"It's because we all had kids," Jason Hammel says about last Monday's collaborative dinner with Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark, and Evan and Sarah Rich of San Francisco's Rich Table. The dinner represented an evolution of the thing that Hammel's Lula Cafe is most associated with— its Monday night farm dinners— into a new, collaborative form, but first and foremost, it grew out of the fact that Hammel has young kids, and so did his collaborators on Monday night. "When you have kids, you can't go out with other chefs all night. So I was talking with John and Beverly about how you balance work and family life and still get to meet other chefs, and we were talking about doing a dinner, and they had just met Evan and Sarah and they have little kids too— and so I decided to invite them in and we could be social by working together." We attended Monday's dinner with our man Huge Galdones; his slideshow, and our chat with Jason Hammel, continues below.
The story really begins thirteen years ago, when Hammel launched Lula's Monday night farm dinners— "before the words 'farm dinner' meant anything to anybody," he says. "I did it really on kind of a whim. I was inspired by Alice Waters and the way Chez Panisse did its fixed price dinners." They became what Lula was known for— being this place where they actually told you the name of the farmer who raised your chicken— and looking back, Hammel summarizes it as "three dishes a night, some good, some you want to forget."
As he had a family and hit 40, the traditional ways chefs hang out became a little less sustainable, so Hammel says he began to look at other ways for chefs to collaborate and get together. "I think Chicago has a really tight community of chefs, but we only get to hang out at Meals on Wheels or the Green City Barbecue," he says. He began trying to do more collaborative dinners, especially around his Logan Square location which had, in recent years, become one of the city's hot restaurant rows. "I'm 40, I want to give something back to this amazing micro-community we have. I mean, I'm really, really happy that Logan Square didn't change like other parts of the city— we're just about all filled up around the square now, and they're pretty much all good places. I've done several Logan Square-centered events— the most recent one was a dinner with a bunch of the chefs around here for the Comfort Station. So I just want to continue that, not every week, but regularly— spending the day with other chefs, half food exploration, half social interaction."
Hammel has a couple of other events with chefs from out of town in the planning stages, though nothing's ready to go public yet. His collaborators this Monday night are equally excited to be there. For Kim and Clark, it's a chance to cook as they work on a new restaurant project— which is in the lots of meetings stage. While the Riches are excited to be in Chicago and have a chance to check it out. Before they go home, they have another influential piece of Chicago's chef community they plan to check out— "We're going to Alinea," Evan says.BEGIN SLIDESHOW