Only the cream of the crop for Lula chef Lauren Freeburg
By Bob Benenson, FamilyFarmed
Well-loved Lula Café was one of four restaurants that provided delicious treats at the Taste of the GFA, a fundraiser for FamilyFarmed’s Good Food Accelerator held October 25 at 1871 Chicago. Profiled below, Lula sous chef Lauren Freeburg represented the restaurant with her husband and fellow chef Kevin Quinn, joining Kimski, Heritage Restaurant & Caviar Bar and Billy Sunday.
Read Good Food News recaps of the event, found here and here. If you could not attend but would like to help support the Good Food Accelerator’s impactful entrepreneur development programs, please consider a tax-deductible donation to FamilyFarmed, our non-profit organization working to get Good Food on Every Table.
Lauren Freeburg is sous chef at Lula Café, where she works for chef/owner Jason Hammel, a Chicago pioneer in farm-to-table cooking. In her only previous restaurant gigs, Freeburg worked at Little Goat Diner, owned by star Chef Stephanie Izard, and Xoco, part of Chef Rick Bayless’ Frontera Restaurant Group.
Working for three culinary titans is a pretty heady way for Freeburg to start a chef’s career — especially given that she says she really did not think much about food until she attended Chicago’s Columbia College (as a photography major), and didn’t begin her post-graduate education as a cook until after she started as a food runner at Little Goat.
FamilyFarmed chatted with Freeburg at Lula Café on October 18, seven days before she participated in our Good Food Accelerator’s Taste of the GFA fundraiser at Chicago’s 1871 business incubator. Accompanied by spouse Kevin Quinn — a chef who is the other half of their husband-and-wife team in Lula’s kitchen — Freeburg presented a delicious, creamy tofu and grain salad for tasting by the crowd of 200+ attendees.
All of the event’s chef participants utilized ingredients produced by entrepreneurs who graduated from the Accelerator’s first four cohorts (2014-18). Freeburg used Jenny’s Tofu — made by Jenny Yang, owner of Phoenix Bean Tofu and a 2015 alumnus of the first GFA cohort — in her dish seen in the photo below. (The 10 businesses competitively selected for the GFA’s 5th cohort, whose six-month intensive development program gets under way on November 5, were announced at the Taste of the GFA event; read about them on Good Food News.)
Lula Café has turned out to be a perfect landing spot for Freeburg as someone who built a cooking career from scratch. Hammel brought an English degree and plans to be a writer to Chicago before opening Lula in 1999, and is sort of a patron saint of self-taught cooks. (Read our April 2017 profile of Hammel and his career.) And his cozy, unpretentious space that helped spark the Logan Square neighborhood’s emergence as a culinary hot spot suited Freeburg’s nurturing personality.
“I’m really taken with cooking for people,” Freeburg said. “I’m taken with giving people the nutrition and energy they need to live their lives. I really like to take care of people, and I like that about the food industry.”
Freeburg said she was sitting at the same counter where we were chatting when she and Hammel discussed promoting her from line cook to sous chef. “I told him that it was a big priority for me to make sure that I stayed happy, happiness is a part of my life that I really spend a hard time cultivating,” Freeburg said, adding, “We were on the same page.”
In an industry noted for personnel turnover, Freeburg has now been with Lula Café for 4-1/2 years, 2-1/2 of those in the high-pressure job of sous chef. “It’s hard job, we do a lot of everything and we have a really high standard. We have a focus on making sure that everybody [on staff] is okay,” Freeburg said.
Lula has the same interactive relationships with its purveyors, many of them local farmers from whom the restaurant gets peak-season ingredients. Even after years of success at Lula, and the well-reviewed 2017 opening of his Marisol restaurant in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Hammel remains the familiar face he has been for years at Green City Market, Chicago’s premier farmers market.
The restaurant’s focus on the best of what is in season keeps the chefs on their toes. “Working with peak-season produce is an incredible challenge, and it takes a certain kind of person, but it’s an honor,” Freeburg said. “It actually makes cooking much easier because the food tastes so good.”
Her take on local food echoes what most Good Food advocates wholeheartedly believe: “When things can grow to their full ripeness before they’re harvested and you get them two hours later, that’s a huge reason… We’re getting the most nutrition out of the food. It’s not sitting in a warehouse for however long.”
Working in a place that changes its menu daily, based on market availability, not only encourages experimentation, but virtually requires it. “When you run at that pace and that’s just how farm to table cooking is, you have to take risks because you can’t plan a dish a month in advance,” Freeburg said.
Still, for all our talk about the food on the plate, the conversation kept coming back to Lula Café’s personal touch. Freeburg and Quinn often dine there in their off-hours, and said they told Hammel that Lula had set their expectations for restaurant service almost impossibly high.
She also noted that she was invited to participate in the Taste of the GFA event by Jen Rosenthal, a member of the Accelerator Associate Board whose company manages food gardens at several leading Chicago restaurants. Lula was, in fact, Rosenthal’s first client.
“Jen and Jason have been working together for longer than I’ve been working with Jason,” Freeburg said. “This seems to be one of her homes. But this is also what Jason does for the community… They’ve kept the relationship strong. They still depend on each other.”
Freeburg’s 4-plus years at Lula Café might not sound like a long time, but it is in a crowded restaurant community in which quality staff with staying power are at a premium. And thanks to Lula’s dedication to Good Food, great service and supportive employee environment, she seems likely to be at the Logan Square standout for a lot longer.
FamilyFarmed’s Good Food News provides regular coverage of the Good Food Accelerator, its activities, and the entrepreneurs and culinary artists in its community. Please check back regularly for our latest stories.