At his Michelin-starred restaurant Esmé, Chef Jenner Tomaska’s fine dining approach doesn’t hide his whimsy and childlike culinary glee. Case in point: his unique take on Flamin’ Hot Cheetos is an artistic masterpiece, seasoned with house-fermented peppers and cheddar cheese, arriving at the table in a three-foot-tall bouquet. This sophisticated play on a beloved childhood snack was inspired in part, he says, by his “health nut” wife and business partner Katrina Bravo. During the pandemic, Tomaska recalls she would occasionally buy a bag of Lesser Evil Paleo Puffs — “what she calls a ‘clean’ snack,” according to Tomaska. He says their unique, unusual texture got the gears turning in his mind.
“This got me thinking about the extrusion process, which then led me down a rabbit hole as I researched how snacks like these were made,” he says. “I love the snack so much and found the process so interesting I decided to bring it to life in a giant form.”
Going from inspiration to execution was no small task. It required Tomaska to fashion a custom machine: a grain extruder attached to a 10HP motor. “It’s a similar process to milling,” he says. “The cornmeal goes in raw at one end and is extruded out the other. It then comes out ‘cooked’ and puffed.”
The Pizza Puff Is Chicago’s Greatest Local Food InstitutionAnd most people outside Chicago have never heard of it
This is far from the only time Tomaska has dressed up kid food to the nines. One recent tasting menu inspired by the culture and cuisine of Latin America concluded with an interactive dessert. Guests were invited to insert a coin into a vintage candy machine, which dispensed a homemade Watermelon Tajin Ring Pop, inspired in part by his wife’s pregnancy cravings for Tajín-covered Rebanaditas. “My thought was to share something that most people may not connect with culturally by leaning into the very familiar Ring Pop,” Tomaska says.
He’s also taken a Chicago staple for a spin: holiday go-to Garret’s popcorn. “The bucket has three different flavors, usually with a holiday design on the side of it,” he says. “We currently have popcorn creme brûlée on the menu with Hook’s cheddar ice cream.”
The ideas, it seems, just keep on coming. One he’s toying with are candy buttons to send guests home with at the end of the night. Another would be to revisit Oreos, a guilty pleasure he claims he never indulges in. “My wife would kill me,” he says. “Even though she loves them as well.”
At the end of the day, however, his approach isn’t just linked to his wife’s distaste for processed food. “For me, it’s all about connection,” he says. “The one thing all people have in common are food memories. There is nothing better than remembering your childhood as an adult.”
In Chicago, there are a few places emblematic of this mindset, spots chef Tomaska goes to get his comfort food favorites. Here are his picks.
Best Nostalgic Comfort Food in Chicago
Buena Vista is Chef Tomaska’s go-to for Mexican food. He pretty much always orders the enchiladas suizas, made with corn tortillas and tomato sauce. He’s also crazy about 90 Miles for Cuban fare, specifically the ropa vieja and crispy fried yuca.
Best Upscale Comfort Food in Chicago
When he wants comfort food fare that’s a little more refined, chef Tomaska heads to Monteverde, where the hand-cut tagliatelle and three-meat Bolognese are unbeatable. At Rose Mary, which marries Croatian and Italian flavors and traditions, he loves the crni rižot, a sort of Croatian risotto with squid ink, lobster brodo, confit squid and tarragon. And at Virtue, known for its exquisite Southern food, he loves the blackened catfish with Carolina gold rice and carrots.
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