“I shouldn’t eat this,” Iliana Regan says, frowning at the tiny green ramp fruits in her hand. “If it’s poisonous at this stage I could be in trouble.” The young plants are usually eaten in the spring; as ramps mature they flower, fruit, and then go to seed. She decides against tasting them, but takes some with her so she can try pickling them later.
It’s a hot Wednesday in late June, and Regan is in a forest preserve at Foster and Cicero, foraging for wild edibles. Previous excursions to these woods and others have turned up morel mushrooms that Regan dried, ground, and made into cookies; dandelions that she turned into a custard; and garlic mustard that became a salad sponge served with goat’s milk sorbet, sunflower sprout sorbet, and lemon-saffron gel. Today she’s come across apple mint, some tiny wild raspberries—it’s been too dry for them to grow well, she says—and Queen Anne’s lace, also known as wild carrot or wild parsnip. The tiny bulbs of the plant smell like carrots (a good sign)—but, as Regan points out, “You’ve got to be careful. It also looks very close to water hemlock, which is how Socrates died.”
Regan’s hands move constantly when she talks, either gesticulating to emphasize a point or fidgeting with whatever’s nearby. Though soft-spoken, she’s passionate, and her words tend to come out in a rush—not in sentences but in one long, unbroken chain punctuated by profanities. In response to questions, she’ll often talk for several minutes, pausing only occasionally for breath, and end with: “What was the question again?”
She cooks the way she does, she says, because that’s just how she thinks about food. And she forages because the woods are her favorite place to be. “Some people like swimming and some people like ice-skating and some people like to go to the East Bank Club. I like to be in the woods. That’s where my connection to God is.”
A couple days after that conversation, Regan sends me a text message: “Yes woods = god. If I have children the first will be named Dakota wolf. The second will be timber birch. . . . I’m not making that shit up.”
Regan is about to open her first restaurant—an ambitious and innovative one by any standards—in a city where innovation and ambition are the status quo, and where fine dining establishments lately seem to be closing as fast as they open. And while she’s spent more than half of her 33 years working in restaurants, she’s been at the helm of precious few kitchens besides the one in her Andersonville apartment (of course, what she’s done there has been impressive).
What will likely set her apart in this hypercompetitive restaurant scene is her emphasis on foraging: it’s a concept that no other Chicago restaurants and few in the U.S. have attempted. That potentially makes foraging her greatest asset—and her greatest challenge. “You can pick things in the woods, and they’ll be really interesting things,” says Gary Alan Fine, a sociology professor at Northwestern University and the author of Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work. “‘Gee, I’ve never had stinkweed before. I’ve never had nettles. I’ve never had a hundred different types of mushrooms.’ But the test is, can you make something with those that’s not just an interesting idea but also tastes good?”
Fine has eaten at many of the world’s best restaurants: El Bulli in Catalonia (now closed), the Fat Duck in Berkshire, Noma in Copenhagen, Alinea here in Chicago. With the exception of Noma, the aforementioned are all pioneers of a type of experimental cooking often called molecular gastronomy—a term that many of the chefs have rejected. In 2006, Heston Blumenthal (Fat Duck) and Ferran Adria (El Bulli) issued a joint statement with Thomas Keller (French Laundry, Per Se) declaring that “molecular gastronomy is dead.”
Fine is inclined to agree. He says “molecular cuisine” is now a historical term, useful only in the way that “nouveau cuisine” is—as a way to describe what’s already happened. “Early on, molecular cuisine was all about technique—what can we find that will surprise our diners, shock our diners? That was a great advance, even though not all the dishes tasted good. That’s OK when you’re experimenting. They were saying, let’s try nitrogen here, let’s try foam, sous vide, techniques that hadn’t been used before.”
The best chefs have taken what worked and moved on from there, Fine says, and what they’re doing now is generally referred to as modernist cuisine. He compares Regan’s cooking to what Phillip Foss is doing at El Ideas, Chris Nugent is doing at Goosefoot, and Curtis Duffy will presumably be doing at Grace when it opens. “They’re all kind of in the postmolecular vein,” he says.
