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Three large photographs hung on a cream-colored wall in a dining room with plain white tables and light wooden chairs
Paul Octavious’s photos on display at Esmé.
Dan Piotrowski

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A Tasting-Menu Restaurant Transforms Itself Into a Multimedia Art Gallery

Esmé serves a 12-course dinner based on the work of photographer Paul Octavious

When Katrina Bravo and Jenner Tomaska opened Esmé, their tasting menu restaurant in Lincoln Park, last fall, it would not, Bravo says, “be about us.” Instead they envisioned it as a gallery that would highlight the work of all sorts of artists, not just Tomaska and his crew in the kitchen, but also the painters and photographers whose work is on the walls and the ceramicists who make the plates and bowls. Eventually, they planned for collaborations that would combine food and art into one meal.

Now that first meal has arrived, a 12-course dinner called “Peculiar Contrast, Perfect Light,” inspired by 12 works by Chicago photographer and videographer (and Eye Eaters co-founder) Paul Octavious. Tomaska and Octavious had developed a mutual admiration for each other’s work after they met at an Alinea Group dinner 2016 when Tomaska was executive chef at Next; this eventually turned into a friendship. Three years later, when Tomaska and Bravo conceived the idea of art-based dinners at their upcoming restaurant, they knew exactly who they would call. “Paul was always going to be the first one,” Tomaska says, “whether he wanted to or not.”

A black man, a white woman, and a white man sit at a table with tablets and a cell phone working on a project
Paul Octavious, Katrina Bravo, and Jenner Tomaska plan “Peculiar Contrast, Perfect Light.”
Dan Piotrowski

The project was delayed for various reasons, most to do with the pandemic, but the dinner menu finally launched January 7 and will continue through April 1 (with a hiatus for Valentine’s Day). Tickets are $250;a portion of that will go to Hugsnoslugs, a nonprofit founded by Aleta Clark, also known as Englewood Barbie, that, as Octavious puts it, “helps Black people get fed.” Virgil Abloh, the artist and fashion designer who died in December and whose work Octavious admires — the title of the dinner is a nod to one of his projects — was a major donor. Tomaska, it turned out, had also volunteered with Hugsnoslugs early in the pandemic.

Some of the dishes, Tomaska says, are literal representations of Octavious’s work. Others are based on conversations where Octavious explained what he was thinking while he was taking the photos. Not all the photos will be on display in the restaurant, due to lack of space, but they’ll all be available for viewing online. (This will also prevent diners from hovering over strangers’ shoulders while they’re trying to eat.)

On a tall hill in the center of the frame, adults and small children fly different colored kites
“Kite Hill” shows Cricket Hill in springtime.
Paul Octavious

Three of the dishes, for instance, are based on three photos from Octavious’s series of images of Cricket Hill at Montrose Beach near his home in Uptown. For more than 11 years, Octavious has been fascinated by the 48-foot-high hill built from the leftover dirt from a construction project and photographed it twice a week, in all seasons, to show the passage of time. Tomaska prepares the same ingredient — beets — three different ways and serves it three times on the same plate.

“In a tasting menu,” he says, “you never want to showcase an ingredient multiple times. You never use the same plate multiple times. To be able to break that rule has been really fun.”

Three photos of the same hill in a row on a beige wall, with two marble-topped tables in the foreground
Octavious’s three Cricket Hill photos hanging on the wall.
Dan Piotrowski

For another course, Tomaska took a photo of a white bowl filled with swirls of color — inspired, Octavious says, by an imaginary feast in the movie Hook — and interpreted it as a sort of snow cone made from whipped cheese covered in a white champagne and apple granita. The dish is served in a glass bowl created by Aron Fischer, who designs most of Esmé’s dishes; it looks blank and colorless until diners add the accompanying flavored syrups to make it look like Octavious’s photo.

“To see chef’s interpretation,” Octavious says, “is kind of amazing.”

A corner of a restaurant, with a white table, beige walls, a window on the left, and two beige curtains framing a framed photo of a person with a yellow face and bananas for a hat
“Like My Bananas?” by Paul Octavious hangs on the wall at Esmé.
Dan Piotrowski

All of Octavious’s work will be available for purchase, either framed and straight off the wall, or as a large or small print, though they won’t be delivered until after the dinner/show closes.

Bravo and Tomaska hope this will be the first of many collaborations between Esmé and the city’s artists and nonprofits. “Our intention is to bring joy to people,” Bravo says, “and to makes sure that the people who are dining with us know we are giving back to the city of Chicago.”

Esmé, 2200 N. Clark Street, Open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, tickets available via Resy.


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