Why a Chicago Chef's Restaurant is Named After a Silent Artist

© Carolina Rodriguez
Plus, a sneak peak at dishes debuting at the restaurant, set to open this summer in the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

“She’s fascinating. She’s a spirit muse for me,” says Jason Hammel, the chef and owner of Lula Cafe in Chicago.

The chef behind one of Chicago's first farm-to-table restaurants—opened long before the term was used—is talking about Marisol Escobar, the sculptor from the '60s known for column-like carvings of people of all walks (the Kennedys, herself) and hours spent without uttering a single word.

“She was a women of few words, and I do want the food to speak for itself,” says Hammel.

That’s one reason why Marisol is the name of his forthcoming restaurant inside the currently-under-reconstruction Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, set to open this summer.

The partnership is a natural extension for the chef. A musician friend told him about the project after performing at the art institution, and Hammel has always seen his restaurant as a gathering place for artists more so than the neighborhood icon it has become today. Even artist Chris Ofili is creating a piece within the restaurant itself. As for the food, it will be equally personal.

© Carolina Rodriguez

“I have a couple of ideas brought on by my family,” Hammel says. “My grandparents are from Naples, and you always see stuffed shrimp at Italian restaurants all over the place.”

So, he’s tinkering with his grandmother’s version, taking East Coast shrimp, filling it with peekytoe crab and slowly cooking it in walnut oil. A little bit more walnut oil is spooned over the top, then a draping of house-made lardo and bitter Treviso.

“I don’t think it’ll be exactly what she imagined,” he says. “But it’s coming together.”

Like Lula Cafe, the food will reflect the season, from dry-aged beef with spring onions and black currants to meaty swordfish with sunflower and English peas. For Hammel, it’s right in tandem with the mission of the museum.

“It’s all about where contemporary art is right now,” says Hammel. “There is a real connection between seasonal cooking and that mission, so we’re going to feel that on our plates.” 

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