CHEF EMILY SPURLIN
Emily Spurlin first fell in love with pastry while attending culinary school in Paris, France before moving to Chicago for its exciting and diverse culinary scene. After spending a summer cooking at Granor Farm alongside chef Abra Berens in Three Oaks, Michigan, Spurlin was elated to receive a call from her favorite restaurant’s owner, Jason Hammel, about joining the Lula Cafe team. In her role as a pastry chef, Spurlin aims to strike a balance between the unusual, yet nostalgic and the simple, yet complex through her pastries.
A farm-to-table pioneer and one of the first restaurants of its kind in Logan Square, Lula Cafe opened in total DIY fashion by executive chef/owner Hammel and his wife, musician Amalea Tshilds, in 1999. Lula’s cuisine is focused on one fundamental principle: constant creativity inspired by the smallest moments of the season. Under the mentorship of Hammel, Spurlin will embrace the responsibility of Lula’s continued presence and relevance after 20 years of service to the Logan Square neighborhood and community. With experience in vegetable-forward creations and a style rooted in creativity, nostalgia and balance, Spurlin compliments Lula’s dynamic, farm-to-table approach.
Valrhona: What inspired you to enter the world of pastry?
Emily Spurlin: I was uncertain before culinary school whether I was leaning more toward savory or pastry, I just knew I wanted to work with food. Although I loved learning knife skills and butchery and classic French cuisine, it was the Pastry in Paris that really caught my eye. The attention to detail and artistry that is applied to dessert there definitely lit a fire. Back in the states and cooking at The Publican, we were encouraged to work on “passion projects” that had the potential to make it onto the menu. I had such a hard time coming up with savory dishes, but I had a notebook I carried around me that was filled with ideas for plated desserts. My creativity is most fluent in pastry. From there, it was just a matter of convincing someone to hire me on their pastry team with no pastry experience! Thank you, Anna Posey.
Valrhona: Tell us about your background as a pastry chef?
Emily Spurlin: I started out as a line cook after attending culinary school in Paris, but quickly realized I was more inspired by pastry. After working the savory side for a few years in Chicago, I eventually transitioned to pastry at The Publican. From there I worked at Floriole, followed by joining the opening team at Bad Hunter. After a few years there, I spent a summer at Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan cooking and baking for their dining program. Towards the end of my time there, I heard from Jason Hammel about an opening for Pastry Chef at Lula cafe, to take over for my friend Amanda Sheperd - which is where I am now!
Valrhona: From where do your inspirations for new creations come?
Emily Spurlin: It usually starts with an ingredient or flavor I’m interested in working with - often produce. From there I build flavor ideas based on something I think sounds interesting, or picking things with a similar or contrasting color palette. I’m also inspired by seasonal color palettes - reds, oranges and yellows in late summer, browns and oranges in fall, white and pastels in winter, pinks and greens in spring, vibrant reds and blues and purples in midsummer. I’ve also recently started playing around with transmuting emotions into plated desserts - I’m working on a Valentine’s Day dessert that resembles and evokes a broken heart. It’s been highly cathartic!
Valrhona: Who in your life has been the biggest mentor/inspiration in your career?
Emily Spurlin: I’ve had many inspirations in my career (Sandra Holl, Anna Posey), but the mentorship I’ve been receiving most recently by Jason Hammel has been very special. I’ve always admired Jason for his mentorship model and commitment to providing a healthy work environment, but I’ve learned so much from him and the talented team he has curated at Lula. My style of cooking has already elevated and transformed in the few months I’ve been here.
Valrhona: What is your most famous dish?
Emily Spurlin: It’s not a fully composed dish, but I’ve probably gained the most notoriety for the Chocolate Chip Cookie I developed at Bad Hunter, and also for the croissants we made. as far as plated desserts, I think the most popular was the fresh turmeric pannacotta with passionfruit, puffed rice, and coconut ash ice cream.
Valrhona: What is your earliest dessert memory?
Emily Spurlin: My grandmother would make a “mounds cake,” which was a chocolate cake topped with coconut and a fudge frosting. I think it came from a church recipe booklet, and it was perfect. My mother is also a very good baker, and one of her specialties was her chocolate raspberry brownies.
Valrhona: What is your favorite type of pastry to make and eat?
Emily Spurlin: My favorite type of pastry to make is probably a croissant or other laminated dough - I love finicky, labor-intensive projects with big rewards - pulling a perfect croissant with beautiful layers out of the oven is such a treat. My favorite type of pastry to eat is ice cream - it would definitely be my last meal.
Valrhona: When pairing with chocolate, what is your favorite flavor combination?
Emily Spurlin: I love earthy vegetables with chocolate, like beets, mushrooms, or parsnips. I also love herbs with chocolate, like rosemary or mint.
Valrhona: What is your favorite kitchen tip?
Emily Spurlin: Always be finding ways to help out your future self and make her life easier. You can’t be in a bad mood if you’re listening to The Beegees.
Valrhona: When & how did you hear about Valrhona for the first time?
Emily Spurlin: I started using Valrhona for the first time while working at Floriole - Sandra Holl is another Cercle V member. She is very involved with Valrhona so that helped me begin to develop a relationship. The trip to France really strengthened it, not only because of everything I learned in the class but because of the personal relationships that were deepened with people who work with and for Valrhona. Since then, they’ve taken very good care of me, and it’s only reinforced my brand loyalty - which was already there, to begin with, because of the quality of the chocolate.
Valrhona: If you could pass one bit of insight down to another chef, what would it be?
Emily Spurlin: It’s hard when there are experience and confidence to gain, but I think it’s important for chefs, specifically female-identifying and POC, to learn early to take up space, use your voice, and stand your ground. Also, to seek out environments that are supportive and healthy - it’s simply not worth being miserable or feeling unsafe, no matter how good the job looks on your resume.
Valrhona: What is the Corporate Social Responsibility initiative you’ve implemented and are the proudest of?
Emily Spurlin: Supporting as many small farms as possible, reducing waste by fermenting/preserving scrap product and composting, and building a more sustainable industry by providing employees with a living wage, health insurance, and environment where they can be comfortable enough to show up and work as their best selves.
Valrhona: Who do you follow on social media?
Emily Spurlin: Too many people! Pastry-wise, I love following Anna Posey, Kelly Fields, Natasha Pickowicz, Caitlyn Jarvis, Laurence Faber, Thomas Raquel, Cedric Grolet - among many others.
Non-pastry wise, I’m always seeking inspiration from creatives in other mediums: florists, ceramicists, fashion designers, musicians, photographers. I also follow a lot of therapists, mental health advocates, and people doing work around race, gender, indigenous rights, and queer/trans issues.
There have been many over the years but “sugar witch” has had the longest shelf life.
Celsius or Fahrenheit?
Both - I use Celcius when working with chocolate and ice cream, but Fahrenheit is a lot easier to wrap my head around.
Cake or Tart?
Cake! mostly because of frosting.
Well, it was Lula cafe, and I guess it still is.
Wine or Cheese?
Coffee or Tea?
Favorite Kitchen Tool?
Tiny plastic spatulas, to gather every bit of product from the bottom of the Vitaprep!
Craziest delicious flavor combination?
Dark chocolate, porcini mushrooms, and grape. Or maybe zucchini herb cake with parmesan ice cream and lemon curd.