Interview with Chicago Rising Star Chef Sarah Rinkavage of Lula Café

by Caroline Hatchett
May 2015

Caroline Hatchett: How did you first get into the industry?
Sarah Rinkavage: I
started from the bottom, I was in garde manger at Lula Cafe and eventually worked my way up until there was an opening for me. I didn’t grow up around a lot of cooking, and I was the pickiest eater as a child. My mom would make me eat an apple every day, and it was the only "green" thing I would eat until I tried this one dish… it had a lot of peppers in it and just opened my eyes.

I needed a job, so at 16 I started working at Café Ra in Connecticut. I was just going to be a barista, but the chef there was from Jordan and he was making all this American food with flavors I’d never witnessed before. So I started talking to him, and he started to teach me. He’d let me in the kitchen and I’d make wraps and sandwiches, but I would always watch what he was doing. Then, I went to the Culinary Institute of America; my parents couldn’t really afford to send me to college, and here I found the most expensive one. I really didn’t want to move to New York. It was too close to home, and so I moved to Chicago, really on a whim. At the time, Chicago was supposed to be a pit stop, but I’ve been here ever since.

CH: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
There are a few. I love that no day is the same, but that can also be challenging. Finding new ways to do new things, staying innovative and creative. Each Monday we do a farm dinner, and we have to create two new dishes each week. They can never be the same, and so each week is a challenge just to stay ahead of the game. It’s much more challenging in the winter. I read a lot though, try to go out and experience different ethnic restaurants and see what other people are doing. It’s a big challenge, but it’s really made me grow.

CH: How have you worked toward becoming a sustainable restaurant?
Lula has been a huge part of the Farm to Table movement long before I got there. So many relationships with local farmers and artisans. We are constantly reaching out to new sources and young businesses in the industry to help them start up and gain a following by trying out and buying their products. But most recently we're starting to compost. This has always been a challenge in the past because we're so busy and have so little space, but we're giving it another push. Composting brings more attention to the waste you're creating.

CH: What’s your five year plan?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I plan on staying here with Jason [Hammel] for a while; He’s been a huge mentor for me and has really helped in paving my way here in Chicago. Lately, I’ve been working a lot to find my style and passion in the industry. I’ve been a bit selfish; I need to learn how to be a better teacher and be more involved with the community. This summer, I’m planning on going to Copenhagen for a month to stage. Copenhagen has an awesome culinary scene right now, and from there I’ll see more of Europe, go to Italy and stay with our purveyors’ mother and learn how to make pasta, etc. I want to stage and learn as much as I can out there. It’s my reward for being at Lula and for staying. I’m really excited!

CH: Where do you most want to go for culinary travel?
I would love to go to South America, specifically Argentina or Peru. Beautiful cuisines and lifestyles. Also Copenhagen—where I'm going to stage in August—it has become a huge culinary mecca.