When the 2023 James Beard Award finalists were announced in March, among the Chicago chefs and restaurateurs garnering nominations was a newcomer to the city: Christian Hunter, a finalist for best chef in the Northeast region for his work at Community Table in the rural village of New Preston, Connecticut. He had arrived in Chicago a month earlier to open Atelier, a tasting-menu restaurant in Lincoln Square.

“I was looking for more of a challenge,” Hunter, 33, says of his move. “We had a great, busy restaurant, but I wanted to make sure that my food could stand up in a metropolitan area.” He found the right space to experiment. Atelier (the name taken from the word for an artist’s studio) is in the location (4835 N. Western Ave.) that once housed Iliana Regan’s lauded Elizabeth. When Regan moved to Michigan to open Milkweed Inn, she sold the restaurant to former employee Tim Lacey. Lacey closed it in 2022 to transition to Atelier, then hired Hunter and gave him free rein to cook what he wanted.

Hunter — who attended culinary school in upstate New York and worked in restaurants in the Hudson Valley, Rhode Island, and Charleston, South Carolina — has taken advantage of that opportunity to play around. He swaps out and tweaks dishes on a weekly, sometimes nightly, basis. On the night I visited, at least three offerings on the 12-course tasting menu ($190) were making their debut. But there are through lines in the menu and Hunter’s food. “The goal is to keep up with the most recent thing that’s in season and get it at the perfect time,” he says. That hyperseasonality is something Atelier shares with its predecessor. What’s new is Hunter’s exploration of global influences and those that reflect his upbringing in Lexington, Kentucky.

Summer vegetable “risotto” (left) and bucatini peperonata
Summer vegetable “risotto” (left) and bucatini peperonata

Two standouts are the borscht, which Hunter gives a Korean twist with gochujang, and warm cornbread with fermented honey butter. There’s always a pasta — a food Hunter gravitates toward making. “It’s a labor of love,” he says. “You use your hands to work it and you are there the entire time.” The bucatini peperonata nods to Japanese flavors with furikake and miso.

“The food I make is influenced by my experience in the U.S. and the beautiful diversity that’s around me,” Hunter says. That can mean exploring American flavors or drawing on the influence of the African American diaspora. But it’s also thinking beyond fine dining. In July, Hunter held a taco night, and he hopes to offer more lower-priced experiences. “I recognize that not everyone can come for an almost $200 dinner. Being part of the community and bringing people in to eat helps people connect. It’s part of what I do.”