CHICAGO — Chef Christian Hunter has had quite a year.
Three years ago, when he arrived in the rural community of Washington, Conn., to cook at The Community Table, he promised to put the area on the map for foodies everywhere.
By the time he was named a finalist for the James Beard Best Chef of the Northeast awards earlier this year, he had already given his notice and taken a job to head the culinary program at a new restaurant in Chicago in an iconic space.
Washington is a sleepy town where most of the ”Gilmore Girls” television series was filmed; it still has a population of less than 4,000 residents. Now he’s helming Atelier, a fine-dining tasting-menu restaurant that recently opened in Chicago’s Lincoln Square. The space also once held Elizabeth, a celebrated restaurant that earned a Michelin star every year since 2012 until it closed in December 2022. The Kentucky native has mostly shaken off the jitters.
“I didn’t even expect to be here,” said Hunter while prepping in his kitchen one recent afternoon. “I expected the current owner to eventually want to carry on the type of accolades [Elizabeth received]. Before I even applied, I thought it was a long-shot dream.”
“Frankly, you don’t see a lot of Black chefs in Michelin-rated or in places that are hoping to earn a Michelin star,” added Hunter.
He previously worked as sous chef at The Weekapaug Inn in Westerly, R.I., and various spots in South Carolina where he focused on working with local farmers. At Atelier, where the $190-per person tasting menu is constantly changing with the seasons, Hunter said he brings the lessons he learned in New England’s kitchens (particularly when it comes to sourcing seafood) to the Midwest.
He serves a velouté with lobster and ginger. A freshwater whitefish that’s finished with an oil made from local pecans and smoked trout roe was an early star on his menu. And he talks a lot about “nutritional anthropology,” which looks at the relationship between human biology and economic systems, nutritional status, and food security.
On June 20, he’ll host a wine dinner focusing on Black winemakers and distillers ($540 for two).
“I’ve become kind of a nomad, and have picked up knowledge from the different people and places I’ve cooked in to fuse these flavors together and let them bind together in harmony on a plate,” he said. “But it was in Rhode Island and Connecticut that I learned what a hyper-local, farm-to-table concept really meant, and how to honor the farmers you work with responsibly.”
As part of my recent whirlwind, three-day trip to Chicago, I searched for restaurants that were being run by those with ties to Rhode Island.
Next, I needed a drink.
The Press Room, West Loop
Even during a sunny afternoon in the up-and-coming West Loop neighborhood, the basement of a former publishing house was only illuminated by candles and dimmed, mismatched pendant lights hung from the building’s century-old ceiling. The door that led into this bar shut heavily behind me and the windows were blacked out, making the high-rise construction project next door or the rapidly-changing neighborhood that was once considered an industrial hub feel a world away.
Paúl Mena, a partner of the The Press Room wine and cocktail bar, is showing me around the space he helped reopen in October, rattling off the history of the building. It was once the Free Methodist Publishing House. Then a casket factory. Finally, a holography museum. In the last decade or so, the upstairs was renovated into a hip bed and breakfast. And downstairs, the bar.
The Press Room is much different than the restaurants in Rhode Island where Mena most recently worked: the sunlit, farm-to-table Nick’s on Broadway; the now-shuttered North; suburban Italian restaurant Siena, or 22 Bowen’s Wine Bar & Grille, a classy steak and wine dining room in Newport that has regulars like Judge Judy.
From the sidewalk, it’s almost easy to miss unless you know to head down a dark set of stairs into the old building. Art that appears to be from another time adorns the walls above olive-green velvet upholstery seating. A black curtain shields the room from a small kitchen. The wine and spirit list is extensive.
But without an open flame in the kitchen, some might skip The Press Room for a snack. Think again.
Mena isn’t trying to compete with the area’s restaurants, which have earned more than one Michelin star. But they’re serving tapas that would satisfy any homesick southern New Englander: a crab dip, but with creole spices. “Fish of the season,” which changes regularly, with Kentucky soy, ginger, and Asian herbs. Portuguese dessert wines.
Temporis, West Town
Go to Temporis — even if it’s just for the dessert you’re craving.
Since she was 8, Jacquelyn Paternico helped her parents at their Italian bakery in upstate Rochester, N.Y., where they sold cannoli, cookies, and cakes out of their home. She originally thought she’d be shooting for a degree in textile design, but ultimately decided she knew where her path would take her all along. In 2012, she graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, where she studied pastry while simultaneously working for the now-closed Tallulah on Thames in Newport (but you can still go to their sister restaurants, Tallulah’s Taquerias in Providence).
Since moving to Chicago, Paternico has worked at a number of places, with her first role as executive pastry chef at the Band of Bohemia, the first Michelin-starred brewpub. She joined Temporis, a contemporary American restaurant, in late 2019.
They offer an 11-course tasting menu where Paternico transforms savory ingredients like dill, yuzu, and shiso into elegant sweet-tooth creations. One of her chocolate dishes incorporates miso. A verjus sorbet, a solid palate cleanser, uses roasted strawberries, buttermilk granita, and strawberry foam. Some of these very ingredients are found in the restaurant’s hydroponic garden (yes, they’re plucking strawberries in the middle of winter in Chicago right before they serve them).
It has worked: She was nominated for the Jean Banchet Awards for Pastry Program of the Year in 2022. And despite several kitchen and leadership changes, Temporis has been able to maintain its Michelin star each year since she joined.
While most of her desserts require a tweezer to decorate, those who know her will tell you that when she’s craving something sweet, she’s probably reaching for a gummy, a scoop of ice cream, and, perhaps, something else that tastes nostalgic.