannot separate them. You cannot just focus on one or the other. 

Hospitality, ultimately, is a sort of reciprocal relationship. It's a relationship between two different humans. That's where the beauty of restaurants is. It's in how you feel when you're there. But you can't feel those things without service and that certainly comes first. That's kind of what my writing teacher was telling me about my bad grammar back in the days of being a writing student.

I love how you date the recipes in the book. Every recipe has a date at the top. Restaurants are rarely static, so much changes over time. I'd love to talk a bit about the food. Tell us the dish you married into the Pasta Yiayia.

This is a dish that comes from my wife's family. My wife is Greek. I'm from an Italian family, so this was new to me. When you hear pasta, most people think Italian. But you marry into a Greek family, and you'll find out otherwise. This is a pasta that is very common to Greek households because it's an easy take on pastitsio, which is that sort of lasagna-y, delicious comfort food that you find at restaurants that is very time-consuming to prepare. But we interpreted it in a certain way. 

What I love about this dish is it's bucatini with brown butter, cinnamon, feta and garlic. It's deceptively simple, just those four ingredients. It does take some technique and timing. The timing of the dish is something that I teach rigorously with my cooks here at Lula. But it also reminds me of the touch that goes into great food and the fact that my wife's grandmother made this regularly and had an elegant and beautiful touch. I talk a lot about that with my cooks. It's all about thinking about how you're interacting with the ingredients, specifically the butter sauce, and how you watch it and learn what it does and what it's saying to you then how to stop it right before it gets too dark. That's the trick of the Pasta Yiayia.

I imagine that's one of the first dishes you had on your menu and it's still on the menu. 


And now a dish from reopening after the pandemic, with a bit of a different perspective.

There's a pappardelle dish that is a take on a ragu, in which we use mushrooms and walnuts to make the textures and the mouthfeel of a meaty ragu but in a vegetarian format. It's a little bit of a hard recipe but I take you through the steps of breaking it down into its component parts and showing you how to create texture in a series of steps. One of the things that I talk about a lot with my cooks is that you never want to just throw things in a pot. That's not what cooking is about. It's about creating layers of flavor. That recipe really shows off that idea.

It sounds so delicious. And finally, I can't let you go without asking this question. Who was your creative writing thesis advisor?

It was David Foster Wallace. Pretty crazy, right? That's why I moved to Illinois, to study with David. It was in the '90s. So I was there when he became famous. I mean he was already famous. Infinite Jest, obviously, was something that created an incredible amount of attention toward him. That was during the time that I was there, in Normal, Illinois.

What did he ask you when you told him you were opening a restaurant?

He said to me, which is the last thing he said to me, "But how will you write?" which was really the only encouragement he ever gave me in the two years that I was there.

Well, I have to tell you, I so enjoyed the writing in this book. 

I appreciate it. Thank you.

Recipes from the beloved Lula Cafe in Chicago are dated from the time they appeared on the menu, beginning in 1999. Photo courtesy of Phaidon.