Anna and David Posey opened Elske—Danish for "love"—in December 2016 on West Randolph Street in Chicago. Less than one year later, the duo earned one Michelin star for the 2018 selection. The pair's cooking as been described as "pure culinary magic" from a "deeply creative menu" by inspectors.
David has long had a passion for the culinary arts, having taken his first cooking job during his sophomore year of high school. "I had such high hopes and dreams. I wanted to open the next The French Laundry when I was 15," he shares. David went on to attend the Culinary Institute of America before heading to Chicago for stints at Trio and Alinea under Grant Achatz.
Anna, on the other hand, didn't discover her passion for gastronomy until (relatively) later in life. She graduated with a BFA from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in painting and drawing. After some time spent traveling the country and participating in AmeriCorps, Anna found herself lured by the kitchen and attended the French Pastry School in Chicago. She then went on to work in both sweet and savory roles at various Windy City kitchens.
Both eventually found themselves at One Off Hospitality—most recently with Anna at The Publican and David at Blackbird—and count the restaurant empire's executive chef, Paul Kahan, as one of their biggest mentors. "He taught me how to be a leader, manager and chef," says David. Both were given a masterclass in restaurant operations by the restaurant group. "They let me be a part of all these meetings outside of just food cost, to talk about every aspect of the restaurant," David continues. "They give you all the tools to become a really phenomenal chef and the opportunity to learn about a lot of the minuscule stuff," Anna adds. "The responsibility they gave was a great gift. I'm grateful for it now."
The pair can now be found working side-by-side during service at Elske, each either on a station or expoing. Upon getting "the call" in October 2017, Anna and David felt all of the "positive emotions" for their small restaurant that they poured their hearts and souls into. Proud of their accomplishment, the Michelin plaque is prominently displayed in the restaurant window for passersby to see as they peruse the menu of the night's offerings.
"It's been a crazy year so far," Anna shares, with the couple keeping many irons in the fire outside of the restaurant. The dining room being closed two days a week affords them the opportunity to do a lot of other things, including collaborative dinners with chef friends across the country. However, the primary focus remains on Elske. "We've definitely talked about more restaurants, but refining, honing and always trying to improve is what's pushing [us]."
Below, the chefs share their experience with the guide and being recognized for their restaurant's first star. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
What was your first encounter with the MICHELIN Guide?
David: "I think I was 15. It didn't really mean anything to me because it was only in Europe at that point, but I knew it was a big deal. When it came to New York City, I could actually grasp what a Michelin star was because it was held by restaurants that I had been to. Then as it got to Chicago it got personal as I realized that this is a thing that could happen for me."
Anna: "I didn't know I wanted to be in the food industry until later. I'm not sure when I started learning about Michelin. It's like one of those things you think you've always known about, but then once you become involved in the restaurant industry it's such a big deal."
What were your thoughts when you knew you received a star?
David: "The call didn't come until later in the day, I think it was 2:00 p.m. or so. Anna was already at work when I took the call. It was a sense of relief. I had a star at Blackbird, and at Elske I hadn't changed my cooking at all and it wasn't more casual or anything, so I was hoping and expecting a star. But we were also in our first year and I wouldn't have been surprised if we didn't get it. So then when I got the news it was amazing! It was a sense of relief and a sense of pride. Every emotion all at once besides the bad ones," he shares with a laugh. "It was all just positive emotions."
Anna: "We do this thing where we don't let ourselves stop and appreciate it. To stop and think that we own a restaurant that has a Michelin star is kind of surreal."
David: "It was all my food at Blackbird and I was in charge and everything, but I still considered the star to be Paul's—it wasn't mine. So to get that recognition for a restaurant that I opened and designed with Anna was awesome. It was very, very fulfilling."
Anna: "Every little detail down to the paper clips we use, it's all us—and the service, too. We were able to bring to fruition all of our ideas that we wanted to happen for Elske. Everything came out the way we wanted to—we're very fortunate for that. For all of that to get recognized with a star was incredible."
How did you celebrate?
David: "We drank Champagne—right away. Drinking before work is not something that we condone, but we did it. It's reserved for special occasions."
How much influence does the MICHELIN Guide have on your career?
Anna: "I think it's established us a little bit more as cooks with the people that we hire. When we first opened we had a cook who said, 'Well you guys don't have a Michelin star so why should I try so hard?'"
David: "We were open for three months and like…"
Anna: "Yeah, no kidding."
David: "Give us a cycle at least. Let them not give it to us for one year before you bring that up."
Anna: "And for us, even if we didn't get it we would still hold those same standards. For the staff, I think it's a relief and a cool experience to work at a Michelin-starred restaurant. It's been helpful with staffing and keeping a really dedicated team."
David: "My biggest thing is how validating it is. Everything that we do, we do for ourselves—the food we serve, the style of service we have—it's because that's what we like and that's what we want to offer. So when we got our Michelin star, it's like 'oh, we got it right'—we're being accepted. And then people in Chicago realize Elske is a great restaurant and it's worth their time. We've also definitely seen a bump in tourists. And now whenever I place an ad looking for staff and we say Michelin-starred, the turnout is amazing compared to what it was before. It's night and day."
How will having a star change the direction of your restaurant? Are your striving for two?
Anna: "We always strive to be better, but I guess I've never thought of us as a two-star restaurant. However, I think we always try to be as perfect as we can be and we're always trying to change to be better. We pride ourselves with being in between casual and fine dining, so I don't know if that would turn off people that come to Elske to enjoy the experience for what it is—it's a very approachable tasting menu."
David: "I think we hold ourselves to two-Michelin-starred standards, but at a different price point. We don't use luxury ingredients, like caviar, foie gras or truffles, which I always associate with higher starred restaurants. We still make our sauces the same way and we use all of the classic techniques, but at a more casual level."
Anna: "Maybe we have a two-star mentality, and a one-star restaurant."
What advice do you have for young chefs aiming for Michelin stars?
Anna: "It might be different for me because I don't have the background David does, but I don't think you should have the award in your mindset when you're trying to open a restaurant or become a chef de cuisine. I think you should just try to be the best that you can because it's not about the award at the end. Otherwise, I think the pressure of getting the award could eat you alive and you would be crushed if you lost it for some reason. Instead, I think you should focus on having a restaurant that you love. We just want to be packed and for our customers to be happy—that was super important to us—and getting a Michelin star was just the best honor that we could ask for."
Photos by Galdones Photography.