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Interview with JBF Award Nominee Jenner Tomaska of Chicago's Next

Anna Mowry

April 29, 2016

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JBF Award nominee Jenner Tomaska of Next in Chicago

For Jenner Tomaska, it's already been an eventful year in a still-young 2016: the Next chef earned a Rising Star nomination in March, then a promotion to executive chef following the departure of JBF Award winner Dave Beran. Tomaska's debut service at Next will take place this Saturday, just two days before the 2016 James Beard Awards. Below, find out what you can expect from his forthcoming "South America" menu and more. 

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JBF: The last menu at Next was inspired by the Alps. What was one of your favorite dishes on this menu? We’d also love to hear more about how the menu was developed. 

Jenner Tomaska: We developed the menu to reflect traveling through the Alps, starting in the outskirts of France and Germany, ascending to the "top of the mountain" for a vantage point of all the countries, and then descending into Austria and Italy. It allowed us to showcase each country in the Alps region, with its own section of the menu.  

I have a passion for French food and technique so the opening section of this menu was my favorite. The section opened with our version of “stone soup,” inspired by the classic folktale. While many people have a different version of this story, the moral and premise remain the same: the unknowing contribution of many to one cause. We found the Alps to be reflective of this notion, with several countries contributing to the regional cuisine as a whole.

Our idea was to start the meal with something warm and comforting since guests were coming in from the cold. Tables were set with glass teapots and cold soup, spices, and an herb bouquet. We placed hot river stones into the pots tableside, and the soup began to boil and aromatize. The herbs and spices were infused into the broth and then poured for the guest.

JBF: We’ve read that your next menu, coming this weekend, will be a culinary survey of South America, which sounds incredibly ambitious. How are you going to represent the entire continent in the tasting? What kind of research did you do?

JT: South America is so massive that it would be really hard to cover the entire continent in one menu. We’ve decided that in order to truly do the cuisine justice, we would focus on individual countries rather than South America as a whole. The goal is to have two to three menus within a larger menu, or a “next within a next.” This allows us to highlight the uniqueness of each culture’s cuisine while also showcasing how similar the fundamentals are. Our hope is to revisit our tour of South America in the future, incorporating countries we weren’t able to highlight this menu.  

Unfortunately we weren’t able to travel to research this menu, but through social media and email, we were able to get in contact with some great chefs from the area. Having an inside perspective of what culture and food means to these countries has been amazing and I am beyond grateful for their help and insight.  

JBF: You have worked directly under 2014 JBF Award winner Dave Beran. What’s it been like when you two collaborate?

JT: Working with chef Dave has been truly educational and I can’t express how much I have learned in our time together. Both Dave and I started our careers cooking at mk Chicago, which I think explains the similarities in how we see and appreciate food. Over the years we have a developed a rhythm, bouncing flavors, concepts, techniques, and creative conceptualization back and forth. I think the most important thing I’ve learned from chef Dave is that it’s essential to have a partner in the kitchen who works as a sounding board for your ideas, and vice versa. This is something I will keep with me forever and also something I hope to teach to others down the line.     

JBF: Is there a menu concept or theme that you would love to see the Next team take on in the future?

JT: As a matter of fact, yes, I am really pushing for us to do a Cuba menu. Fingers crossed!   

JBF: How would you describe your personal culinary style? 

JT: I think if you had asked me this question a few years ago, I would have said classical French, and while my love of French cuisine and techniques still inspire me, my style has become more expansive over the years as a direct result of working at Next. With our menus changing every four months, I’ve had to adopt a myriad of culinary styles, each one presenting something new and interesting. So, answering today, I would have to describe my style as broad.

JBF: We realize that you probably don’t get to dine out very much, but we would love for you to tell us about one really great meal you had recently, in Chicago or elsewhere. 

JT: I actually spend a lot of my time eating out; it’s turned into quite the hobby. The one place that sticks out as a “really great meal” in Chicago would have to be Juno restaurant. It is, hands down, the best sushi in the city. Chef BK is doing great work. Sit at the bar and get the omakase menu—you won’t regret it.  

Learn more about the 2016 James Beard Awards.

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Anna Mowry is special projects manager at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.