"I've always been an outsider," Chef Jason Hammel, Taste Talks' 2016 Chicago curator, tells me in the midst of his Friday afternoon lunch service at Lula Cafe.
It's true, in a way—he didn't grow up in Chicago, and he has no blood relatives there. Hammel was raised in a big Italian-American family in New Haven, Connecticut, with his grandmother down the street one way and his aunt the other. Yet somehow, after 20-some years in the Windy City, he's found himself in the middle of a love story that even he couldn't make up.
Hammel wasn't always a chef; as a young adult just starting out, he was a writer, and he focused on the Italian-American experience. Fittingly enough, there were a lot of stories about food. After graduating from Brown, he set out to see first-hand where his family had come from.
"I moved to Italy for a year just to hang," he says. "I couldn't afford to eat really well, I didn't go to Michelin restaurants. I just wasn't into that yet. But I was really moved by that culture that was interested in well-crafted artisanal food that had amazing ingredients. That captivated me at that time. I definitely was writing with those subjects in mind. When I was writing fiction, I was writing stories that had to do with Italian-American culture, and food was a big part of that."
His move to Chicago came after a couple years earning his Master's in writing at Illinois State University, where he cooked at a T.G.I. Friday's to earn some money while he studied under David Foster Wallace. (That would explain his eloquence in Lucky Peach story "Change Isn't Cheap", in which he argues for a total rethinking of the traditional restaurant model.) Working with Foster Wallace turned out to be good training for the tough love so prevalent in kitchen culture; especially for Hammel, who largely cut his teeth by starting Lula Cafe.
"[Working with David Foster Wallace] was one of the most important things that have happened to me in my life. I think about it all the time," he says, adding that he hopes to one day write about the experience. "I really got ripped apart when I got out there. I was cocky and full of myself then as a writer, and he really just tore into me. It was hard to swallow, but now looking back it was really valuable to me to have had that happen."
Jason Hammel is an especially eloquent chef; you can tell after just a few moments of speaking with him that he's as much a wordsmith and dreamer as he is a doer. He's been at the helm of Lula Cafe in Chicago's Logan Square for the past 17 years, and a lot of the biggest things in his life started there. Like the fact that his opening partner turned out to be his wife—Amalea Tshilds, a musician who first met Hammel in the Lula Cafe space over 18 years ago now. It was a cafe called Logan Beach then, and Hammel—who'd moved to the city to write, not cook—stopped in on his first day in Chicago with his then-girlfriend; Tshilds was their waitress.
"For me, we've become another part of this is the artist community in Logan Square and beyond. I have lots of friends who are writers, musicians, visual artists; we grew up together, Lula is a big part of that. I'm friends with these people who have now become professors, or writers, or are working on a new project in another city and I stay in contact with them and it deepens the world. It's important to me."
The creative community of writers, artists, and musicians Hammel was surrounded with during his early days have grown up along with Lula Cafe—everyone from Andrew Bird to Wilco is in his sphere, and like us here at Taste Talks, he is excited by all the places that food and creative fields overlap. After all, Hammel took his love for sourcing seasonal ingredients and his Italian-American upbringing of home cooking and sit-down dinners and parlayed it into Lula Cafe. It's a restaurant that is equal parts community center and stage for experimental boundary-pushing, resulting in an almost—dare we say it—literary take on food.
"We work off of color a lot," Hammel says. "We have a dish right now that's a tartar and it includes red quinoa as the grain...the red quinoa is there to deepen the idea of the dark red of the meat."
He's referring to the restaurant's venison tartar, with a spring onion dressing and onion ash all over the raw egg on the top, and quinoa that is both steamed and then fried. "It's both crunchy and poppy-gooey. It's not about the color of the ingredients necessarily—it's about the thought of it and the description and how it all comes together," says Hammel.
Though he's not from Chicago, you'd never know it from the way he talks about his adopted community. Chicago doesn't always get the attention of, say, a New York or San Francisco, but that doesn't mean the eating's not as good, Hammel says.
"The whole third coast thing means that as a chef here, you get real work being done. There's more of a spotlight than ever before, but you're not in this national spotlight as much. People are coming to Chicago just to eat all the time, and our scene is just as good as New York's."
Though the lack of a nearby ocean makes sourcing seafood challenging, and the cold winters' keep farmers' market regulars like Hammel on their toes, the setbacks also end up being Chicago's greatest strengths—from preserving summer's bounty to getting creative when the chill hits.
Hammel is also intent on giving back to the Chicago community; along with past Taste Talks curator Chef Paul Kahan and speaker Chef Ryan Poli, he's started Pilot Light—an organization which integrates lessons about about cooking and nutrition into classrooms and pushes for policies to better support childhood health.
"We're still only giving an insanely low amount of money to each kid for their lunch at school, and that just begins the devaluation of food in our culture—that is ultimately what we want to change," he says. "It's a problem that's much bigger than just restaurants. The models are currently broken, and I'm excited to see innovation in other places. I think Taste Talks will really bring people together so we can all talk about [issues like] this and see where everybody's at."
Hammel will be at the helm of this year's Taste Talks Chicago, bringing in his favorite chefs, musicians, and cultural influencers for an unforgettable weekend September 30-October. Don't miss a moment of it—get your tickets now!