Esmé: Where You Can Have Your Art and Eat it Too
By ANNA DOBROWOLSKI
On days where joining friends for a meal isn’t an option, and the effort of cooking for one is better spent calling for takeout, eating alone can seem a chore, rather than an event. Reserving a ‘table for one’ at a Michelin-starred restaurant rarely enters the realm of possibilities; even less so is taking a snack to an art gallery. In Lincoln Park, Chef Tomaska and his team at Esmé curate a world where you can have your art and eat it, too.
For the uninitiated, the Lincoln Park restaurant received a Michelin star in April 2022 less than a year after its opening on August 18th, 2021. Located on the tree-laden corner of Webster and Clark, Esmé’s open windows and modern exterior welcome art and food lovers for a feast for the senses.
Chef Jenner Tomaska and partner Katrina Bravo came up with the food-art tandem by listening to artists talking about their work. “I’m interested in the story of how and why an artist decides to create. Working in the kitchen, [as a chef] you remove yourself from the conversation a lot of the time, but I like the conversations that happen when people come together and discuss a piece,” Chef Tomaska tells me.
Esmé's current menu is inspired by Chicago-based multimedia artist Courtney Shoudis. I recently had the chance to speak with the creatives on scene.
Before working in painting and sculpture, and new media such as film, Shoudis worked in fashion and design. She is currently working on a new painting for her series ‘The Passing of Time’— a collection of paintings which renders seasons passing while waiting for her partner’s final immigration interview into America. At first, Shoudis created these paintings to grapple with long distance and the confusion spurred by immigration processes that have been backlogged by the pandemic. “I naïvely thought that it would be six months. Now, I am working on the 13th season,” she says. “It’s at the point where it is just madness. The reason I wanted to visualize it was to cope.”
Shoudis and I moved our conversation from the bar into the main dining area and gallery space, into an area by the west entrance with tabletops designated for amuse bouches. In our periphery, Shoudis’ untitled female nudes brush against Cubist traditions with their delineating figures and flattened, color blocked forms. “I thought about pulling [the women] apart, reconsidering them from the female viewpoint and experience. In this work I’m trying to understand these different stages of life through the body, and I'm trying to figure out how much of that has been seen before me as well as who I am.”
As we orbit around the sculptures, we see the angular silhouette of a woman on her knee, then standing up and being strong again. The lines echo the sculptures and the tabletop female sculptures, which Shoudis had designed specifically to function as a serving plate for the subsequent bites. She has long been interested in the use of women’s bodies in art, using her own practice to point out, and then reconsider, these trends in a new light. “With the tabletop sculptures, I played with the idea of objectifying women even further,” she points out, as I watch guests pluck appetizers off the structure.
In the main dining area there are four canvases with colors exploding across the canvas. Their impressionistic fluidity contrasts against the geometric sculptures. “I have never shown these two bodies of work in the same space,” says Shoudis. For her, Seasons has been a personal odyssey in which she draws from various texts. “I never know what will trigger the next season,” she says. One painting with controlled, deep purple daubs across the raw canvas is Shoudis’ reflection of Ophelia’s desperation in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Mayakovsky and the Passing of Winter, she mentions an affinity for a line from Frank O Hara’s poem “Mayakovsky:” “It may be the coldest day of the year, what does he think of that? I mean, what do I? And if I do, perhaps I am myself again.” In another, she meditates on the falling of cherry blossoms.
Sitting down with the work of art is one part of the story. My friend Nancy had flown in from New Orleans for the weekend and – in a herculean Human Race effort, hailed an Uber straight to Esmé to join me for our 7pm dinner reservation (I resigned from eating alone, here). Our very first bite was a reconstructed Cheeto,™ with its puff shell and orange cheese powder staining our fingers a la nostalgia. Each bite, like each of Shoudis’ season, carried a new impression – bittersweet, smoky, acidic – and each platter arrived with another story. For instance, a savory puff pastry was served on a gossamer origami plate (“Lips” Polly Verity). One meal was delivered on a zoetrope–it disappeared quickly so that I could spin the plate and witness birds in flight. As a preamble to dessert – the grand finale– smoke emerged out of a marbled head on a platter.
After the feast, I asked the Chef about the process of creating a menu inspired by art and some of its challenges. Says Tomaska, "Esmé was conceptualized to lead with art and community first, so in many ways we flipped the construct of a restaurant on its head, reverse engineering the process of creating a menu. It's exciting to create in this way, but also presents challenges in terms of the frequency with which we are making menu changes and switching out the artwork, something we embrace because of our dedication to this mission and goal to utilize our space to be a platform to shine a light on the individuals who contribute to Chicago's creative culture. We've been fortunate that we have been embraced by the community and take the care to explain the vision for what we are doing as we are guiding their meal at the restaurant.”
When I told Tomaska I could appreciate the mission to give back as well as give a platform to artists, he responds that there is more to come. “The next collaboration will be with Kitchen Possible, a local non-profit dedicated to empowering kids to make amazing things happen in their lives through lessons learned in the kitchen. The menu will be inspired by those life lessons with a portion of proceeds benefiting the organization.”
Check out Esmé at esmechicago.com