Christian Hunter looks to continue the legacy of Iliana Regan’s Michelin-starred Elizabeth
When Christian Hunter was chosen as a James Beard Award semifinalist for best chef in the Northeast last month, he’d already put in his notice at Community Table in Washington, Connecticut, and trained his sous chef to take over the kitchen. But the accolade isn’t giving Hunter any pause as he prepares to move to Chicago to helm Atelier, the new tasting-menu restaurant replacing Michelin-starred Elizabeth.
“Not to say anything bad about my previous employer, but I know that my time is up there,” Hunter says. “I really enjoyed almost three years there, but when the Atelier job showed up, it seemed like a perfect job for me.”
Tim Lacey took over ownership of Elizabeth from chef and founder Iliana Regan after COVID-19 suspended indoor dining in Chicago in 2020. Regan and her wife Anna Hamlin left the city for the Milkweed Inn, their bed and breakfast in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where Regan is also pursuing a writing career (her second book was recently released) Lacey and Regan had been friends since working together at the now-shuttered Trio Atelier in Evanston, and Atelier borrows both that restaurant’s name and the philosophy of its owner Henry Adaniya, who gave Grant Achatz his start.
“[Henry] was finding people whose time it was and giving people the opportunity and the space to do what it was that they were passionate about and good at,” Lacey says. “One of the reasons that I went with Christian is I liked where he was at and wanted to give him the opportunity to do what he was excited about. I feel like it’s time for him to have that shot.”
Moving from a rural town — Washington has about 4,000 residents — to helming a fine dining restaurant in Chicago is an intimidating prospect for Hunter, but he has experience establishing himself in new environments. Hunter is a Lexington, Kentucky, native and worked at Lake Placid Lodge in New York and Weekapaug Inn in Rhode Island, both Relais & Châteaux luxury hotel properties. He first visited Washington with a friend from his Chattanooga, Tennessee, boarding school, which led Hunter to apply for the position at Community Table when he was looking for a new job in 2020.
“I always come in from a place of respect and humbleness because this isn’t my hometown, but when I get to a place, I always try to represent it and use the local food and really try to become part of that community,” he says.
Lacey connected with Hunter after the chef responded to an online job ad. Hunter says he was attracted by the unique combination of a “blank canvas” of a new restaurant opening in a landmark space. Still, he waited for a few days after seeing the listing before responding because he thought his lack of credentials in high-profile restaurants would disqualify him.
“Following the history of chef Iliana, it’s already a building that has made some really good food,” Hunter says. “There’s a lot of pressure behind that, but it just seems like a natural evolution for me.”
Lacey says Hunter appealed to him as a candidate because his culinary approach at Community Table was similar to that of Elizabeth. Hunter changed the menu at Community Table every few weeks, drawing on the area’s many local farms and nearby distilleries while also incorporating global flavors.
“I just really liked where his head was at with what he was trying to do with his food,” Lacey says. “We did a tasting, and the flavors were just really tight and complex without being overwhelming.”
Growing up in Lexington, Hunter has fond memories of cleaning greens on newspapers on the living room floor with his mom, who combined Southern fare with dishes from her family’s roots in Cincinnati. She was also the one who introduced him to Mexican food and he vividly remembers the explosion of cilantro, lime, and onions as he unwrapped the aluminum foil on his first taco.
“My mom would bring back some really dope food from a different country that I’d never tried before,” Hunter says. “She fostered an interest in all types of food, not just the ones I grew up on.”
Most of Elizabeth’s staff will be staying on to work at Atelier, and Hunter met with the team for the tasting and continues to be in touch ahead of his move.
“I’m coming into a culture as well as setting one, so getting to know everyone on a personal level is the most important part because without a team, there’s no restaurant, no kitchen, or anything like that,” he says.
Hunter will be directly following in Regan’s footsteps, as Atelier opened with a Milkweed Inn pop-up that runs to February 14 with a $160 tasting menu.
“Christian is moving 800 miles, and so there’s a lot of logistics that have to happen,” Lacey says. “We had this time before we came in and I just texted Iliana and asked if she had any interest in it and she was able to make it work.”
Regan attracted attention by using foraged ingredients in her Midwestern fare, and Hunter will also be focused on local sourcing. His tentative initial menu starts with a selection of local beer and cheeses served alongside harissa-marinated beets and smoked whitefish salad.
“Wintertime is a little bit difficult, but what excites me about food is not going for the easiest route,” Hunter says. “When I said yes to Tim, the first thing I did was start talking about vendors and looking up previous vendors that the restaurant was already using, reaching out and just starting to look at distribution lists and availability in the area so I can start getting a head start on building a menu.”
The menu will continue with six savory courses and dessert. Proposed dishes include sourdough cardamom bread with whipped sorghum butter, kombu and pastrami-spiced short rib, and roasted mushroom and onion pierogi — an homage to one of Regan’s signatures. The sweets will likely be foie gras creme brulee and a miniature ice cream sandwich. As at Elizabeth, the restaurant will offer both wine and nonalcoholic pairings.
Elizabeth earned its first Michelin star a year after opening in 2012. Michelin inspectors renewed that status twice after Regan left and was replaced by executive chef Ian Jones.
“When they did the 2021 stars, pretty much everybody who was still open who had gotten one the year before got it again,” Lacey says. “When we got it last year, I felt that this was definitely us. This isn’t the legacy. I was very, very excited and proud.”
Hunter hopes to also earn James Beard recognition for Atelier.
“The goal for me is to push the food the way I want to and make sure that I am representing what I want to do, which is supporting local, but having really cool, awesome flavors to go with that,” Hunter says. “I think that if we do it the right way, the accolades will come, whatever that may be.”
Black chefs remain underrepresented in fine dining, but Hunter says he’s benefitted from an increased recognition of the contributions people of color are making to the industry. The Beards were forced to recognize this after canceling awards in 2020 and 2021; the organization conducted an audit after seeing that zero of the 2020 award winners in 23 categories were Black. (The winners weren’t made public.)
“It’s showing that there is not a cuisine that Black chefs can’t do,” he says. “If you’re a chef, you are an alchemist of food. The idea is to continue to push the idea that Black chefs are out there and to give them the space that they deserve. I’m happy to be a part of that, ideally pushing the idea that chefs are of all colors and backgrounds.”