Regan has come up with her own term for her food: “new gatherer cuisine,” which emphasizes the role foraging plays. Though she’s been inspired by Alinea, where she worked as a server, and Schwa, where she staged a few years ago, her techniques are more traditional. In some ways, Regan’s cooking is more like the new Nordic cuisine exemplified by Noma, which is highly local, seasonal, and innovative.
The word “ambitious” came up again and again as I discussed Regan’s upcoming restaurant, Elizabeth, with people in the industry. Scheduled to open later this month, it will offer three fixed-price menus of ten to 22 courses, at price points as high as $200. Though untested as a restaurateur, she’s built a reputation locally on the beautifully intricate dishes she served for the last two and a half years at One Sister, the underground restaurant she ran out of her apartment. Fine, who ate there a couple times, says, “I thought the food was really very compelling—she’s very talented.”
Elizabeth will have the rare distinction of being one of four restaurants in the country to use the reservation system developed for Next, which requires people to pay up front to reserve seats—essentially buying tickets for dinner. Nick Kokonas, the business partner of Next and Alinea chef Grant Achatz, contacted Regan in August to see if she was interested in using it. “She’s putting together something very unique,” he says. “If you have an innovative system that you’re trying to roll out to the public, you want to be associated with other innovative people and businesses.” So far only Next, Alinea, and the New York restaurant NoMad use the system.
Regan’s prix fixe setup is similar to Next’s, but the fact that she’s doing three menus complicates things. In fact, Fine e-mailed her recently to express concern that she was doing too much.
“Believe me, I’m not,” Regan says. “I think a lot of people think it’s too ambitious, but a lot of people in the industry couldn’t comprehend that I was doing what I was doing in my house. I was serving 25 courses by myself. I was going out and buying every single thing, gardening or foraging on my days off, and preparing everything. I didn’t have prep cooks or little elves sitting around my kitchen. I was peeling every single vegetable and washing every single thing and making every single gel, every single ice cream, every single stock, every single demi, every single everything. And then after that, building up to the dinners and having them, doing the laundry, cleaning the floors on my hands and knees, and then waking up to do the same thing again the next day. If I can’t do this, I’m a fucking pussy.”
On a given night at One Sister, a dozen guests would find themselves seated on wooden folding chairs around a large table in Regan’s dining room (which was separated from her living room by a white curtain). They’d usually start their meals with a bubble tea that changed seasonally: parsnip tea with Swiss chard beads and licorice gel, apple pie consomme with pie crust puree and tiny balls of apple, or clear gazpacho with hibiscus and scoops of cucumber. That might be followed by chicken liver mousse encapsulated in dark cocoa with fennel pollen and Madeira gel, or a spoonful of puffed wild rice with cured black bear, Wisconsin cheddar, and pink peppercorn. Glass spheres hanging from Regan’s entryway, filled with pickled ramps and elderberries, wakame seaweed, and edible flowers, constituted one course. Other courses were served directly onto the hands of the diners. On the spring 2012 menu—her last—Regan included “caviars” made from tomato water and black pepper stock served in a nest of deep-fried, dehydrated spaghetti squash perched atop a tumbler of wheatgrass.
“We loved her ideas, her energy, her foraging concept, the spin she would put on her food, her storytelling.”Mike Meier, a guest so moved by a meal he had at Regan’s Andersonville apartment that he invested in her first restaurant
Soon after Regan launched the underground restaurant, diners began to express interest in investing in whatever legit restaurant Regan hoped to open. But none of them was offering the kind of deal Regan wanted—many wanted to own the company and have her work for them. “As much as I wanted to have a restaurant, I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do this’ I don’t care if I don’t have any money. You don’t have anything to invest in without me,'” Regan says.
Then, last November, profits analyst Jen Laaback and C.H. Robinson controller Mike Meier went to one of her dinners. “I think Jen was drunk, because she started crying to Mike,” Regan says. “And I think he’s just head over heels in love with her, so he came into the kitchen and said, ‘We’re going to help you.'”
But plenty of people would leave her dinners saying they were interested in investing, Regan says. “People with the wine in them were just overwhelmed by the moment and then wanted to, but it was just bullshit. So I just assumed they were a couple other bullshit people overwhelmed by the experience.”
The couple wasn’t looking to invest in a restaurant, Meier says, but Regan’s food made them want to invest in her as a chef. “We loved her ideas,” he recalls, “her energy, her foraging concept, the spin she would put on food, her storytelling.”
