Executive Chef Jenner Tomaska at Next in Chicago, Illinois.
Jenner Tomaska earned a James Beard Award Rising Star nomination in March, quickly followed by a promotion to the coveted position of Executive Chef at Grant Achatz’s celebrated rotating-concept restaurant, Next. Since opening in 2011 Next has received an unprecedented twelve 4-star reviews from the Chicago Tribune and won a James Beard Award as Best New Restaurant in America.
Congratulations on your recent appointment as executive chef. What does the view look like for you now as “lead creative”?
Thank you, honestly I am taken back to that line from Spider Man “with great gifts comes great responsibilities.” I feel completely responsible for our team, the research and authenticity behind each dish is something that now directly falls on my shoulders and that pressure isn’t something that I had previously experienced. I find myself constantly wanting to achieve perfection not just for our guests but our team. Chef has been kind enough to give me creative power (under his guidance), which is something I truly appreciate it’s led to my growth creatively and as a cook.
You’ve worked alongside Grant Achatz, and most recently Dave Beran, at the Alinea group for almost five years. What has that journey been like for you: personally and professionally?
I’m very thankful for the opportunity I’ve had here at Next, not many chefs get to work and learn from such talented people. Learning is endless with the Alinea Group. I am constantly being pushed by those around me whether in-house or by those at our sister restaurants, and honestly couldn’t see myself working for anyone but Chef Achatz. Everyone in the kitchen starts as a Commis at Next: it’s something we have always found important – the notion of growing from the bottom up, which gives you a better understanding of our philosophy as company – “Started from the bottom, now we’re here”.
Your first solo (and current) menu at Next was inspired by South America. What has been one of your standout dishes? What can you tell us about the R&D process for developing the menu?
The escabeche is a very special course to me, and cochineal is something we wanted to touch on for the Peru part of the menu. Bugs harvested off cactus and corn are used in all aspects of the culture – dye for wool and clothes, food, medicinal purposes etc. We highlighted four flavors of escabeche and presented it in a way that would mimic the alpaca wool. We didn’t travel for R&D for this menu, however we did reach out to Chef Virgilio from Central Restaurant in Lima. He put us in touch with his R&D Chef Karime and she gave us so much insight into their culture – I am very thankful to have had their help.
Which country’s (or continent’s) culinary landscape will we see you tackle next? Cuba maybe?
Cuba is on my radar. I recently got to experience a true Cuban pig roast “Caja China” at my fiancés uncle’s house for their traditional Christmas dinner. I would love to do a Next interpretation of that, Cuban culture is so lively and energetic I would love to bring that to Next.
On average how many covers a day do you do at Next?
What or who are some of your biggest culinary influences?
I’ve had a passion for French food since I began cooking. We have the opportunity to work with Chef Thomas Keller on a tribute of The French Laundry for our next menu, so I am very excited about being part of that process. Chef Keller has made a huge impact on the industry – Chef Achatz has tremendous respect for him and I can see why.
Do you have any non-food interests that people might find surprising?
I eat for fun. Honestly, aside from food, I would say being home around friends and family is my main interest.
Where might we find you grabbing some after work drinks or a late-night bite in Chicago?
Aberdeen Tap (440 N Aberdeen St.) for gin and tonics and High Five Ramen (112 N Green St.) for a late night bite.
What (if any) podcasts, magazines or chef TV shows do you enjoy keeping up with?
Instagram is something fun and creative I’ve recently been introduced to which then led me to Chef’s Roll. Social media is truly changing our industry, allowing people and chefs to meet and interact with one another, and Chef’s Roll has been a great way to promote others and connect with those you admire in the industry.