If someone gives her a fancy whiskey, Sarah Rinkavage will never turn it down. But ask the chef de cuisine of Lula Cafe in Chicago’s Logan Square her preference, and most times she’ll say without missing a beat: Jameson. Lately, the chef at one of Chicago’s earliest farm-to-table champions has been getting into gin and exploring more haunts around the ’hood.
Rinkavage came to Chicago by way of Connecticut in 2010, when she landed at Wicker Park’s vegetable-focused Spring with celebrated chef Shawn McClain, who is now building an empire in Las Vegas with places like Sage and the new Libertine Social. After a year, she teamed up with Lula’s Jason Hammel, who curated this year’s Taste Talks in Chicago, and has worked with him ever since.
What do you like to drink when you get off work?
Usually it’s pretty simple, like a glass of whiskey. Lately, it’s been gin, soda and bitters, which is pretty refreshing. It’s also whatever people hand me. [Laughs.]
Do you have a go-to whiskey?
I’m a Jameson person. I don’t stray too much because I know how much Jameson I can drink without getting a hangover. I like to keep it simple, but if someone has a nice fancy glass of whiskey, I’ll drink that. Bourbon tends to make me sick.
What about the gin?
I love Letherbee; it’s my favorite gin. I know [Letherbee founder] Brent [Engel] really well; he was the bartender at Lula. It’s flavorful and floral, and I usually have a bottle of that at home.
Any drinks at Lula you really like right now?
What I like about the Lula cocktail program is that all of the bartenders have a chance to make a cocktail and get it on the menu, so there’s good variety. Right now, my favorite is the Couple’s Skate. It’s fun and summery with gin, cherry and lime; it’s like cherry limeade but an adult version. It’s refreshing.
Where do you like to drink when you’re off work?
I usually go to this bar nearby called the Whirlaway on Fullerton. I live nearby. The owner is this older woman named Maria who’s from Mexico but has lived here 20 to 30 years. She runs the bar by herself, and her son helps out sometimes, but she’s the only employee, and she’s like my second mom. A lot of people feel like that about her; it feels like you’re in your grandma’s basement. There’s nothing fancy, but she takes care of me really well. She keeps up to date too: She has Off Color Brewery beers and Belgian-style beers on hand, too. My go-to mostly is a shot of whiskey and Tecate, and I’m happy.
Sarah Rinkavage’s whiskey of choice is Jameson, and her go-to gin is Letherbee.
Any other favorite local spots?
If I stay in Logan Square, I really like SmallBar. It has a lot of different beers, it’s dark, and it’s pretty cool with a good patio. I like TheWhistler. I like it better now than when it first opened, because it’s a little less pretentious and it has a great patio. Its cocktail prices are competitive, and I don’t feel like I’m spending too much. They’re good portions and taste great. Sometimes you can catch cool music playing, like jazz bands. If I venture out, I’ll hit Weegee’s. I’m surprised it’s still open, because it’s always dead when I go, but those cocktails are always stellar, and it’s a fun place. And I like TheMatchbox, whenever you can sit in there. I don’t have a favorite drink but always pick a whiskey-based classic cocktail there.
Have you found any cocktails that inspire your cooking?
Nothing very heavily inspired, but a simple example is a recent dish where I cured mackerel in this flavored gin, and when I was thinking about composing the rest of the dish and what would go with it, I was going through what I needed. I made a chamomile-infused gin, cured the mackerel in it and decided to add olives to make it like a Martini. I had the gin, olive brine and chopped olives and added it to the rest of the dish with English and snap peas and a little lemon. Sometimes it works the other way at Lula, where the bartenders will be inspired to make drinks based on a project we’re working on. A house-made vinegar was added to a drink, and also the turmeric shrub we made went into a cocktail and it feels very healing.
The Couple’s Skate at Lula Cafe
What do you like to serve at a dinner party to kick things off?
Usually I’ll buy ingredients for an Old Fashioned, and I’ll have those on hand if it’s winter. In summer, I’ll make some sort of fruity gin- or tequila-based punch where I’ll get a ton of summer fruit and citrus and make a big pitcher with fresh herbs. That’s pretty exciting for everyone, and it goes quickly. In winter, I have these antique globe glasses and serve Old Fashioneds, and I make sure there’s nice wines for the rest of dinner.
Is there a quintessential Chicago drink you like?
Coming out to Chicago, the biggest thing was finding the shot culture. People are very willing to take shots out here. And there are great beers being produced here.
Any guilty pleasures you like to drink when no one is looking?
I’m not ashamed of my whiskey drinking, and people tend to drink more bourbon here. But I don’t think I’ll feel bad about anything I’d drink. Maybe the amount of Jameson I like to drink. [Laughs.]