Despite being a tattooed badass, Chef Iliana Regan of Elizabeth Restaurant is surprisingly soft-spoken, with an ethereal timbre that mirrors the delicate quality of her cooking. If you’ve eaten at Elizabeth (or gaped in jealous wonder at pictures on their Facebook page), you’d think Regan had somehow managed to construct Tinker Bell on a plate. Her dishes are spectacular tributes to nature, and her restaurant honors “nose-to-tail, root-to-branch, and farm-to-table Midwestern bounty.” But that’s not why Regan piqued my interest because let’s face it, the restaurant industry abuses the “farm to table” label, and frankly, Nichols asparagus shouldn’t be on the fucking menu in December.
I wanted to interview Regan because like me, she is an avid forager— and publicized as such (although the marketing came after). “I grew up [on a farm in Indiana], foraging with my dad, so that was a natural part of what I was doing at my house. And that’s what people started to latch onto—they liked that story. And it was good because the press ended up branding me; I didn’t have to brand myself.” Foraging is an art, involving an acute level of curiosity and patience. Maybe it’s some cavewoman-gatherer instinct percolating in my subconscious, but there’s something triumphantly satisfying about finding an edible fungus or weed beneath a bush patch or tree. To me, foraging involves immersing oneself in the rawness of nature, embracing the Walden-esque principles of simple living and individual sufficiency.
But unlike me, Regan is a pro. “[During my childhood], I learned a lot about the seasons and about how things grew without actually being taught, but by just being involved in it.” She says that she forages in non-fertilized or pollution-free places around the city (staying away from preserves since that’s illegal). I ask her for location ideas, and she suggests the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in Indiana (where “Berries, mushrooms and nuts may be gathered from the property.”). Although Elizabeth mostly procures from other foragers now, Regan says, “Occasionally I’ll run out and get some small thing and preserve it for our menu. Right now I’ve let go of some of that because I’m [at the restaurant] most of the time.”
It’s easy to imagine Regan as some tree-hugging nymph showering pollen glitter all over the place; she grows little herbs, makes jams and pickles in adorable canning jars, forages wild mushrooms. But her arms are tattooed with family memories; she taught herself modern techniques by working in highly renowned kitchens (Schwa, H2O), and she built her business ground-up without ever selling out. Regan began her original business, One Sister, in 2008 by selling homegrown goodies and foraged items at farmers’ markets. Once her pierogis captured the attention of the media (and the stomachs of dough-encapsulated-meat lovers), Regan turned One Sister into an underground restaurant, right in her own home. Lots of acclaim and financial negotiations later, she opened Elizabeth Restaurant in 2012 as a tribute to her sister, who passed away from a stroke. Regan ran underground dinners at One Sister for nearly two years before opening Elizabeth, partially because investors were unconvinced by her business model.
“I guarantee you that if I was some guy who acted like an egotistical rockstar that could talk a good game, I would’ve had investors sooner than I probably did. But then again, if I acted like that and talked a big game, I also probably would’ve been closed by now. Because I’d probably be full of shit.”
In addition to staff management, menu-planning, and actual cooking, she performs all the bookkeeping and paperwork for the restaurant. Regan’s tight reign over her craft reveals a fierce sense of independence. “It was important for me that there weren’t managers or controllers. I don’t need a lot of capital—I opened in my home with the amount of $3,000. I was cooking all these fancy techniques using very basic equipment. I can prove that I don’t need to spend $20,000 on brand new equipment but I can still have beautiful, consistent food. When I need a professional help, I use an assignment writing service to write some papers.” She says that unless she held more than 50% of the company, one negative review or slow winter month could’ve meant losing her restaurant.
“Had I given myself to those people, I would’ve essentially been having them control [my restaurant]. And if they didn’t like me, they’ve could’ve kicked me out of my business.” Regan’s integrity also comes through in her cooking philosophy: “We’re not local or farm-to-table Nazis, but we try to do our best to incorporate as much local as we can. And if it’s not, I try to make sure it’s quality or organic. We try to keep it food conscious.” And when she’s not working, she’s technically still working. “In the winter months, I go dine or work on menus for the future. I like to sit and create and plan. What I do here encompasses my interests, so when I’m not working, I’m reading about it.”
Although Regan clearly exhibits perfectionist tendencies, opening a restaurant has since pacified some of her more rigid propensities. “I have to be able to trust people and let some things go and pick and choose battles. In the beginning, it was very hard making that transition because I was doing everything myself. If it wasn’t exactly the way I felt it should be, I would stop and redo it. And I kept everything very neat, very tidy.” She said that she wasn’t very good at communicating, delegating tasks, and determining boundaries but that those skills came with time. “I would drive myself crazy if I had to manage everything myself,” she says.
I ask Regan what her favorite creation is, and she tells me about the “salad sponge,” an arugula sponge topped with little sorbets, fresh herbs, and honey. She tells me that most dishes have special meaning and that how a menu evolves resembles “an untold story” which people can discover for themselves. For instance, she tells me about how a pickled coriander and fresh coriander dish symbolizes the cyclical nature of life.
Although Regan cooks with astounding technique and artistry, she embodies simplicity. Her favorite cuisine is Italian (especially Anteprima), and you’ll never catch her making dinner with guar gum. “I make TV dinners, like those Kashi frozen meals. Or I’ll make a pasta, or I’ll have a pint of raspberries. Or a sandwich. If I’m not cooking for somebody, it’s something that I’ll stir fry really quickly or heat up something. Nothing fancy.” She also frequents Longman & Eagle in her spare time. (I know at this point, I shouldn’t be astounded by the fact that chefs don’t eat frozen foie gras bubbles for dinner, but I still am, dammit). And Regan is quite humble about her personality: “I’m really, really quite boring. I don’t know anything interesting about myself that people don’t already know.”
Okay, so nothing interesting about Regan. What about her restaurant—anything exciting there? Apparently nothing too wild, except those select diners who puke after drinking too much. The mayor (Rahm) also came in to dine at one point. What about her future goals? She replies:
“No big operations whatsoever. If anything, something smaller. I want to go back to making dinners in my home.”
Given her unpretentious style and demanding work schedule, I don’t blame her. In fact, she tells me one of her biggest challenges now is balancing the restaurant and her personal life. “I have friends that I’ve literally seen twice since I opened my restaurant,” she tells me. And unlike most couples, Regan spends only one day and one evening with her partner. Her partner leaves at 6am and comes home at 6pm whereas Regan leaves at 9am and comes home between 10pm and 2am. But as of right now, Regan is taking it one step at a time. She recently married in late July (looking spectacularly pretty, I might add), and she wants her restaurant to hit the one-year mark before taking an extended break.