Regan grew up foraging and gardening. As a child, she hunted mushrooms on a small farm outside Merrillville, Indiana. She remembers sauteing found chanterelles with butter when she was small enough that she still had to stand on a stool to reach the stove.
She was also familiar from an early age with the butchering, curing, and drying of meats, since her dad raised cows and pigs. “You’d walk into the barn and there would be animals hanging from the rafters,” she says. “In the freezer in the barn was a bunch of animal heads.” It always smelled like smoke in there, she says, thanks to a smoker that had originally been used in the Polish restaurant that Regan’s parents owned for nearly 20 years. Regan’s mom was the chef while she was pregnant with her. Her parents never had lofty aspirations for the restaurant, Regan says; they just needed to put food on the table.
A lot of time went into growing and preserving food at home. Regan remembers sitting in the kitchen for hours at a time, watching her mother can fruits and vegetables. “Greens, tomatoes, corn, green beans, asparagus, peaches. Anything you can put in a can, she did,” Regan says. “That’s one of the reasons she says she divorced my dad. She’s like, ‘I was 25 years old, I was canning, raising three kids—I lost my youth!'”
Regan’s mother, who married when she was barely 18, had given birth to Regan’s three older sisters by the time she was 21. Regan didn’t come along until much later, when her oldest sister, Elizabeth, was 16—because of the age difference, Elizabeth was as much like another parent as a sister to Regan.
Elizabeth would take her out to eat, order a bunch of different foods, and have her try them—even the things that Regan was convinced she would hate, like raw oysters. Later, Elizabeth taught her to shuck oysters with a screwdriver. “She was the person I looked up to,” Regan says.
At 15, Regan started working as a busgirl and dishwasher in Crown Point. When she moved to Bloomington for college she worked at a pizza kitchen. In 1999, after one semester at Indiana University Northwoods, she moved to Chicago because she didn’t feel like she could be out as a lesbian where she was living. “There was a couple times people tried to beat me up,” she says. “I felt like the success rate for me living there was going to be very low.”
In 2002, when Regan was 23, two things happened that would reshape her ambitions. That summer, she was hired as the reservationist at Trio, where Grant Achatz had recently taken over as chef. He’d just come from working at the French Laundry, had staged briefly at El Bulli, and had such radical ideas about food that owner Henry Adaniya initially rejected him as chef, afraid that the midwest wasn’t ready for that kind of innovation. Trio under Achatz served as a kind of incubator for a who’s who of chefs who went on to make a name for themselves, including Michael Carlson (Schwa), Curtis Duffy (Avenues, Grace), Paula Haney (Hoosier Mama Pie Company), and Jeff Pikus (Gilt Bar, Maude’s Liquor Bar).
“That was my first eye opening to cuisine, and people who were actually working in restaurants who were passionate about it. It wasn’t just a job,” Regan says. “That’s when I really started to learn about food.”
Then, in October, Regan got an unexpected phone call: Elizabeth had died of a stroke. According to Regan, Elizabeth was an alcoholic and had a fight with her husband that ended in her arrest. Her family believes that she didn’t get her blood pressure medication while she was in jail, and that combined with her alcoholism led to her death.
“She was my favorite person in the world,” Regan says. “It’s just like, ‘I might as well die too. What’s the point?'”
Regan says she’s had anxiety about abandonment since she was little. “Having somebody really close to me die is kind of like the deliverance of my ultimate fear. There’s some kind of fundamental hole inside of me that I was born with. And I was just trying to always figure out how to feel safe and get that filled. When I became a certain age, it was easy to fill that with drugs or alcohol.”
Elizabeth’s death made Regan rethink her behavior. She didn’t give up alcohol immediately, but she did try, and three years ago she stopped drinking entirely. “That became the point of no settling,” Regan says. “If she can’t live, then I’ll live for her. I started liking beets. She loved beets. It just happened.”
In 2005 Regan quit Trio. Achatz had left the previous year to start Alinea, and the concept changed and business slowed under the new chef, Dale Levitski (who went on to be runner-up on Top Chef in 2007 and now owns Sprout and Frog N Snail).
