The Chef Who Can Teach Us a Thing or Two About Grit

Why we should get to know Iliana Regan

Photos by Kendra Stanley-Mills for The Washington Post via Getty Images

From all I had heard about Iliana Regan, I thought maybe she’d have a bow and arrow strapped to her back when we met. This is a chef who, raised on a farm in northwest Indiana, serves deer hearts with ribbons of celery at her Chicago restaurant, Elizabeth. She spears bullfrogs on night hunts and sautés the legs in butter. She once made raccoon Bolognese.

Instead, at the other end of a café table I’ve reserved for us at New York’s Rubin Museum of Art, she fishes two espresso spoons from her backpack and then holds them up in front of me, her pinkie fingers extended. Nothing else is better for making mini-quenelles. They’re textbook mini-quenelles — of bacon butter for biscuits, or birch bark ice cream to tuck next to mousse — but only if she makes them with those spoons. That’s why, when Regan left her job as a server at Alinea restaurant in the early 2000s, they had to go with her. “Hey, it’s just two little spoons,” she says. “It wasn’t that bad.”

You won’t find trendy burrata or uni in the 12 courses at Elizabeth, where Regan serves what she calls “new gatherer” cuisine. What you will find are juniper vinaigrette, acorn purée, pickled crab apples, and hen-of-the-woods mushroom tea. As exotic as cattails and milkweed might seem compared to what’s on offer at the average upscale Midwestern restaurant, in Regan’s mind, the reason for bringing these ingredients into her kitchen is simple: They’re local.

No one was cooking with such reverence for the Midwest when Regan opened an underground supper club in her home, which morphed into Elizabeth in 2012. Sean Brock’s Husk was a love letter to South Carolina’s Lowcountry, and there were plenty of champions of California cuisine, but the middle regions hadn’t yet been publicized with such pride by a forward-thinking, fine-dining chef. Regan’s sharp spotlight on Illinois and Indiana won Elizabeth a Michelin star in 2013 and, three years later, Food & Wine magazine named her one of the 11 best new chefs in the country. Agate released Regan’s memoir, “Burn the Place,” in July; it’s the first in a two-book deal with the publisher.

In the restaurant’s early days, the first course consisted of a pill filled with fennel pollen and a cup full of a pine needle elixir. The two components would arrive in front of diners with cards reading “Eat Me” and “Drink Me,” and after consumption, a server would approach the table: “Would you like the check, or would you like to go further down the rabbit hole?”

Most everyone stayed, and Regan built an audience for something beyond Elizabeth — like Bunny, a bakery she opened in 2016 after becoming “obsessed” with naturally leavened breads. Then came Kitsune, in January 2017. Regan had never been to Japan before, but the 24-seat restaurant was like her daydream of its beauty, and it topped both Esquire’s and GQ’s lists of best new restaurants in the country. This summer, though, she closed Bunny and Kitsune.

It was a relief, if Regan’s honest. Both projects were undercapitalized from the beginning and remained stuck in a cycle of loss that kept her up at night. She doesn’t want to be managing so many 20-year-olds in five years, and she doesn’t want to be the next Food Network TV star. She and her wife, Anna, plan to have children, and, at 40, Regan can see the path leading toward a more settled kind of life: They’ve opened a bed-and-breakfast-and-lunch-and-dinner destination called Milkweed Inn in Michigan’s Hiawatha National Forest, which is a six-hour drive from Chicago, seven counting the stops to give their Shih Tzu, Newfoundland, and Old English sheepdog a break.

She discusses the inspiration for the inn’s name: “When it’s a little sprout, you can peel it and blanch it and it tastes like asparagus and sweet peas. Then, when it grows up and has a little bud, before it flowers, you can eat those buds. When they flower, they’re sweet and almost succulent in texture and make nice pickles. And then when they go to seed, they live in the pods that everybody recognizes milkweed for. The seeds are attached to these little hairs, like corn silks, and when you cook them, they get a little bit funky. It tastes like grain pods filled with cheese.”

You knew all that, right? Me, too.

Running an inn may not exactly seem like low-stress work, but Regan feeds 10 people a week there instead of the 150 at Elizabeth. She can forage for much of what she needs on over 100 acres, and her neighbor is a fisherman. She and her wife are the only employees on the payroll, and Milkweed feels like their home, because it is: Next year, they’ll split their time evenly between the forest and the city. “It’s just what I imagined, and what I’ve wanted for a long time.”

