As Chicago restaurants go, few can claim fan loyalty at Lula Cafe. The popularity of this neighborhood gem, located on Logan Square long before the area was the trendy haven it is today, extends beyond the food it serves, delicious though it may be. Both a destination and a retreat, Lula is celebrated as a gathering place.
“First and foremost, Lula is an arts community,” says Jason Hammel, who founded the restaurant with his wife, Amalea Tshilds, in 1999. “Part of our mission is to be a place of support for creative people and makers and doers worldwide. and provide space for them to share their work.”
An artistic attitude can also be found at Hammel's second restaurant, Marisol, which is located in and partnered with Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA).
“Marisol is deeply connected to museum life because it is constantly changing and bringing new energy,” says Hammel. Rather than aping museum exhibits, Marisol's creative seasonal cuisine finds inspiration in the reinvention that art produces.
With the new Chef Collaboration Series, Marisol is embracing further change and the city she calls home. Launched in May, this ongoing program aims to tap into local culinary talent by featuring the chef's signature dishes on Marisol's lunch menu.
“The idea is to collaborate with and support our industry friends and highlight their restaurants,” says Hammel. “It also challenges us here to make dishes we wouldn't normally do.”
Take, for example, the program's first offering: the Kerala spicy fried chicken sandwich. Made by Margaret Pak of Avondale who recently opened Thattuthe sandwich originates from the chicken bites that Pak and his partner and husband Vinod Kalathil offered at their first restaurant on Politan Row which is now closed.
Available through July, this sandwich features chicken thighs marinated overnight in ginger, garlic, curry leaves and lime juice. Dredged in rice flour, fried to order. Curry leaf aioli, spicy pickles and sliced vegetables round out this dish, which is served on a buttery brioche bun. ChaaterTots, tater tots served with house chaat masala and spicy beetroot sauce, are available as an extra.
“These are all the spices that Vinod's mother would use,” said Pak, referring to her husband's family in South India. “It represents a combination of our Kerala roots and tells the story of Thattu then and now.”
To get the series rolling, Hammel didn't have to look far for restaurants with potential collaborations.
“I have a long list of industry friends,” he said. “When you stay this long in business, you get to know a lot of people.”
Once the restaurant is confirmed, Hammel lets the collaborating chefs choose the dishes they think best tell the story of their restaurant.
“Food is a language, and stories are an important part of it for me,” he says. (Speaking of stories, Hammel's debut cookbook, “The Lula Café Cookbook,” from Phaidon, debuted in October.)
Next, recipes are shared, and the culinary team works side by side to perfect the items to be served.
“A recipe is not a dish,” says Hammel. “You have to have the touch and energy of the people who make it.”
For peach, the second restaurant in the series, the story revolves around the family and the neighborhood in which the restaurant is located.
“Peach's occupied a small spot in Bronzeville for about eight years, and since then we've grown to become pillars of the community,” says Chef Trillis Rollins. “We try to build a relationship with food.”
The warm welcome begins with the restaurant's name, which is a reference to the term of endearment, and continues with the homely Southern food served there.
“The word ‘peach' embodies someone that everyone knew at one point in time,” he says. For Rollins, it was “nanna,” often found in the kitchen cooking.
For the Marisol collaboration, which runs from August to October, salmon and grits croquettes, a bestseller and menu item since Peach's opened, and peach cobbler will be featured.
For Rollins, Marisol's collaboration goes beyond the exposure it can bring to South Side restaurants.
“I'm an artist at heart,” says Rollins, who has a degree in graphic design. “This collaboration is the perfect opportunity to bring together the two worlds that have driven me as a person.”
In Lincoln Park Sandwiches Marketthe third restaurant in the series, various cultures come together to create a unique cuisine.
“I love the way he connects the history and intersection of races and food culture in Spain with South America,” says Hammel of Bocadillo Chef James Martin. “He sees both as dialectics and then he weaves his own personal story into them.”
Starting in November, Marisol will be offering Bocadillo's signature dishes: pumpkin tempura flower and Spanish sobrassada layered with avocado coulis, rosemary honey, crostini and goat cheese sobrassada shake.
Spanish chorizo and pumpkin blossom add a balanced layer of flavor and texture that some people will find familiar, says Martin, but also offer a great culinary entry point for others who may be enjoying Spanish cuisine beyond tapas or paella for the first time. .”
For the past few years, Martin has partnered with Hammel's nonprofit Pilot Light, a local nonprofit that brings food education to Chicago schools.
“Being part of the dining experience at an institution like MCA adds to the cultural experience that everyone should have while enjoying food,” says Martin of his upcoming collaboration.
Of the various restaurant pop-ups happening in Chicago, Hammel says, “One of the things that has come out of this pandemic is the energy to put together things that are accidental or fun.
“Over the past few years, we've been looking for ways to connect more in real life.”