She worked as a server at a half dozen restaurants in quick succession, including Tru, Zealous, and Follia, searching for something more like what she’d experienced at Trio. “I feel like once you’re at a place where you’re surrounded by the best, where there’s this goal for perfection, it starts to be ingrained in you,” she says. “It’s really hard to go to other places when you really want that same kind of environment. Especially someone like me, who at that time really needed that direction. I was a heavy drinker and a partier and all these things. So I could very easily get led astray by myself.”
Regan went to work at Alinea in 2007, first as a food runner, then back waiter, then front waiter. While she was happy to be back at a restaurant of the caliber she’d experienced at Trio, she hated the environment. “Even though I loved the food and the creativity and passion, it was very hard to work in the front of the house there,” she says. “It’s like a frat.”
She started trying to figure out how to open a place of her own. One of her inspirations was a woman who sold microgreens and the like to Alinea. “It was the first time I saw that someone could make a living off of foraging,” Regan says. “I was like, ‘Holy shit. I am so much more talented than I knew!'”
She began growing microgreens in her pantry, and in the summer of 2008 started selling them—along with vegetables she grew on her dad’s land—at farmers’ markets in Crown Point, Indiana. She called her business One Sister in honor of Elizabeth.
One week she had more beets than she knew what to do with, so she made her mom’s pierogi dough—a recipe passed down by Regan’s great-grandfather—stuffed with a beet mash. “That first night I made them, I said, ‘I’m never going to make these again. They’re such a pain in the butt.'” But they were a hit at the market, and the next week she had a line waiting for her when she showed up.
Between Alinea and the farmers’ markets, Regan didn’t get much rest: she’d get out of work at 1 AM on the weekend, sleep for a couple hours, pack up her stuff, and drive to the market. But she still found time to experiment at home with the modern cooking she observed at Alinea. She would make dinner for friends and then go back to ask the chefs at the restaurant why, for example, juice leaked out of her papaya puree and not theirs. The answer was modified starches and hydrocolloids such as Ultra-Tex or xanthan gum, so Regan got her hands on some and started trying to make dishes from the restaurant like the iconic black truffle explosions (truffle broth encapsulated in a raviolo).
Regan knew exactly when her one-year anniversary at Alinea hit; she walked out that night before service started. Aside from her frustrations with the environment of the restaurant, she realized she didn’t want to work for anyone else. “I’m just not very tamable,” she says.
On days when she wasn’t waiting tables (she took a job at Table 52 to make ends meet) or selling her pierogi, Regan would stage at whatever restaurants would let her in. She had worked with Michael Carlson at Trio, and went to Schwa several times. “The nice thing about Michael is that he’s like, ‘Here, make this pasta dough. Here’s our marshmallow recipe, make this.’ It wasn’t picking herbs and making their staff meal.” She also spent time at L20 and even in the kitchen at Table 52 on days when she wasn’t working.
It was there, while listening to the chefs’ conversation, that she first heard about underground dining. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what I’m going to do,'” she says.
That was in early 2010. She was in the process of making thousands of pierogi to sell at Dark Lord Day, Three Floyds Brewing’s annual release of its nearly-impossible-to-get Dark Lord beer, and decided to set aside the money she made there to start her underground dinners. The first, in May of that year, was 12 courses apiece for ten people. Regan hired a dishwasher and a server to help her out, but did all the cooking herself that night—and continued to over the next couple years, even as she doubled the number of courses in her dinners.
A hibiscus “bubble tea” with salmon roe, white chocolate foam, and a salmon granita with grated lime started the meal. Regan was also experimenting with pairing food with music. A root beer-brined grilled octopus with tomago (a sweet omelet), cherry reduction, and a squid-ink cookie tuille (in the shape of an octopus) was served with “Octopus’s Garden” playing in the background.
Regan also served a dish of lamb heart, cooked sous vide and seared, with English peas and a lamb reduction. The plate came with a date gel encapsulated by an egg yolk sauce, which was in turn encapsulated by a pomegranate shell. “You cracked it open and all the sauces would spill out and you ate the lamb heart with that,” Regan says. The meal ended with an edible shot glass made of frozen rosewater, filled with chocolate consomme and rimmed with sugar and dehydrated raspberries.
