Culinary inspiration from America and beyond in stylish surroundings at Sepia and PROXI in Chicago

Seamlessly melding refined and rustic, vintage and contemporary, Sepia has the feel of an instant classic. The effortless elegance of the room serves as the perfect backdrop for the inventive American cuisine. Next door, at PROXI, chef Andrew Zimmerman combines two of his great loves: travel and cooking. Inspired by street food but not restrained by it, his menu wanders freely through Asia, India, Mexico and beyond but still feels entirely at home in Chicago. Mr Hudson speaks to Emmanuel Nony, Managing Partner and a prominent member of the local LGBTQ community, about the unique character of each restaurant and some of his favourite places.

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Tell us about yourself

I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by hospitality and amazing food my whole life. Raised in the French countryside by parents who were true bon vivants, they passed their love of good food and entertainment down to me. After attending culinary school, I decided that my path and love for hospitality was leading me to the front of the house, so I transitioned to the service side from the kitchen and haven’t looked back since.

Emmanuel Nony

“I found an amazing partner and chef in Andrew Zimmerman, who has garnered us national acclaim for his inventive and delicious cuisine, which have earned Sepia a Michelin star every year since the Michelin Guide launched in Chicago in 2011”

What about the history of your restaurants?

I fell in love with the Windy City many years ago and decided to put down roots here. Developing and opening Sepia was a true realization of my lifelong professional dream. At Sepia, we blend style with comfort, past with the present, and timeless design, showcasing Midwestern hospitality with international flair.

I found an amazing partner and chef in Andrew Zimmerman, who has garnered us national acclaim for his inventive and delicious cuisine, which have earned Sepia a Michelin star every year since the Michelin Guide launched in Chicago in 2011. We then opened PROXI together next door to Sepia, offering a more casual and global restaurant, which has received a Michelin Bib Gourmand every year as well.

PROXI

Sepia

What are values of your establishments? 

Hospitality is at the core of everything we do at Sepia and PROXI. When you walk through our doors, we want you to feel comfortable and enjoy every minute with us. We pay close attention to every detail — from the service to the design of the restaurant to wine and cocktails, from the appetizer to dessert.

What makes PROXI and Sepia special?

Both restaurants offer a transportive experience – Sepia to a warm, inviting destination and PROXI to somewhere across the globe. We’ve watched the West Loop neighbourhood transform drastically over the years to the bustling destination it is today, but once you enter our doors, we provide an amazing feeling within our four walls.

PROXI

“We want to offer the best of both worlds: stylish without being too sleek, comfortable yet lively”

Can you talk us through both restaurants and their unique personality 

Since we opened in 2007, Sepia celebrates tradition with a modern, contemporary twist. We want to offer the best of both worlds: stylish without being too sleek, comfortable yet lively. Sepia’s menu showcases the quality and purity of the ingredients, letting both the ingredients and Chef Andrew’s passion for what he does shine through. Our seasonal menu is rooted in tradition to showcase pristine natural ingredients that are organic and sustainable. We support local artisan farmers and proudly encourage craftsmanship and the revival of traditional practices.

Sepia - Sabel Fish

Sepia - Slagel Beef

“Guests at Proxi can expect an array of snacks and sharable dishes with Japanese, Thai, Indian, Middle-Eastern and American influences, from tempura-fried elotes to masala-rubbed lamb ribs”

PROXI is Sepia’s younger sister, which we opened in 2017. Chef Andrew expresses his love of all things vibrant and boldon the menu, travelling the globe vicariously to tell stories about exciting foods. Guests at Proxi can expect an array of snacks and sharable dishes with Japanese, Thai, Indian, Middle-Eastern and American influences, from tempura-fried elotes to masala-rubbed lamb ribs. The restaurant itself is a stunning backdrop, combining raw, rugged leathers and metals with more refined, hand-glazed tiles, rich velvets and chic furnishings.

PROXI - Tempura Elotes | Photo: Paul Strabbing

What is it you enjoy most about running such a business?

