2022 marks the 15th anniversary for Sepia, an 11-time Michelin-starred restaurant located in Chicago’s bustling West Loop neighborhood, as well as the fifth anniversary for its sister restaurant located next door, Proxi.
The anniversaries represent milestone achievements for Managing Partner Emmanuel Nony and Executive Chef Andrew Zimmerman.
For a restaurant housed in an old print shop lined with photos from the past, perhaps the greatest ingredient of its success has been an unwavering belief in the future.
Those who have followed the evolution of Chicago’s West Loop culinary scene since 2007 have witnessed some of Chicago’s best and brightest.
For Sepia, what began as a casual neighborhood bistro evolved into one of Chicago’s most beloved fine dining rooms. Change came gradually with one constant: a genuine love for hospitality. Both Nony and Zimmerman believe that in order to give guests what they want, everyone on the team–the kitchen and the dining room–needs to listen.
“Guests wanted a quieter dining room. We removed communal tables and installed acoustic panels in the ceiling to control the noise,” said Nony. “The wine list expanded from less than 100 labels to over 600, winning awards from Wine(Spectator and Enthusiast), and is regarded as one of the best in the country.”
With Chef Andrew’s appointment in 2009, as well as award-winning wine directors, including current director Alex Ring, the restaurant has elevated and evolved its menus to match the ambiance. “When I began, I felt like we were wearing too fancy a dress for a casual neighborhood bistro,” says Zimmerman. “The dining room didn’t scream casual bistro, it was more refined and elegant. I thought the food should follow suit.”
The change was noticed immediately. Beginning in 2011, Sepia became a Michelin starred restaurant, the same year the honor began in Chicago.
“Michelin cemented our efforts to create a dining destination. Being from France, where the guide is such a respected publication, and their selection process is known to be very rigorous,” says Nony, “It meant we needed to offer the best ingredients and execute an amazing dining experience time and time again.”
At first, Zimmerman was surprised when he learned of the recognition. “It is an exciting validation of the creative work you do as a chef and I appreciate that consistency is a main criteria,” said Zimmerman. “I’m a strong believer that consistency is the most important, if not the hardest, ingredient in the recipe.”
That daily drive to deliver has led to Sepia’s success.
From the economic downturn in 2009 to the lockdowns during the COVID-19 era, Sepia never wavered from its north star: excellence in guest service. Sepia stayed the course regardless of the world around or changing economic conditions. Of course, that commitment shows up first in the cuisine itself.
“Evolution happens one dish at a time,” says Zimmerman. “For me at least, it’s not some sweeping change to our culinary vision, it’s about the incremental changes that compound and grow, plate to plate, season to season.”
Nony and Zimmerman debuted Private Dining by Sepia in 2011, raising the bar for the industry by offering the same commitment to excellence and consistency diners have come to love from the restaurant. Private Dining by Sepia is where irreplaceable memories meet Michelin-starred dining, providing diners with the impeccable service of the restaurant’s staff inside a warm, inviting and stylish venu. The restaurant has since offered customizable packages including multiple prix fixe dinner menus, cocktail reception packages and personalized wine tastings.
Both Nony and Zimmerman then had another concept in mind that would build on the successes of Sepia and Private Dining by Sepia.
Nony credits Zimmerman’s astounding admiration of global food for the opening of Proxi. They wanted a larger, livelier restaurant. With Sepia’s transition to finer dining, they craved an everyday restaurant.
“Andrew enjoyed creating dishes that were a little outside the usual parameters of Sepia. The flavors were bolder, and less nuanced, but we loved them,” says Nony. “We knew he had enough expertise from his travels around the globe to demonstrate his range.”
The pair opened Proxi in 2017 next door to Sepia and Private Dining by Sepia.
Proxi travels the world with each dish. Diners are hard pressed to find another restaurant like it throughout Chicago. “We have Indian and Korean mothers visit Proxi and tell us Chef Andrew’s kimchi and curry are much like the food they cook at home. We couldn’t ask for a better compliment,” adds Nony.
“I get to make food that I really want to eat without all the trappings of a fine dining experience. My hope has always been to excite flavor after flavor,” says Zimmerman.
Proxi carries on Sepia’s legacy of excellence, earning its own accolades. The restaurant has been recognized by the Michelin Guide with Bib Gourmands each year the restaurant has been open. Perhaps no honor, however, is as important as the validation of serving as a special place for so many loyal followers.