The Lula Cafe Cookbook: Collected Recipes and Stories

Image of The Lula Cafe Cookbook: Collected Recipes and Stories
Release Date: 
October 10, 2023
Phaidon Press
Reviewed by: 

more than just ingredients, it is an accumulation of knowledge, sourcing, collaboration, farms, orchards, fields, and artistry.”

After almost a quarter of a century as executive chef and co-owner of Lula Cafe, Chef Jason Hammel has written his debut cookbook about his popular restaurant in Chicago’s trendy Logan Square neighborhood. The Lula Café is often described as trailblazing with boundary-pushing new dishes gracing the menu every week and Hammel credited with being in the vanguard of sourcing local and organic ingredients to use in his restaurant well before it became a trend.

All of these factors are in play in The Lula Café Cookbook: Collected Recipes and Stories. Included are 90 full recipes and 40 “building block” pantry recipes.

Hammel, a consulting chef at Marisol in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and a co-founder of Pilot Light, a food education nonprofit that invests in teacher leadership and fosters good food choices, has crafted an intriguing and beautiful cookbook. The recipes have very detailed instructions, are accompanied by artistic full-color photographs, and often include a suggestion of how to serve the dish to get the best effect and taste.

Some are esoteric and might be daunting to everyday home cooks who are looking for quick and easy. Count among those the Sweet Corn, Cipollini Onion, and Raclette Tart with its many steps and side recipes and the Toasted Bay Leaf and Chocolate Crème Brûlée, which calls for making both candied hazelnuts and candied kumquats as well as a brûlée base.

Hammel says the recipe for Carrots, Plums, and Dill came about when they were experimenting with using a shio koji, the mold used for making such Japanese fermented products as miso, soy sauce, and sake, to marinate meats such as pork shoulder and quail—yes that’s how much they pay attention to detail at The Lula Café. They then moved on to using shio koji for vegetables, which is how Carrots, Plums, and Dill came about. All these dishes would be well worth the effort for those so inclined (and who want to invest in a shio koji) but there are others that have the same sophisticated look but are much more approachable.

One such dish is Pasta Yiayia, a staple at the restaurant.

“I married into this dish,” writes Hammel. “This is the recipe my wife most associated with her grandmother and namesake, Amalia, who came to Chicago from a village near Sparta, Greece, as a child.  I never got the chance to meet this side branch of the family tree. But I can see Amalia now when I set Pasta YiaYia in front of my children. There is nothing more central to my wife’s family than this maternal line—a branch of creativity, grit, beauty, and bravery—traced back to Amalia herself and now carried on by the flavors, stories, ingredients, and techniques in this recipe. I imagine my wife as a child, as her grandmother set down a bowl of pasta dressed with feta, brown butter, garlic, and cinnamon. I can only imagine that these flavors connected her to a place in an old world she’d never known.”

Another easy to try is the Turmeric Tangerine Teacake that Hammel praises his pastry chef, Emily Spurlin, for creating and marveling at her skills at melding the flavors so the turmeric bounces off the baking spices, olive oil, and yogurt. And in this season of fresh produce, Tomato Tonnato is another good choice to try.

The stories accompanying each recipe shows the almost poetic take Hammel and his staff take to creating the food they prepare and serve. It is more than just ingredients, it is an accumulation of knowledge, sourcing, collaboration, farms, orchards, fields, and artistry.