“I look back at that menu and I’m very proud of it,” Regan says. “I used a lot of modern techniques that I hadn’t done before. I had just literally practiced them a couple weeks before and then just started making it.” She’d never tasted all the parts of the dishes put together—and still hasn’t. “I have no idea what half my food tastes like,” she says. “I just taste the individual components, put it together, and hope it’s good.”
The dinners were illegal, but they were the only way Regan could think of to show others that she could cook while still working for herself. Regan wrote recently on her blog, “I couldn’t wait for permission . . . because there was no one on this planet that would have given it to me. Sometimes some people just have to show the world. I had to prove it.”
Regan got some press in Chicago Foodies and Daily Candy from the first dinner, which was enough to book her up for the next few months. She quit her job at Table 52, and the dinners kept going strong until the winter of that year, when reservations slowed. A strong demand for her pierogi (which she was selling retail by then) carried her through spring 2011, when business for the dinners picked up again.
The dinners were BYOB, and Regan says that as they stretched to five hours or more, they became more drunken and rowdy. Plenty of guests have thrown up in her bathroom—and not always in the toilet. On one particularly bad night, she had to use three bottles of Drano to get her sink unclogged after everyone left.
She had a regular client who would book the entire table for a group of friends and bring pot that they’d smoke between courses. One of the last dinners he booked was for a group of business associates, and he assured Regan it would be low-key. Instead, she ended up with a drunk woman puking on her back porch around 10 PM, closely followed by the woman’s husband, who was high, yelling about how he was hallucinating and someone should call 911. Regan couldn’t face her neighbors the next day, and sent her niece (Elizabeth’s oldest daughter, who’s 21 and lives with her) down to put the linens in the wash.
If she’d kept doing the underground dinners, Regan says, she would have had to move. But she was working on a plan to fund her restaurant without investors, something like a Kickstarter but with better incentives. For example, a $500 donation would be returned as a $500 gift certificate to use in the second year of business. Someone who donated $2,000 would become a lender, and the amount would be repaid with 5 percent interest after the second year.
Then Jen Laaback and Mike Meier showed up, and they were serious about helping her out. Laaback had started her own consulting firm about 15 years earlier and liked the idea of supporting a woman-owned business. She’s also a big fan of underground dining, and says that Regan’s cooking far surpassed anything else she’d tried. “I just couldn’t believe the kind of food she was putting out, how organized she was, and how absolutely spectacular everything was,” Laaback says.
Regan was still planning to go ahead with her crowd-sourced investing until Meier and Laaback asked how much she needed to raise. Probably $65,000 or $70,000, she told them. “They were like, fuck, well, we can do that,” Regan says.
They were also willing to let her have 51 percent of the company, giving her the control she wanted. (Another investor, Robert Herbster, has just over 12 percent; Meier and Laaback each have a little more than 18 percent.) Finally, Regan had both a plan and funding—and she thinks Elizabeth would have approved of the name. “She had grandiose ideas of herself,” Regan says. “She’d be like, of course you would name your restaurant after me.”
Last December, Regan, Laaback, and Meier looked at the former location of the short-lived restaurant Prix Fixe at 4835 N. Western (which no one was particularly excited about), then a place at Damen and Irving Park that everyone loved. There was one small problem, though: it lacked a kitchen.
They also checked out a former tattoo parlor on Western just south of North Avenue. The owners had been running an underground porn studio out of the basement, their agent said. The stairs down to the low-ceilinged basement were treacherous, a missing step replaced by a rickety wooden board; one small room was occupied by what appeared to be a hot tub that had been filled in with cement. In an adjoining room was a lone mattress and a few empty bowls. The restaurateurs-to-be decided to pass.
They made an offer on a building on Milwaukee just northwest of Logan Square, but it was rejected. Meanwhile, the space formerly occupied by Prix Fixe was still available. They hated the tile floors and low ceilings, but their $130,000 total budget limited the changes they could make. And while they hoped to spend no more than $30,000 remodeling, the final number was about twice that.
Things have been going fairly smoothly overall, though. The liquor license has transferred already, and once everything in the kitchen is in place they’ll have their health inspection. So far, none of the bureaucratic issues that tend to plague new restaurant owners have cropped up.
