Last December, pedigreed chefs David and Anna Posey (Blackbird, Alinea, Trio) opened their very first restaurant, Elske. Sporting a stylish array of locally sourced, hyper-seasonal ingredients, the spot had one notable lofty ambition: to change the tasting menu game in Chicago by offering a multi-course experience that was simultaneously affordable and laid back. In a land where diners are accustomed to spending upward of $200 for tasting menus at highly regarded spots like Grace and Alinea it seemed almost undoable to innocent spectators. Fast forward a year and the duo has not only achieved the improbable — keeping their eight-course tasting menu priced at a moderate $85 — but they’ve also made critics swoon.
In July, the menu’s understated yet whimsical dishes — like roasted quail with garlicky walnut skordalia and dill — prompted Eater National critic Bill Addison to loop the restaurant in with the budding national trend toward New Romanticism in food. More importantly, it earned Elske a coveted spot on his list of the best new restaurants in America. Then in October, Michelin gave them a star. Eater Chicago followed this month by dubbing Elske Restaurant of the Year.
Adding to the rarity of it all, the Poseys are disarmingly humble when describing the genesis of their ground-breaking business.
“We were inspired by the modern-style bistros of Paris and throughout Europe — how you could go to Le Chateaubriand and have very forward-thinking food for about $60,” says David. “We just want [customers to get] interesting food that [they] can’t make at home.”
Following a year filled with the highs and lows of first-time business and much critical praise, Eater chatted with the Poseys to reflect and look ahead. Here are the major takeaways:
On the biggest challenge so far:
Anna Posey: Making our own rules for the first time was definitely new to us, and really tricky.
David Posey: We had to do a lot of things that were completely new for us, from accounting and permits, to licensing — and we had no idea what we were doing. The uncertainty and discomfort in that was the toughest thing, but we just learned to deal with things day by day.
On the moment they knew things would turn out OK:
DP: It was when the first couple of positive reviews started coming in, and we saw our cover count go up a little bit every day. That’s when I was like, “We’re doing something good.” Also, seeing the same people come in and realizing they were becoming our regulars. The fact that they were choosing to come back and spend their nights with us was very comforting.
On opening a restaurant together:
DP: Our business relationship has definitely changed. In the beginning, we were stepping on each other’s toes a bit, but now we’ve figured out our own skills. I see things that Anna really enjoys doing, so I let her take the lead on those — and vice versa.
AP: When we started, we both wanted to make sure we were pulling our own weight as owner, and I feel like we’ve now recognized what we’re good at individually and embracing those things. I thought that I could handle the invoicing and accounting, but when I discovered I was overwhelmed between that and my pastry station, David took it over for me. We figured out what works.
On their days off:
AP: We try to spend one night at home, and I try to convince David to cook. The other night we’ll either order in or check out a new restaurant or bar.
DP: We’ll usually spend the first of our two days off apart to give each other space, and the next day we just hang out. Anna likes to get up early and exercise; I like to golf.
AP: Yeah — we need a little space!
On Yelp diner misconceptions:
DP: I look at Yelp every so often, and we do receive some comments from people saying things like, “I went and didn’t see any Dutch influence anywhere.” And I always think, “Well — we don’t have any Dutch ties to begin with — I have Danish roots.” But then we also have regulars who go to Copenhagen, come back, and say, “You’re just like a restaurant in Copenhagen without trying to be like one.” We love hearing that.
On the Chicago dining scene now:
AP: We’re both super excited to see other restaurants doing it on their own — places like Giant, HaiSous, Parachute, Mi Tocaya, and Quiote. It’s fun to see all of these places with such distinct characteristics. We’re pumped for Chicago, and for them — a lot of them are great friends.
On controlling costs:
DP: We dial everything else back. We notice that some people get upset that we charge for bread, but the truth of the matter is, so many people today are gluten sensitive or just aren’t eating bread anyway — so now we’re paying for product that people don’t want. If people want bread, they can order it, and it can help us keep everything else a little cheaper. We scaled back in other areas while also trying to get the best things possible: glassware that is really nice but that we can afford to lose if a couple break during service, quality silverware that’s easy to polish so that we don’t have to pay two people to polish it for hours every night. We try to control costs that will pass value on to the guests.
On how they can offer such affordable tasting menus:
DP: To keep prices down, we can’t go crazy with things like caviar and foie gras, but we can do things like showcase really beautiful celeriac and season it lightly with truffles, or offer a really quality fish without it needing to be something like halibut. We try to flip the focus to more affordable ingredients, then elevate them with the technique or a hint of something luxe in there.
On what’s next:
AP: We’re excited to focus on this restaurant for a bit and see it become better and better. We definitely have a few ideas for other restaurants and bars, but we won’t start to work on those until the time feels right. For the time, Elske will be our one and only.