Getting to this point has been all the more challenging because of who Regan is: a gay woman with an addiction to alcohol working in a male-dominated industry. Perhaps if Regan had shouted more, the men in her kitchen wouldn’t have finished labeling containers of broccoli purée with drawings of penises. Dicks, rendered in Sharpie, could be found “just everywhere” at Elizabeth those first few years. Perhaps if she were a man, one of her chefs wouldn’t have tried to place his pubic hair in a dish being photographed for a review in a local paper. But they did do these things, and she dealt with it, and now, seven years and many accolades later, she doesn’t have to anymore.

I have faced none of the particular challenges that Regan has, save for a relatively tame battle with booze, and yet, at 36, the poison of self-doubt has seeped into my muscles and I can’t seem to move. One morning, I woke up no longer 26, and as I’m trying to figure out what, exactly, the last decade has meant, my friends are choosing people with whom to spend their lives. Together, they’re bringing new people into the world, people who it’s their duties to raise. I’m not sure what my duties are.

We make choices we don’t always know we’re making at the time, but we ultimately live out the consequences. Some of them, I’m learning, have a paralyzing effect, even if it may be temporary.

Regan is well past paralysis: How did she lose her closest sister to addiction and then surmount the grief enough to open a restaurant in Elizabeth’s name? How is it that her first girlfriend blatantly and repeatedly cheated on her, she heard her father use the word “faggot,” and yet she maintained her self-worth enough to believe that she’d find romantic love and partnership — and did? “How is it that you’re so together and I feel so apart?” I ask.

She responds that I’ve only got it partly right. Yes, she’s had enough distance from the wobbliest bits to have just written a memoir, and yes, her home life is finally happy, but she still wonders if she’s cut out for the restaurant business, and her brain is wired for negativity. The alcohol is gone, but the -ism remains.

Regan remembers the metallic scent of the key that brought cocaine to her nose when she was 22, the night before she ended up in jail. The memory is as vivid as the garnet-colored pickled mulberries and green oxalis flowers she used tweezers to gently situate inside glass terrariums 10 years later. She may relish the awareness that comes from being sober, but when she passes by a 50-year-old bar, that commingling of stale cigarette smoke and fresh beer smells intoxicating. She might linger for a moment and take it in. She felt confident when she emailed Jeff Gordinier, then a staff writer for the food section of The New York Times, to tell him that she thought she was doing something special and that he should come see it. Throughout our interview, though, she tugs at the sleeves of her sweater. She can be shy, she says.

Regan can have a Michelin star and can also find herself wracked with worry over her ability to manage her employees. She can learn to loosen up, trusting her chef de cuisine to run the restaurant while she’s opening her new inn and also carry her espresso spoons close, for fear that they might get stolen (again). Perhaps the reason so many describe her as a mystery is that she’s knowingly — and publicly — living the truth we’ve been taught to deny, that life is a constant seesawing between success and failure, joy and pain.

Regan goes to the restroom to refasten the orange barrette holding back her hair, which, since she was my age, has grown from a buzz cut into a bob that rests just above her shoulders. Now that our interview is finished, she’ll meet her wife and they’ll fly back to Chicago.

Tomorrow, Regan will take her daily dose of Lexapro and attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting before driving to Milkweed, which is booked through the season. For Friday dinner, she’ll make her guests pierogis and salt- and brown sugar-rubbed Lake Superior trout. Saturday, she’ll have a big pot of stew ready at 11 in the morning, and that night, she’ll prepare a 15-course meal with wines chosen by Anna. Sunday checkout is at 1 o’clock, after a breakfast of homemade bread, pickles, and eggs, and one last chance at the kayaks and fishing rods.

At some point, Regan will check in with her therapist. They’ve been talking about the benefits of focusing on what’s right in front of her, of not playing plans too far forward. “I kind of don’t know exactly what I’m doing,” she says, “but I’ll find out.”

Julia Bainbridge is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor who also hosts a podcast on loneliness. It’s not a bummer, she promises. Iliana Regan’s memoir, “Burn the Place,” is out now.

Editor, writer, and host and creator of The Lonely Hour podcast.

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