Regan has been doing as much of the work as she can herself, stripping and sanding and painting, sometimes with the help of friends and family. It’s been a lot harder than she expected, she says, and it’s only worth it because it’s hers. “If I was just going to work here, I would have already quit,” she says. “I’d be like, ‘Fuck you and your stupid restaurant for your sister.'”
Elizabeth is scheduled to open September 19. The tile on the floors has been taken out and the concrete sanded and stained. The ceiling has been replaced. Preserves, cookbooks, and pitchers adorn a few shelves on the walls made from wood that Laaback and Meier found in their alley, and bouquets of dried herbs are everywhere. The coatrack consists of deer antlers (bought on eBay) clamped to particle board that’s mounted on the wall. Three heavy wood tables, accompanied by mismatched chairs bought on sale, take up most of the space. Dining here will be communal.
Regan has hired the three chefs she’s planning to employ—Jacob Novar (Maude’s), Meghan Murphy (S&M Underground), and Wilson Bauer (Pensiero, Longman & Eagle)—and a service coordinator, Scott Noorman, who’s also the wine director. Noorman was one of the opening sommeliers at Alinea and says that he had an almost unlimited budget there. Buying wine for Elizabeth is very different, according to Noorman—it requires a lot of creativity and arm-twisting of wine reps. “I’ve pretty much told three companies to go screw themselves. But the ones I’ve been working with since Trio days are willing to play ball. I’ve got long-standing relationships with these guys, and they know it’s going to be the next successful place, and in the future they’re going to have all of my business,” Noorman says.
The three fixed-price menus will change seasonally; as at Next, the price varies according to the night of the week, so eating there on a Wednesday will be cheaper than on a Saturday. The shortest menu, at about ten courses, is what Regan is calling the “owl”; it’s farm and garden focused and will range from $65 to $95. The “deer” menu (14 courses, $115-$135) is “woodland influenced,” featuring mostly wild plants and game animals. The “diamond” (22 courses for $175-$205) is where you’re most likely to find truffles or caviar. All are fairly local, and Regan says there won’t be much overlap between them.
Dishes will include pig tails cooked in dark beer and served with a cocoa nib-infused balsamic gastrique, tenderized cocoa nibs, beets, pickled beet stems, and charred beet leaves; seared matsutake mushrooms with cinnamon custard, juniper powder, pine gel, and a compote of mushroom scraps; deer tenderloin with celery root and amaranth porridge, yellow nasturtium flowers, mustard sorbet, marigold pudding, and a dandelion-petal sugar tuille; and frozen chestnut mousse with pine and thyme fluid gels, shaved and sauteed boletus mushrooms, acorn puree, acorn meringue, and pine cotton candy.
Aside from Next, Alinea, Goosefoot, El Ideas, and the recently closed Charlie Trotter’s, few restaurants in Chicago offer high-end fixed-price menus with no a la carte option (Prix Fixe, the restaurant that previously occupied the Elizabeth space, met a speedy demise). But chefs who can pull it off praise the freedom, flexibility, and creativity the concept affords. Phillip Foss, the chef and owner of El Ideas (a 20-seat restaurant near Roosevelt and Western that offers 12- to 15-course meals for $135) is a big proponent of the fixed price, multicourse model—and of being your own boss. Foss was the chef at Lockwood for three years before being fired over a tweet (“Can’t we all just smoke a bong?”). El Ideas has been wildly successful by any standard, and Foss is nearly always booked up as far in advance as he’s taking reservations. When he runs into other chefs, he says, “hands down, everyone tells me that this is their dream.”
Though Regan hit her breaking point when she was working at Alinea, she thinks she would have been unhappy working for other people no matter where she was. The resolution she made there, she says, was: “I’m going to fucking cook, and I’m going to open a restaurant, but I am not going to work for any of these motherfuckers for slave labor and be treated like a piece of shit in their kitchens.” So far, so good.
Regan e-mailed me recently to tell me that she often dreams that Elizabeth is alive again, and drinking, and Regan is begging her to stop. Although Elizabeth was a talented painter, Regan says, she ended up in the medical profession. “I believe if she followed her dream she might have been happier. I don’t know if that would have saved her or changed the present,” Regan wrote. “I believe following my dreams saves me.”