Walking into Esmé, one of Chicago’s most adventurous and creatively challenging restaurants, you’d be forgiven if you initially mistook it for an art gallery. The long white room, the abundance of light and, of course, the art hanging on the walls and suspended from the ceiling—there are many visual cues that this is an exhibition space at least as much as it is a dining space.
In 2021, a Newcity article by Rebecca Holland focused on the efforts of Chef Jenner Tomaska and Katrina Bravo to bring to Chicago Esmé, a restaurant that would be “more than a restaurant,” a restaurant that would “de-emphasize food.” Those are provocative statements from a team that created one of the most intriguing restaurants to open in Chicago in recent years and some of the most delicious bites we’ve had in the past year or so.
Tomaska and his crew are focused on food—Esmé is, after all, a restaurant—but they want to expand that focus to draw into the conversation visual artists whose works rotate in and out of the space. “I’ve always longed for that kind of dialogue, that interaction,” says Tomaska, “to be able to talk to others, how they go about doing their work. Sometimes there’s a story and an emotion behind the artwork. Other times, it just feels right or looks cool: there’s no explanation for it.”
For Bravo, the art that hangs in Esmé influences the guest experience, but just as importantly, it supports artists and the larger community, and that includes the community of restaurant owners in all parts of Chicago. “Right now,” says Bravo, “we’re working to make microgrants to people on the South Side, the Southwest Side, low-income individuals who need assistance with opening restaurants and keeping them open. We’ll donate our space to teach classes, we’ll donate our time, and we love to coach people on what to do, and how to do things, like how to follow the process for filing LLCs. By guests coming in and dining with us, they’re allowing us to help others and they’re helping others.”
Works by Emmy Star Brown are currently on exhibit at Esmé, created specifically for the restaurant. We had some questions for her about her creative approach and how her work complements and supports the creative foods and the community-minded goals at Esmé.
We don’t mean to pigeonhole your work, but how would you define your art?
My work is contemporary abstract, very controlled, very intentional, yet still playful, spontaneous and joyful. It evokes emotion. A lot of people feel things when they look at my work, which I absolutely love.
I love people interacting with my work, viewing my work, spending time with it, and reconnecting with parts of their younger selves, parts that we often lose as we get older, the fearlessness, the spontaneity; they’re just finding a reconnection with their imaginations.
All the pieces in this show tie back to my childhood; each piece is named after a specific piece of my childhood.
When I was younger, I was nonverbal. I went to counseling, which in hindsight was art therapy. I wasn’t speaking, so I was sitting on the floor drawing with a counselor. She offered prompts such as, draw your school, draw your backyard, or your dog. And art became my voice when I was younger, and it’s helped me find my voice as an adult as well. So, all these pieces in the show specifically tie back to my childhood, and I really tried to mentally attach myself to specific memories when I was designing them. So, while something may look like a circle or an animal or whatever, it really was more about the frame of mind I was in and what I was thinking while I was designing them.
Photo: Jon Shaft
How do you feel your art works with the environment and food at Esmé?
It’s a perfect fit. When I first met with Jenner and Katrina, we were talking about ideas for the space. We found that we all had this common connection with Alexander Calder. I had dreamed of working in three-dimensions for years and years, but I had never pushed myself into that direction. And Jenner had said, “What if we fill the space with mobiles,” and having that kind of support pushed me from 2D to 3D. I’d never worked in three dimensions before, so creating art for Esmé was certainly very special to me.
I absolutely loved that we pulled this off. You know, the first course of the dinner is served on mobiles floating above the dining tables. There’s a pulley system, so the mobiles can be pulled down to the table level and then pulled back up. But then it stays within the space, and that’s really important for me. I want people to see how the art works functionally with the food.
In what ways is your art appropriate for mounting in a restaurant like Esmé?
I have a canvas piece titled “Hygge,” a Danish word that describes a lifestyle. I’m so intrigued by it. I went to Copenhagen years ago and was absolutely moved by their attention to lighting, their attention to environment, their attention to art, the way they value their surrounding environment and how the environment impacts how they feel.
So, in terms of filling this space with my work, you know, it really surrounds the same idea, which is that environment truly does impact your experience, how you feel, and memories that may be tied to it. So, specifically at Esmé, we created this customized experience. We hung things from the ceiling, we created pieces that you interact with, that you eat off of, that you play with; you can sit and watch them move, you can have a moment with them, and they really take you out of your element for a second. Art can inspire the way you feel. I’m just giving you something to inspire a moment.
Photo: Jon Shaft
Walking in the front door of Esmé, to one’s immediate left, are two large paintings of yours. Could you tell us about your thinking behind these two works?
The one on the left is called, “Maybe the Skies Will Be Blue,” which [are lyrics from “Happy Together,”] a song by The Turtles. My parents would sing that song to me all the time when I was little, and the whole concept of the show is me taking myself back to certain places as I was creating the work.
The one on the right is titled, “Hill Avenue Street.” That’s the name of the street I grew up on, and the shapes follow the shape of the street.
In both, I’m conveying playfulness and spontaneity, which is also what Katrina and Jenner are doing at Esmé. With these works, I’m moving in a more exploratory direction, challenging myself to explore new materials, new methods, new scales, new dimensions—all of that falls very much in line with an experimental and innovative approach that also carries this element of surprise and intrigue. There’s a strong sense of play in both my work and the work of Katrina and Jenner, and I wanted to push that as much as I could.
Both Katrina and Jenner have said they feel that supporting artists is a way to support the community. How does your art connect with that?
I do a lot of public art, working large scale, creating pieces that are outdoors, for everybody to enjoy, for everyone to spend time with and reflect on. That kind of thing can really impact the energy and the vibe of a neighborhood space. I’ve seen it firsthand so many times, painting murals outside and seeing kids who just want to hang out and ask a lot of questions. Then they ask if they can have a paintbrush.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: email@example.com