Artistic Palate: How Chicago’s Michelin-starred Esmé Made Its Mark Combining Art and Food

By Ryan Slattery

You won’t find Chef Jenner Tomaska’s name on the door of his Michelin-starred restaurant in the heart of Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. It was never about building a reputation or being pretentious. Of course, the chef and his wife and partner Katrina Bravo are proud of the distinction and everything they’ve accomplished in a few short years, but for them it’s a story of how food and art interact.

Artistic Palate: Esmé’s Michelin-Starred Fusion of Art and Food

Tomaska opened Esmé in August 2021 with the idea of it becoming a fun, approachable community-focused restaurant. One that not only shares the creative endeavors of local artists but elevates that vision pairing art with perfectly plated, photogenic dishes. It’s that combination that attracted the attention of foodies all over the world.

Esmé, which in French means beloved, is a 42-seat space filled with natural light shining through the restaurant’s 20-foot-tall windows.

“You’re in the middle of the city and there are literally people walking down the sidewalk as you’re in the middle of your 12-course meal,” Tomaska says. “I think that’s kind of cool.”

Minimalist, well-lit Esmé doubles as an art gallery with the featured artist’s work proudly displayed as Tomaska’s complex tasting menu compliments and blends its surroundings into the dining experience.

“The space is like a gallery. It’s very bright. We don’t turn the lights down during service so the art can be seen on the walls,” he explains. “We want everyone’s art to be showcased at its best. I think the formality of fine dining or tasting menus is dated at this point, like the pretentiousness of the service could be a bit unwelcoming. Esmé is meant to be fun.”

Every four months, Tomaska partners with a different artist and tells an entirely new story creating a unique 12-course menu ($235-$265 per person) and plating on it the collaborator’s custom artwork itself. The process takes about six months to execute but is constantly tweaked during the three-month installation.

“There’s never enough time,” Tomaska jokes.

Tomaska says he and his wife meet with the artist and draw inspiration from what they’re “trying to express.” Sometimes, that can be light and bright with fun, colorful dishes, and other times the artwork is more subtle with delicate plating.

Tomaska’s latest whimsical partnership with Chicago artist Emmy Star Brown launched June 30. This one is a bit more personal. Tomaska was introduced to Brown’s work when noticed the artist’s eye-catching art hanging on a wall of the apartment of his now wife when they began dating (more than a decade ago).

Together, Tomaska and Brown are taking diners down the road to a more playful time allowing them to channel their inner child over the course of the meal. The art is imaginative and includes illustrations, lettering, canvas work and murals. Tomaska even challenged Brown to use her admiration for Alexander Calder to create a mobile that is lowered during the meal to reveal one of the dishes.

“I really pushed her out of her comfort zone,” Tomaska explains. “She’s never worked with wood before but did for this menu and there’s one hanging over every single table. So you pull it down from a raised position to eye level right and it unveils the next course.”

“As a self-taught muralist and painter, I have always enjoyed challenging methods and mediums,” Brown says of the project. “This year I have been taking on a new exploratory approach by looking at my work through a multi-dimensional lens, a nod to my creative hero Alexander Calder. It’s an honor to introduce my latest work in wood, resin, glass, and mobiles with Esmé.”

As for Tomaska’s tasty creations. “I don’t look at my food as art. I’m not about the smoke and mirrors as much as I used to be, or the theatrics.”

Some may argue with him on that. The edible masterpieces he pairs with the artwork make for a memorable meal. For example, his Corn On The Cod features a piece of cod wrapped with roasted corn and served with a carrot and peach bisque. The fun dish is served on a corn printed plate Brown created specifically for Esmé. Another stunner is a Squash and Daylily salad shaped in a bouquet and served with paint-colored purees on the side.

Despite his claims, Tomaska is innovative himself. He is wrapping cabbage around poussin and baking it in a hand-crafted clay pot that is shaped like a rooster. When it’s brought to the table it’s cracked open to reveal its contents.

Read Also: Editor’s Top Pick: August 2023 Tech & Appliances – F & B

“What’s cool about this is we take this piece of art that takes a tremendous amount of time to make, come out the table and smash it open and it’s gone right,” he explains. “Food is the same way. You get a dish that was made specifically for you. Someone took the time to craft the properly and make it look a certain way because that was what they had envisioned and then you eat it and it’s gone forever. So it really embodies that conversation about whether food is art.”

At Esmé it is.