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Lincoln Park, Old Town

Esmé Restaurant Is Transforming Fine Dining With A Menu Inspired By ’90s Nostalgia And Nonprofit Kitchen Possible

Chef Jenner Tomaska has for years worked with Kitchen Possible, a nonprofit that provides kids 8-12 in Pilsen, East Garfield Park and Bronzeville with programs to teach them valuable life lessons through cooking.

Esmé restaurant is offering a menu of dishes inspired by Kitchen Possible.
Paul Octavious/Provided
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CHICAGO — From the moment chef Jenner Tomaska stepped into a Kitchen Possible class four years ago, he knew he wanted to support and promote the program.

The nonprofit works with kids 8-12 in Pilsen, East Garfield Park and Bronzeville, teaching them valuable life lessons through cooking. When Tomaska signed on to the program, it was to teach a recipe — but he quickly became a dedicated volunteer, working with a group of three kids as their go-to person throughout an eight-week program, all while trying to open Esmé, his Lincoln Park restaurant.

“He experienced firsthand how the class and the program affects these kids and the growth they had over that eight weeks,” said Katie Lowman, Kitchen Possible’s president. “That’s not a spirit of generosity and humbleness that most chefs bring to the table.”

Tomaska encouraged his Esmé staff to volunteer for Kitchen Possible, as well, so they could experience how cooking affects young minds. 

Now, Jenner has designed an entire menu at Esmé inspired by Kitchen Possible and the life lessons it teaches. The nostalgia-focused meal has 15 courses, each focused on a specific aspect of the program such as resourcefulness, going above and beyond, teamwork, patience and taking ownership.

Credit: Paul Octavious/Provided
Esmé’s “squash” green goddess salad is inspired by Kitchen Possible’s perseverance lesson.

“I presented the [Kitchen Possible] syllabus to the staff before I wrote the menu and asked how it pertained to them and how it pertained to the [restaurant] space,” Tomaska said. “The restaurant itself is one big communal effort. It’s not just me. Our best work is always done as a group.

“I’m not necessarily the storyteller; they are. I don’t want them at any point to be regurgitating my story. It’s meant to be how they’ve connected to this experience and the space at Esmé and how they’ve connected to their time at Kitchen Possible, as well.”

Tomaska’s favorite dish on the menu is called Corn on the Cod and is based on Kitchen Possible’s resourcefulness course. It features a piece of cod wrapped with roasted corn, designed to look like corn on the cob, plus corn chowder, cantaloupe and corn husk.

The custom “paper plate” the dish is served on is made by a local ceramicist and looks like a sheet of lined paper. Written on it is the recipe for chowder from “Joy of Cooking.”

Another course comes on a lunch tray with a tomato tart, fruit cup, tater tot and fruit punch to represent the nonprofit’s Getting Outside Your Comfort Zone lesson. Another dish — a smoked cashew and Granny Smith apple mousse covered by thin slices of truffle and heart of palm — cover the Taking Things Seriously lesson.

“This menu is literally bringing to life the lessons in our curriculum course by course,” Lowman said. “It is humbling and beautiful to be able to see our program reflected in this way. It’s really cool to see how they took those lessons and translated them to a dining space. The beauty of this partnership is that it’s not just a menu that benefits Kitchen Possible, it’s an entire menu inspired by our program.”

Alongside the meal, diners will find artwork on two gallery panels from students at Francis W. Parker Elementary School in Lincoln Park. The remainder of the artwork in the restaurant is from Griffin Goodman, who focuses on nostalgia and pop culture, and Zelene Schlosberg, who creates multilayered pieces with cut fabric.

“Francis W. Parker has been very supportive as far as patronage,” Tomaska said. “We wanted to show our support back to them. I thought it would be pretty cool to showcase some of the kids’ art in this professional setting. For me, growing up and having your work showcased in a space would be impactful. So, we asked everyone to donate, and one of the fourth-grade teachers made her whole class do it. They sent it over and we framed it all.”

Esmé’s Kitchen Possible collaboration menu runs through Oct. 30 and starts at $235 per guest. A portion of the proceeds from each reservation benefits the nonprofit. Reservations can be made on the restaurant’s website.

To experience more of Kitchen Possible’s work, the organization this month launched its Empowering Menus Fundraiser with 35 restaurants across Chicago. Each restaurant — including hot spots such as HaiSous, Lula Café and Big Jones — will feature a Kitchen Possible dish on the menu.

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