Get more recipes, food news, and stories by signing up for our Deep Dish newsletter.
What drink do you pair with a house-made Flamin' Hot Cheeto? That’s the kind of culinary conundrum Tia Barrett has to contemplate, as the beverage director and operations manager at Esmé in Lincoln Park.
The Michelin-starred fine dining restaurant features imaginative dishes: on the art-inspired tasting menu, a pork rib with banana caramel served on a piece of ceramic made to look like a bone; on its bar menu, where you can find the Cheeto, chestnut soup with rose and quince. The discerning customers who eat at such a place are accustomed to enjoying drink pairings perfectly calibrated to their food.
Barrett’s suggestion for the ideal drink for the Cheeto is as inventive as the restaurant’s food menu: a saison brewed in collaboration with Logan Square’s Middle Brow Beer Co. that has plums and three different types of seaweed.
Or, “I always say that a good glass of white wine, Riesling, will make me happy.”
Those recommendations, one showcasing ambitious sophistication and the other easygoing simplicity, reflect Barrett herself. She finds and sources unusual wines that pair with Chef Jenner Tomaska’s creative dishes, but one of her favorite drinks she has created at Esmé is a non-alcoholic cocktail that tastes like a Creamsicle. She has worked at the top of Chicago’s dining scene at the Alinea Group and also at Buffalo Wild Wings, where she took the job in part because she wanted to “watch sports and hang out.” She helps run an acclaimed tasting menu restaurant but also enjoys stepping in to tend bar.
“I got into this industry because I like to talk to people and I like interacting with that social side of things. Could I [bartend] everyday? Absolutely not—my feet hurt too much to do that. I’m not a young whippersnapper anymore,” she says with a chuckle.
“She is the kind of person who will polish glasses, do dishes,” says Katrina Bravo, Esmé’s creative director and a partner in the restaurant with her husband Tomaska. “She has made staff meal for our team when they needed it, she will work as a hostess…She’s willing to step into any role whenever she’s needed.”
Such flexibility is especially necessary at a restaurant like Esmé, which collaborates with local artists and philanthropies on all of its menus. Every few months, the restaurant is completely reinvented, from menus to décor to serving dishes to nonprofit partner. Barrett helps those changes go off without a hitch—“she is the glue of the restaurant,” Bravo says—while also adapting her beverage menus and pairings each time.
“I don’t want to put a beverage in front of you that just tastes good on its own but doesn’t work with the food, because there’s no intention behind that,” Barrett says. “I think that when you’re dining out, the most memorable experiences happen when you have that a-ha moment: everything that you are enjoying is in harmony together and everything makes you happy.”
Barrett’s beverage list is not just in harmony with the flavors of Tomaska’s menu, but also with the ethos of the “community-focused” Esmé, as the restaurant’s website calls it. She has made a point of including wines and beers made by people of color or women, who are historically underrepresented in the beverage industry, as well as producers who have a charitable component.
The Chicago-based, Black-run Moor’s Brewing Company has an IPA on the menu. Ricochet Wine Company was founded by a Chicagoan, Erich Berg, and donates five percent of its sales to various nonprofits helping people who face hardship. Another producer with roots in Chicago, the Black-owned Michael Lavelle, sends some proceeds of their rosé to The Roots Fund, which supports people of color trying to make their way in the wine industry, which often requires people to pass high financial and institutional bars to progress.
“When you are at the level that I am, a lot of people forget that you still have to do something that gives back,” says Barrett. “Not everybody is fortunate enough to have these experiences and be able to afford a meal like that on a regular basis. So to say that you can have a meal and you also supported good causes along the way, I think that that’s what makes our experience notable.”
Barrett, who is Black, wants to eventually lead her own initiatives like The Roots Fund. “I would definitely like to do education for people who look like me,” she says. “To [give] them a safe space where they’re able to feel heard, ask the questions, and learn how they can develop in the community.”
“I never had an example of what I wanted to do when I was growing up in this industry,” she says. “I always personally just had goals…It wasn’t through examples of people who looked like me. It wasn’t like, ‘I got to meet this person and I want to do what they do.’ It was, ‘I want to do what I do, and I have to create that for myself.’ But then I also have to prove that I’m worthy of doing what I want to do.”
A native of the northwestern suburb of Glenview, she first worked in the food industry during college, when she got a job at Buffalo Wild Wings to pay for her books. She was studying sports medicine, but quickly realized she had a passion for restaurants. So she “started seeking out jobs with a little bit more fulfillment and a little bit more substance,” she says.
She worked at numerous places around Chicago: Hampton Social, several Alinea Group properties, and the now-closed Entente. She was bar manager and director of service at Entente, and met Tomaska and Bravo through a connection there. “She is the yin to Chef Jenner and I’s yang,” says Bravo. “I always tell everyone, ‘Chef Jenner and Tia run the restaurant.’”
Barrett relishes the challenges of Esmé. “It doesn’t get old,” she says. “As soon as you think that you’re comfortable, it’s time for a new menu, it’s time for something new. Something’s always changing, and there’s something to learn, and there’s some way that you can get better every day. If you’re bored, you’re not actually succeeding here.”
Try Barrett’s recipe for a twist on a Kir Royale.