CHICAGO— The roar of grain exploding under pressure isn’t what you’d expect at a Michelin-starred restaurant, but Chef Jenner Tomaska of Lincoln Park’s Esmé says it’s crucial to make a favorite of home on the bar menu: Flamin’ Hot Cheeto.
“A friend helped me build the machine,” says Tomaska. “It’s basically this extruder attached to a flywheel with a 10 horsepower motor.”
The 3-foot-tall Flamin’ Hot Cheeto is presented in a bouquet on the table and is seasoned with homemade fermented peppers and cheddar cheese. The dish is indicative of Tomaska’s fun and whimsical approach to food as well as her appreciation for art.
“Tasting menus and art can be intimidating, but this space isn’t about that,” says Tomaska. “It’s very welcoming and inviting and that’s what we try to instill in the food and the experience.”
Esmé’s menu rotates quarterly to match the art installed at the restaurant. Last winter’s first featured artist, Chicago photographer Paul Octavious, describes the experience of his photos interpreted through food as breathtaking.
“You can not only watch it, you can eat it,” Octavious said. “You eat at a Michelin star place and it’s like a museum.”
Tomaska describes Esmé’s current tasting menu as childish and nostalgic because it’s about empowering children. The dishes, inspired by star artists Griffin Goodman and Zelene Schlosberg, are colorful and playful.
“Currently we are working with Kitchen Possible, a youth programming group,” Tomaska said. “A portion of the proceeds from ticket sales goes to this foundation.”
Stunning dishes on the current menu include a piece of cod dressed in chunks of corn to look like an ear of corn called “Resourcefulness” and a multicolored fruit-flavored drink served with crazy glass straws. Tomaska says diners don’t need to be educated in cooking or art to connect with the Esmé experience.
“I think putting myself on a blank canvas is a bit daunting,” Tomaska said. “For me the fun part of doing this is connecting with others and especially in the arts; the way they get from point A to point B in their craft is inspiring and also very relevant.
In addition to normal reservations, Esmé offers “season subscriptions” where diners can pre-order up to three menu experiences.
For more information about Esme, visit esmechicago.com.