Jenner Tomaska became accustomed to restaurants with rapidly changing menus while working at Next Restaurant. So it’s not that big of a leap for him to work at Elizabeth, the Michelin-starred restaurant in Lincoln Square helmed by chef Iliana Regan. Starting today, Tomaska is pinch-hitting for Regan, embarking on a residency at Elizabeth that lasts until the end of August. He’ll handle the kitchen duties as Regan focuses on opening her new bed and breakfast in Michigan, Milkweed Inn.
Regan reached out to Tomaska, the James Beard Award-nominated chef who’s been out of a regular gig since his departure from Next in October. Since then, he’s cooked at friends’s kitchens including working with Erick Williams at Virtue — the acclaimed Hyde Park spot that’s one of the best 16 new restaurants in America.
Tomaska called the opportunity a humbling one as he’s long respected Regan’s work. Every month and a half or so, Elizabeth’s themed menu changes whether it’s 1980s Nintendo games or Wes Anderson movies. The menu changes more frequently compared to Next. (Alinea Group, Next’s owners, would reason the decor also changes every season creating an entirely new restaurant inside its Fulton Market space.) Regan resurrected one of her classic themes, ugly fruits and vegetables, for Tomaska and trusted him with her restaurant.
“She said basically do whatever you want,” Tomaska said.
One of his dishes came as an outgrowth from a dish he worked on while at Next. He said sometimes at Next he’d be disheartened when a dish he worked hard on didn’t make a menu. The item wouldn’t have a chance to be offered to customers thanks to the changing future menus: “You never get to finish your thoughts,” he said.
One of Tomaska’s dishes features long beans and hops. Tomaska blanches the beans in a beer with cascade hops, and then it’s wrapped with hops leaves and grilled. It’s then dressed table side with beef tallow and other ingredients. The menu will be tweaked during the residency based on what produce farmers make available.
Meanwhile, there’s still mystery surrounding his departure from Next, which came in October. Tomaska wouldn’t say much, but said parting was difficult: “I don’t want to dwell in the past.”
What happens in September isn’t so clear for Tomaska. He’s been learning from his chef friends, and would like to open a restaurant in Chicago. So far it’s been a Sisyphean task: “I’ve gone through the process of having a space and negotiating a lease so many times, to get excited over and over again — nothing is ever set in stone.”
This is a rare opportunity to take over a Michelin-starred restaurant. It’s unclear how inspectors will take the temporary chef swap into account. But for now, Tomaska is thrilled at holding down the fort at Elizabeth while Regan is in Michigan.
Check out his menu starting today. Dinner costs $150 per person and covers 13 courses. Tickets are available via Tock.