By Chris Mohney
The married team of chef Jenner Tomaska and partner Katrina Bravo are the guiding force behind Esmé in Chicago, an elaborately staged fine dining restaurant that recently launched a series of philanthropic-artist collaborations. For the debut, they worked with artist Paul Octaivous to create a tasting menu inspired by his imagery, where part of the proceeds benefit local nonprofit Hugs No Slugs.
KATRINA BRAVO: We were two days away from signing the lease for the Esmé space in February 2020. Our goal was to sign in early February, and then start construction by early March.
JENNER TOMASKA: The lockdown prolonged that process. We’re very fortunate. Things happen the way they happen for a reason. We were able to go back and strategize—not just with the business model, but also the spacing and any kind of health issues. Given that it’s fine dining, and one side of the restaurant is a tasting menu, it was always meant to be spacious and not necessarily a crowded, busy restaurant. It was never meant to have too many people in the space.
But besides that, I don’t think we ever really wavered from what we wanted to accomplish here. The space was always meant to be a platform for others. This whole idea was about being thankful and grateful for the opportunity and a career in the hospitality world, and to pay that forward. That means creating opportunity for others, and hopefully being able to push people forward, in the community and in the arts.
For me, that was always the fun part—seeing someone get from point A to point B, and being inspired by that and relating to that. A way to relate to people is through their work.
Obviously, this is a business, and the machine needs to run in order for us to achieve our goals. So that was always a bit daunting. We’ve reached out to several people about this idea of bringing artists in. These were reputable people that had done similar things, like raising money for charitable work. And this was during the pandemic, right before we opened. They were very much like, “You just need to focus on the business.”
BRAVO: We were going to meetings, and we were starting to look for branding agencies and marketing agencies. It was time to hire people. We started talking to people about the concept. We sat down with some very reputable agencies and some very reputable individuals. There were also people who were approaching Jenner because they wanted to work with him.
And when we sat down for these meetings, people were telling us, “You two kids, you’re biting off more than you can chew. You should really just focus on food.” We got a lot of that, “focus on the food.” Both Jenner and I are very, very stubborn individuals. When we make up our minds, that’s it. Regardless of whether someone tells us that they think it’s a good idea or not, we’re still going to do what we feel is right. We knew we wanted to open a restaurant that somehow contributed philanthropically.
Seven years ago, we were driving around Chicago on a summer day and chit-chatting about our dream. Why aren’t people doing more? Why aren’t these chefs who have achieved so much doing more? We thought that if we were doing themes in a restaurant, why can’t we do themes that could give back to people? So as we were interviewing different companies and different partners, the ones we went with were the ones who responded, “This is a great idea. This is awesome. We want to be a part of it.” Becca PR was like, “This is great. Don’t listen to what anyone else says. You have to do this.” Polonsky & Friends, our branding agency, were like, “This is great. Don’t listen to what anyone else says. You have to do this.”
We heard about the virus in late February, and we were like, “Let’s stop negotiations and see what’s going on.” By March, everything had unfolded around lockdowns. Jenner and I were like, “Well, do we stop or keep going?” Again, we’re both very stubborn people. We said, “Screw it. Let’s keep going.”
When the pandemic hit, I remember looking at Jenner. He was getting calls from old cooks, and we felt so helpless. We couldn’t help anyone. We didn’t have a restaurant for people to congregate at. We didn’t have a way to help other people in the industry. And then when the civil unrest happened in May and June, I was like, “I knew that we needed to do this, but seriously, now no one’s going to tell me otherwise.” I knew that we needed to contribute positively to the city that has done so much for us.
That’s when it was affirmed for us. We wanted to be people who helped give jobs to others. And not just any jobs, but jobs that help them grow, and jobs where they could express themselves. Maybe they’re not interested in staying in hospitality, but we can help them build their business plan for something else. Then we took it step further, illuminating other artisans—the ceramic workers and the tradesmen and the people who have helped us. And then they would be being able to give money back to missions that they felt were worthy.
If you’re going to open up a restaurant in the middle of a global pandemic, just go big or go home. We’re already going, so we might as well keep going with our dream. And it’s all trial and error. Is it hard? Sure, but we just kind of dug in our heels even more because of the pandemic.
We were on the horse. We weren’t getting off.
TOMASKA: I asked Katrina when all this was happening—”Does the world need this?” I love to cook and I like being a chef, and this is how I provide for my family. This is my craft and my job. It’s not just something I love to do. We’re about to do something to provide for each other. It’s a very scary thing to ask yourself, given what was going on. I think that cemented more our reasoning behind why we wanted to do it, and it gave light to the path of opening.
