Dear Chicago: Chef Jason Hammel's Message to the Windy City Hospitality Community

By Jason Hammel


Jason Hammel
Illustration of Jason Hammel by Danie Drankwalter
Illustration of Jason Hammel by Danie Drankwalter
I’m here to have a hard talk about love. 
Because if you out there in the restaurant industry are experiencing loneliness and fear, like you’re floating on a raft with just one oar, there’s a tantalizing but false hope that all this uncertainty will go away when we reach “the other side.” But there’s no other side to this pandemic. No shore where you should expect safe harbor, a hero’s welcome. No, this is a sea change. A chance to transform not only the passage but the destination, too. It’s a chance to live a life of hope, potential, and restorative care. And it will take courage and love from our leaders.
I’m saying this particularly in my role as “mentor.” I’m nearly 50, white, went to some really great schools when I was young. And I’ve owned a restaurant since 1999. A lot of young people have come through these doors and looked to me for leadership and care. But frankly, I wasn’t able to see what was possible. I came up in a system and built what I have off that system—with new branches and wings, yes, but all still twisted like vines within their own self-germinating garden. It has been only by giving in to the fear of this moment, of the loss and chaos of it, that I’ve found the courage to accept the present moment and grow. I’m not saying that chefs of my generation have nothing left to teach. Quite the contrary. But our “lessons” are just hollow dogma if they aren’t in the service of a community built on the love and care of future generations. Our experience evaporates. It becomes less wise and more pedantic, more oppressive, more cynical and afraid. 
During the pandemic I’ve often read out loud to myself and my team from Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart, particularly this early passage: “So the next time you encounter fear, consider yourself lucky. This is where the courage comes in.”
The experience of the last 18 months has presented us with a choice between nostalgia and the unknown. Either we tend to the ruins of the restaurant industry that once was, like some kind of American Pompeii, rebuilding all that’s collapsed, or we recognize that the deep reckoning of 2020-2021 as a means to an end. This is where the courage comes in. We are now in the place of determining what end we want and who the “we” is who makes this determination. In the end, are we protecting a society of individuals who take what they need for themselves, or are we building a society of those who steward harvests of the future? 
Like: Are we here for each other, or are we not?
These are the questions asked every day in a restaurant. It’s asked of all of us, chefs and diners, purveyors and hosts, corporate execs and politicians, anybody who has a say in how food gets to the public. It’s asked when we make choices about how we compensate, how the financial model provides for workers across the industry, how we foster supportive workplace culture, and how the federal and state governments reinforce those efforts through public policy around such issues as parental leave, student loans, health care, and, yes, public health. 
If you don’t recognize that what we lost in March 2020 is never coming back and that it shouldn’t come back, I expect you’ll find the passage ahead pretty rough and dark. And I would say you need to throw away that one oar. It’s useless now. Stop fighting. Be tender and vulnerable. Follow the sea change below you. Consider yourself lucky. Because that change is being made by the young and brave. Step aside and lead, together, with courage and love. 
Jason Hammel
Lula Cafe
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