I have always had a passion for creating and inspiring — my restaurants give me a platform through which I can do both.

What type of guests are particularly drawn to your restaurants?

We do everything we can to make our restaurants welcoming and accessible to any guest. At PROXI, the small plates and cocktail list are perfect for dinner and drinks with friends, and Sepia is an amazing date night spot or destination for celebration.

Sepia - Cod Confit

PROXI - Cocktail

“I am honestly very passionate about what I do, so I am constantly reading and talking with people about food and the customer experience”

How do you keep up with changing customer expectations?

Every night I visit different tables and genuinely inquire about the experience of my guests. I also talk with friends who often frequent my restaurants, and these are friends who I know will give me honest feedback. Many of them have given me great ideas and suggestions that our team has implemented to ensure we’re always taking feedback and evolving with the times.

In addition to this, I am constantly visiting restaurants in other cities and keeping up with the latest culinary magazines and trends. I am honestly very passionate about what I do, so I am constantly reading and talking with people about food and the customer experience.

PROXI

“People are coming to my restaurants for more than food and for more than the service”

How important is good design for restaurants and for hospitality today?

Especially when designing restaurants in a foodie city such as Chicago, every single element of the restaurant experience has to be top-notch and innovative. People are coming to my restaurants for more than food and for more than the service. We want to transport our guests into a stylish, sleek, sexy, contemporary space that serves as a backdrop for the conversations, connections, and multi-sensory culinary experiences that await them.

“The gay community in Chicago combines big-city experiences with a small-town vibe and sensibility”

How would you describe the gay community in Chicago?

The gay community is vibrant and interesting. While it is very sporty, this doesn’t necessarily dominate the scene. People are really friendly, and it is easy to go to any venue and make friends.

Over the years, I’ve admittedly become less likely to go out, so I would be remiss to not refer to my dear friend, Bryan Herb, to describe the Chicago community. He is an expert on gay travel.

Bryan Herb: The gay community in Chicago combines big-city experiences with a small-town vibe and sensibility. The bars, nightlife and restaurants are ample enough that you have a plethora of options to choose from. However, on any given night, you will generally run into people you know, so there is a definite comfort and familiar feel to the whole LGBT experience in Chicago.

Chicago | Photo: Pedro Lastra

“Emmanuel’s restaurants are so popular because he imbues each restaurant with the type of style and sophistication that the LGBTQ community really appreciates and responds to”

Why are your restaurants so popular with the gay community?

Emmanuel: I am gay, and certainly, many of our patrons are people who have known me for many years and have come to support, and then they have told their friends who have told their friends. Thus, we developed decent size gay following! It has really made me feel overjoyed that once they’re here, they really have resonated with what we are trying to do at the restaurant. They see the quality. They see the attention to detail. And I know that they appreciate how much my staff and I care about their experience and their well-being. Patrons are truly treated more like friends.

Bryan Herb: Emmanuel’s restaurants are so popular because he imbues each restaurant with the type of style and sophistication that the LGBTQ community really appreciates and responds to. There is a tremendous focus on quality without charging an obscene amount of money. Emmanuel also hires personalities that really resonate with LGBTQ audience. These are people who have the ability to connect with a wide variety of people, and this shows from the moment you walk into the restaurant. Gay people simply feel at home, but like at a really really sexy chic home, where everyone is a ridiculous chef!

PROXI

PROXI

What are some of your favourite places in Chicago that people need to know about?

Bryan Herb: The 606 Trail is one of Chicago‘s best new developments. This raised railway parkway is almost 3 miles long and is an excellent place for exercising, crossing the town without traffic, seeing different neighbourhoods, walking one’s dog, and certainly, people watching.

Any recommendations for discerning gay travellers?

Bryan Herb: Any gay traveller coming to Chicago at some point is going to wind up at Sidetrack. It is the biggest gay bar in the city, and they do a great job. In the summer months, you are also going to want to check out Hollywood Beach, and head up to the small gay enclave in Andersonville, north of Chicago.

Chicago | Photo: Max Bender

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