For our first collaboration, Katrina has always been a fan of Paul Octavious. He was one of the first predominant media artists in Chicago.
BRAVO: I was a fangirl. Let’s be honest, okay? I was probably one of the earliest adopters of both Instagram and Facebook. My background is in marketing. Around 2011 or 2012, I heard about Paul. I don’t even know how I heard about him. I was looking for people to follow on Instagram. Paul had something like 100,000 followers. That was crazy back then. And his work was so cool. He was using Instagram as a gallery. He was showcasing work.
When Jenner and I started dating in 2013, we were at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and Paul was there. I don’t usually get fangirly about celebrities. I grew up in Miami, and my dad was in movies. It’s just not a big deal to me. And I was peeing my pants. I was like, “Oh my God, that’s Paul Octavious!”
My second major was art. I’ve always wished I was some sort of creator in this way. I was very impressed by what he was doing. He was photographing from drones before anyone was doing it. I remember seeing him, and then I went on Instagram and I was like, “Look, he is here!” I was just freaking out.
In 2017, the Alinea Group did some sort of event. They invited a bunch of people in the arts. And I was like, “Make sure Paul Octavius is on that list!” He’s pure Chicago, just a very, very charismatic individual, even before he opens his mouth. I think he was already on that list, because he’s worked with Nike. So he was at the event, and he and Jenner chatted a bit. I was in the background like, “Yes, yes! My dreams are coming true! I get to meet Paul Octavious!” Paul had been following Jenner and thought his stuff was cool, and he was like, “Hey, can I come play with your food?” And that was it. Then we became friends.
TOMASKA: Paul came in and shot food for a day or two and hung out, and we’ve been friendly ever since.
BRAVO: Then it turned out that both Paul and Jenner are both crazy and someone needs to watch them because of what they come up with. When we were conceptualizing Esmé, just meeting Paul, knowing Paul, understanding more about him—if you ever get to talk to him, you’d be like, “Oh, I get it.” He’s such an awesome human being.
I see Esmé as a person. Paul is that person. Paul is Esmé. He’s always found ways to give back to the community. I wanted to work with him, and I wanted him to eventually be an ambassador of the space and feel free to use it for things that he’s working on to help other artists. So for us, whether he liked it or not, he was going to be our first artist collaborator.
TOMASKA: The collaboration takes two forms. Paul has never shown his work in a physical gallery space, so we have the majority of those images printed and displayed at Esmé. You experience them firsthand as you’re dining. Depending on how you look at it, you can say we have 12 courses or 13 courses. Each image is paired by, and inspired by, a course. Again, it’s awesome to see how someone gets from point A to point B in their work.
I sat down and talked to Paul about the images that I liked of his over the years, about what best showcases him as an artist, and as someone who’s evolved and changed and grown, and then we came together with these 13 or 14 images that would pair well with food. Then he gave me some background about where he was in his life at those times, and what those images meant to him. I was able to connect on the food.
Some things are very literal as far as how we are inspired and what we physically serve. Other things aren’t. There’s one image that he didn’t even tell me about, and he didn’t even know that I wanted to use. At the last minute, I was like, “I really like this and I want to do this with it.” But after hearing what the image meant to him, and what it was, it was a complete 180 opposite from what I conceived. So that for me is very cool, and I think for him too.
That’s the kind of story and conversation and dialogue that we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to create a space for people to showcase their work that wouldn’t necessarily get this opportunity, in this place, this area, in Chicago.
We want to do these collaborations quarterly. It’s a giant task—it’s a new restaurant every time you do it. I think that’s what is so important and so cool about it. We literally bought plates specific to each picture that’s on the wall.
It’s really something new, right? And it’s a reason for people to keep coming back. Obviously, it’s on the higher end of the price point for food, but it is an experience. It’s not just a meal. We’ve never talked about food first. It’s more about the story and what we’re trying to accomplish.
But I feel like this collaboration with Paul was very successful, and it cements even more that we want to do it again. It’s really the relationship-building that has been so fun. To have Paul point us in the direction of the next person, that ties back in to what the mission of Esmé is. We’re looking to find the next person to support and highlight. Paul doesn’t need Esmé. He didn’t necessarily need a place to showcase his work. That’s why we’re donating a portion of the proceeds to a cause that he is tied to and wants to support. It’s more about bridging that conversation to help find the next person and point us in the next direction.