CHICAGO – From the moment Chef Jenner Tomaska walked into a Possibility of kitchen four years ago, he knew he wanted to support and promote the program.
The non-profit organization works with children aged 8 to 12 in Pilsen, East Garfield Park and Bronzeville, teaching them valuable life lessons through cooking. When Tomaska joined the program it was to teach a recipe – but he quickly became a dedicated volunteer, working with a group of three children as a go-to person throughout an eight-week program, while trying to open Esmehis restaurant in Lincoln Park.
“He’s seen firsthand how the class and the curriculum affect these kids and the growth they’ve had over those eight weeks,” said Katie Lowman, president of Kitchen Possible. “It’s not a spirit of generosity and humility that most chefs bring to the table.”
Tomaska also encouraged her staff Esmé to volunteer for Kitchen Possible, 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 includes 15 courses, each focused on a specific aspect of the program, such as ingenuity, self-improvement, teamwork, patience and ownership.
“I introduced the [Kitchen Possible] syllabus to the staff before writing the menu and asking how it relates to them and how it relates to the [restaurant] space,” Tomaska said. “The restaurant itself is a big community 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 regurgitating my story at any time. It’s supposed to be how they connected to that experience and the space at Esmé and how they also connected to their time at Kitchen Possible.
Tomaska’s favorite dish on the menu is called Corn on the Cod and is based on Kitchen Possible’s Ingenuity Course. It includes a piece of cod wrapped in roasted corn, made to look like corn on the cob, along with corn chowder, cantaloupe, and corn husk.
The personalized paper plate on which the dish is served is made by a local ceramist and looks like a sheet of lined paper. The recipe for chowder from “Joy of Cooking” is written on it.
Another course is offered on a meal tray with a tomato pie, fruit cup, tater tot and fruit punch to represent the lesson of the nonprofit Get Out of Your Comfort Zone. Another dish — a smoked cashew and Granny Smith apple mousse topped with thinly sliced truffles and heart of palm — covers the Taking Things Seriously lesson.
“This menu literally brings our curriculum lessons to life, lesson by lesson,” Lowman said. “It’s humbling and beautiful to be able to see our program reflected in this way. It’s really cool to see how they’ve taken those lessons and translated them into a dining space. The beauty of this partnership is that it doesn’t It’s not just a menu that benefits Cuisine Possible, it’s a full 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 rest of the artwork in the restaurant is from Griffin Goodmanwhich focuses on nostalgia and pop culture, and Zelene Schlosbergwhich creates multi-layered pieces with cut fabric.
“Francis W. Parker was very supportive when it came to patronage,” Tomaska said. “We wanted to show them our support. I thought it would be pretty cool to showcase some of the kids art in this professional setting. For me, growing up and seeing your work presented in a space would have an impact. So we asked everyone to donate, and one of the fourth grade teachers asked her whole class to donate. They sent it and we framed everything.
The Esmé’s Kitchen Possible collaboration menu runs through October 30 and starts at $235 per guest. A portion of the proceeds from each booking benefits the association. Reservations can be made on the restaurant’s website.
To learn more about the work of Kitchen Possible, the organization this month launched its Empowering Menus Fundraising with 35 restaurants across Chicago. Each restaurant – including hotspots such as HaiSous, Lula Café and Big Jones – will feature a Kitchen Possible dish on the menu.
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