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…