Jason Hammel has told the story of how he started the Lula Cafe so many times, it verges on legend. It would take a worldwide pandemic for him to finally write it down. Now, 24 years after the restaurant — considered one of Chicago’s finest — first opened, The Lula Cafe Cookbook: Collected Recipes and Stories is finally here.
The story goes like this: In the summer of 1996, Hammel, then a graduate student in creative writing, relocated to Chicago to finish his dissertation. After he moved into his new Logan Square apartment, he went to check out a nearby cafe called Logan Beach.
Logan Beach was one of those neighborhood coffee shops that were so popular in the ’90s, with mismatched furniture and bulletin boards covered with notices from people seeking roommates or offering guitar lessons. That day, its chalkboard menu advertised something called Lea’s Amazing Soup, which turned out to be sweet-and-sour cabbage.
Hammel ordered the soup and began talking to Lea herself. Her full name was Amalea Tshilds, and she was an aspiring musician. Over the next few months, Hammel became a regular at the cafe, and they became friends. But then Logan Beach changed ownership, and the employees, including Tshilds, found jobs elsewhere. Hammel felt this loss of community acutely.
One night, he ran into Tshilds at the late, lamented club Lounge Ax. They got to talking, and eventually the conversation turned to soup. “Did I feel the universe moving then, as it took one big leap in my favor?” Hammel writes in The Lula Cafe Cookbook. The question is rhetorical.
Following that chance meeting, Hammel and Tshilds went into business making soup and selling it to local cafes. They worked in the kitchen of Logan Beach, and in 1999, the owner invited them to take over management of the cafe.
They spent that summer overhauling the space themselves and designing the menu. Hammel had never cooked professionally. He learned from studying cookbooks and, after Lula opened, practicing new techniques between customers. He also relied on Tshilds, who has a superb palate and taste memory.
But they knew what they wanted: to serve seasonal ingredients imaginatively prepared — like Charlie Trotter, whose eponymous restaurant was then considered the best in Chicago. But they wanted to serve it in an informal, all-day setting that was a carryover from Logan Beach. (Later, they got to meet Trotter. He had no idea where Logan Square was.)
As the staff expanded, the cooks developed a playful and improvisational style of recipe development, starting with what was available at the markets and growing, through free association, into unique and surprising combinations, such as plum and tomato or pork belly with watermelon. The menu changed daily, aside from some old favorites from the Logan Beach days: the Tineka, a vegetable sandwich with Indonesian satay sauce, and Pasta Yiayia, tossed in a cinnamon garlic sauce like Tshilds’s Greek grandmother used to make.
Three years in, Hammel and Tshilds realized they were in love. They married, had kids, and moved into an apartment across the street from the cafe. Their community grew beyond their friends, colleagues, and neighbors in the nascent Logan Square food scene to include chefs and purveyors from across the country. Although Lula didn’t rate a review in the Chicago Tribune until it was 17 years old (it got three stars), it appeared in many guides and best-of lists, both there and in national media, and inspired other chefs to try seasonal ingredients instead of buying from Sysco.
“I don’t know if our story could be possible today,” Hammel says now. If Lula opened in 2023, the rent would be sky-high, and so would the hype and expectations. Instead, he says, “We were allowed to discover ourselves in peace.”
And then, in March 2020, Lula shut down for the pandemic and pivoted to carryout. It was unclear whether it would ever be a restaurant again.
“2020 set me against a thing I had always worried about,” Hammel says. “It really made me recognize the values I wanted to hold close, the people I wanted to hold close, the joys and missions I wanted to hold close.”
He looked back at old menus, all date stamped. It was like reading old diary entries. They stirred up more memories. In slow times, he would huddle in the basement pantry amid the boxes of olive oil, writing down those stories to capture those times, just in case the restaurant should disappear forever.
It didn’t, of course, but by then his momentum was unstoppable.
The Lula Cafe Cookbook is not a cookbook for home cooks precisely. The recipes are scaled down, but otherwise the Pasta Yiayia in the book is the same Pasta Yiayia at the restaurant. Almost every recipe has a sub-recipe for pantry ingredients. There are no standard procedures or boilerplate instructions; like his favorite cookbook writers, including Richard Olney, Elizabeth David, and Judy Rodgers, Hammel revels in interesting turns of phrase.
“Maybe someday I’ll write a home cookbook,” Hammel says, “but that would be a very different thing from writing The Lula Cafe Cookbook. This is showing what Lula is about, the creativity as a group. That’s the whole point of this. It’s a community endeavor. It’s not just a book to cook out of; it’s a book to read and explore.”
Sweet and Sour Cabbage Soup Recipe
The original Lula soup and the recipe I get asked for the most often. The key ingredient here is kecap manis, a syrupy Indonesian soy sauce sweetened with palm sugar, without which this cabbage soup would lose its unique flavor. We use ABC’s medium-sweet soy sauce (kecap manis Sedang), both here and in the recipe for the “Tineka” Sandwich, which were staples from Lea’s work in the Logan Beach days in the ’90s.
Before we took over the cafe, when we sold soup out of Lea’s little car, there was a particular day I remember, in the late summer of ’98, when we had 10 or 20 samples of this cabbage soup in the back seat. We drove uptown to Lincoln Square, Andersonville, and Rogers Park with the windows down, summer wind picking up the enigmatic scents of ginger, coriander, tomato, and soy. I imagined the sweet aromatics wafting down the city streets, even turning heads. We left samples with disaffected baristas all over town. Let us know what you think! we chirped before heading to the next cafe. When we got in the car to drive back home, “O-o-h Child” by Five Stairsteps came on the radio and we sang along. The chorus became a kind of anthem for us as we started to work together that year and make plans for Lula. “Things will get brighter soon.”
¼ cup (2 fluid ounces) blend oil (half olive oil, half vegetable or canola oil)
6¾ ounces red onion, finely diced
1¼ ounces minced ginger
1¼ ounces minced garlic
1 tablespoon sambal oelek
1¼ teaspoons ground coriander
¾ cup (6 fluid ounces) kecap manis (sweet soy sauce)
1 pound 2 ounces green cabbage, large-diced
1 14-ounce can crushed tomatoes (passata)
1 14-ounce can coconut milk
2 cups (16 fluid ounces) vegetable stock
Distilled white vinegar, to taste
Small bunch cilantro (coriander), leaves picked, to garnish
Small handful chives, sliced, to garnish
Step 1: Place a large pot over medium heat, add the oil, and heat until shimmering.
Step 2: Add the onion, ginger, garlic, sambal, and coriander and cook over low heat until the onions are translucent and soft, 15 to 20 minutes.
Step 3: Add the kecap manis and cook for an additional 10 minutes, until reduced by half.
Step 4: Stir in the cabbage, tomatoes, coconut milk, and stock and cook until the cabbage is fork-tender, about 20 minutes. Season with vinegar and salt, to taste. Garnish with cilantro (coriander) and chives.
Excerpted from The Lula Cafe Cookbook © 2023 by Jason Hammel. Photography © 2023 by Carolina Rodríguez. Reproduced by permission of Phaidon. All rights reserved.