Jenner Tomaska

Jenner Tomaska (Photo by Nick Murway.)

The James Beard Awards are coming back to Chicago this May and three Chicago chefs received semifinalist nods in the Rising Star Chef category. (Jenner Tomaska of Chicago’s Next was named a finalist on March 15.) Here, they tell us what moves them and how it feels to be recognized on the restaurant industry’s biggest stage.

Jenner Tomaska, Next

Age: 29

Resume: Tomaska has worked at Next for four and a half years, having served as chef de cuisine for two. He was previously at mk. “Dave [Beran, executive chef at Next] started cooking there [mk] as well so through a mutual relationship with Erick Williams [executive chef at mk] I got the job [at Next],” says Tomaska.

Reaction to Being Named Semifinalist: “I was kind of shocked. Micah [Melton] from The Aviary texted me with ‘Congratulations’ and I had no idea what he was talking about. I hadn’t yet read anything so it was a surprise. Dave was nominated for it several years ago so it’s cool to follow in his footsteps. It’s an honor to be part of the whole thing. It’s the first thing I’ve ever been nominated for.”

How He Got Started: “I started working in the culinary industry because I wanted money to go to the movies when I was 15 years old and my parents said I should get a job. I haven’t ever had another job.”

What Drives Him: “I get more joy out of hosting than the physical part of eating food. Being able to create something for someone and giving it to them. I love going out to eat and trying everything but I get more joy out of saying ‘I made this for you.’ At Next, every four months we do basically a whole new cuisine. I get a lot of joy from learning the history and culture behind cuisine. It’s interesting to find out why people cook a certain way with certain ingredients.”

Favorite Next Menu: “I started at the end of Thailand, so Childhood was my first official menu. Probably that one is my favorite. We worked 5:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. and after about a month and a half of that, Chef [Grant] Achatz sat us down and had dinner with us in the dining room. That instilled that menu being my favorite.”

Tanya Baker, The Boarding House (semifinalist for second consecutive year)

Age: 28

Tanya Baker

Photo by Eric Benjamin Kleinberg.

Resume: Baker helped open The Boarding House three years ago. Previously she opened Troquet and then Brasserie by LM in the Essex Inn with LM Restaurant Group.

Reaction: “I had 50 text messages on my phone from co-workers, friends, family. I didn’t even realize it was time for that to come out so I was totally caught blindsided. I wasn’t expecting it the first time around either. It’s the James Beard Awards so of course it’s going to be shocking and super humbling. It’s a validation of hard work and I can’t believe it’s been a year. We’ve been working hard and trying to be better every day.”

How She Got Started: “I always knew I wanted to do something with food. When I was in high school I wasn’t sure though. Culinary school was not very common. There weren’t all these shows on Food Network and it wasn’t trendy yet. So I looked at a couple schools, told my parents it was what I wanted to do and I went to Le Cordon Bleu. They supported me, thank God, and then everything else fell into place. I’ve always just been obsessed with food, eating it, looking at it, being around it.”

Boarding House

Beets and Goat Cheese at Boarding House (Photo by Eric Benjamin Kleinberg.)

Any Pressure? “Yes, there’s definitely pressure, but it’s not a bad thing to be labeled as [a rising star]. I try to keep my head down and not think about it too much. I’m still the same person. It just makes me work harder and hopefully inspires my staff.”

What Drives Her: “Food and family. I’m obsessed with eating and trying new things, discovering new foods. It’s always been a passion of mine. I try to do that here too, to work with ingredients I’ve never worked with before and learn new things all the time. Family is super important to me. I have nieces and nephews and that is where I spend my time. I’m here so much so I miss holidays but I spend as much time with them as I can.”

Giving Back: “I’ve had a chance to work with Meals on Wheels and I love doing charity food events like that. You express your feelings through your food and being able to see people enjoy, that makes me feel good. I’ve always been a giver and the best way I can do that is translating it through food.”

Edward Sura, Perennial Virant

Age: 31

Edward Sura

Resume: Five years at Perennial Virant. Sura joined as a cook when Paul Virant first took over. Previously he was at Graham Elliot for almost two years. “That was my first job in Chicago,” Sura says. “I’m from Northern Michigan so it was quite the change in scenery.”

Reaction: “I was off that morning and I was sleeping in a little bit and I woke up to quite a few text messages and emails. It was kind of crazy to see … I had no idea that was going to happen. I knew the nominations were coming out but I was more so looking for Paul’s name.”

How He Got Started: “I cooked all through high school as a side job. My brother was a general manager at a restaurant and I was looking for a summer job, so he hired me on as a dishwasher. I watched all the guys cooking so I worked my way up. After my first year of college, I realized I didn’t want to go into business management. It wasn’t hands-on, and I wasn’t very book smart but I knew I liked cooking so I wanted to find the best restaurant I could cook at. That led me to the local casino and I went to culinary school in Traverse City, Michigan. That’s when I knew I wanted to come to Chicago and see the best of the best. When I started in a professional kitchen I knew I loved it.”

Any Pressure? “Yeah, a little bit. This is the last time I can get nominated for this. But really it’s more of a celebration of the team. It really was a full team effort and everybody here has really embraced that. Hopefully this will lead to bigger and better things and as a team we can all grow together.”

Culinary Style: “We do a lot of preservation and I like taking something fresh, really nice fresh produce, and see what we can turn it into to use it later in life. Our larder is quite extensive and this time of year that’s how we get a lot of our inspiration. Chefs go to the farmers’ market to get inspiration, but in the wintertime I can go to my jar room and do the same thing. I’ll look at some pickled tomatoes and I can remember when we pickled them at the peak of the season and I know that flavor’s going to translate at this time of year. I really enjoy being able to do that. Once asparagus comes into season, we can use the best of both seasons [pickled and fresh] from two years in a row on the same plate.”

Perennial Virant

Hobbies: “I enjoy the outdoors. I like hunting, golfing and basketball and being out in nature. Being from Northern Michigan, I grew up on a farm. It’s hard to do all that in the city but it makes you appreciate it when you do get out of the city. I go to Michigan a lot and my brothers and I do an annual golf trip to Kentucky every spring. I hunt white-tailed deer, pheasant and rabbit. Pheasant hunting is my favorite but I think I’m a better deer hunter. It’s always nice bringing back wild game for the team. It’s not the same that you can get around here.”

Giving Back: “Here at the restaurant we have quite an extensive compost and recycling program. We donate a lot to the Resource Center, and the compost is used on urban farms we buy from so it’s a pretty cool full circle. We also work a lot with Chicago Community Kitchens and hire a lot of interns through them. And we always donate our time for demos at the Green City Market. Paul [Virant] has been really close to them for a very long time. We try to support local farmers all year round.”


More from Make It Better: