Iliana Regan

Elizabeth Restaurant

03/14/2015

Iliana Regan is the chef and owner of Elizabeth Restaurant in Lincoln Square.

Is it ever tough to convince someone to eat things you foraged from the forest preserves in and around Chicago?

I don’t really go to the forest preserves in Chicago because there’s a lot of metals in the ground, and pollution. Some people have a misconception that I’m gathering it from around the city. I’m not urban foraging. I go about two and half hours away to a place called Jasper Pulaski Hunting and Game Preserve, which is in the middle of nowhere in Indiana.

I grew up in Indiana, on a farm an hour away from Chicago and I was exposed to all the beautiful things that are growing around the area. My dad worked in the steel mills. I was no stranger to Gary and how polluted it seems. I’m familiar with the industry, I used to spend time in Gary at my dad’s union hall. There is a lot of deterioration as far as landscape is concerned.

But I also had exposure to all the really lovely things.

Are you trying to get people to re-evaluate the potential of this landscape as it relates to ingredients?

Yeah. I mean, this area is the best for food in the spring, summer, and fall months. People say, “You can’t do that in a city.” My grandfather’s farm was a mile away from Jasper Pulaski in Medaryville and we went foraging for mushrooms when I was a kid. I didn’t just read the Noma cookbook in 2010 or hear about New Nordic cuisine and think: I’m gonna do that too, I’m gonna figure it out. I grew up doing all that stuff. I grew up on a farm, I grew up with my parents canning vegetables, I grew up with sauerkraut in crocks. I grew up with pickled pigs’ feet in the refrigerator. I grew up making blood sausage in my dad’s Serbian friend’s garage.

I grew up doing all of those things, so that’s why it’s in my cuisine. When I started doing it in my underground, people started to focus on that and I didn’t know I was doing anything different. I was like: I know how to get mushrooms from the woods so I’m gonna do that and I’m gonna put it on my menu. And that’s what the press gravitated towards.

Maybe it just depends on where they’re from, too. If you’ve grown up here, you know in the fall you start having pumpkins and beets and carrots and onions, and you know that in the winter you’re eating sauerkraut and pickles. And when you grow up with that, you know you’re going into the spring and then there’s gonna be strawberries.

Do you think other chefs can benefit from your new-gatherer techniques?

Absolutely but it's hard.  There's a lot to the process but those who love it will.

All I know is that when I’m not working, that’s one of my favorite things: to be in the garden, or to go foraging. And people are like: “How do you do all this stuff?” I’m a workaholic. I am always working. If I am not here, I’m working on a menu, or I’m reading a cookbook, or I’m out in the woods, or I’m at the garden. 

I have an overactive mind and a very strong desire to be working and pushing forwards, so somehow I balance my time. It’s a lot of work, but it’s what I like to do. I like to read books, people ask also how I’ve continued to teach myself because when I was young I knew a lot of the mushrooms and a few of the wild things you could eat, but over the years I’ve read books on edible plants, and then I go out in the woods and I see them and I come back and I cross-reference and so I’ve just kind of continually had that education over the years. It’s from being out in nature.

Do you see more chefs embracing Chicago’s seasonal weather and adapting their cuisine accordingly?

I think a lot of places do it. A lot of chefs in Chicago are very seasonal. It’s very rare anymore that I see things on menus that are off-season, because as consumers become more educated from just having more access to the outside world, through the internet or different popular food network shows, people learn more about food.

Food culture is much smarter than it used to be in the ‘80s or ‘90s, really you can’t put a strawberry on the menu anymore in the dead of winter, in places like this. Most people are like, “I don’t want strawberries right now.” Well, I think a lot of them. It’s definitely embraced to a certain degree.

This is the food I cook, no matter what. Most of it is how I learned to cook, but we also cook what we want. I mean, right now we have Wagyu beef on the menu.  We’ve been using that just to have fun, to have a product in that people really highly regard, that’s really interesting, that most people don’t get because it’s way too expensive. I have the luxury of being the chef and the owner and sometimes saying, “Okay, that’s not good for food costs but we can do it.” For a lot of chefs and restaurants, the owner or investor would come in and say, “You can’t put that on the menu!” [laughs]

Here’s a product you might not ever cook again anywhere. But then we have that on a plate with rutabaga from one of our local farmers that we get through a company called Local Foods, and mushrooms from The Plant, which is the indoor place in Back of the Yards. And elderflowers we preserved last spring, that I got at Jasper Pulaski.

It’s not like it absolutely has to be all local all the time. We’re definitely focused on the seasons, but we also cook what we want. I don’t hold myself within those parameters. We have Spanish octopus on the menu, we also have a salmon from Vancouver. I can get salmon from the Great Lakes but the way we’re serving it, we wanted it to be extremely nice, and so we got this farm-raised one from Skuna Bay, who have sustainable practices and a focus on maintaining a minimal carbon footprint.

But either way we’re using that company because we love the quality of it.

Does focusing on the foraging aspect pigeonhole you as a chef?

I don't think it pigeonholes me.  It comes along with certain ideas or perceptions people have but it's about product choice.  I had dinner at Noma.  It was amazing but not everything was foraged.  I think majority of the product was hyper-local but I think the Danish wood ants taste a lot like ants I've tasted from our garden or fields.

Do you think this type of small, chef-focused restaurant will become the norm?

That’s an interesting question. I’ve thought about that a lot, and I know that’s what a lot of chefs who really want to focus on their own cuisine are going for. There’s some backlash against it too, at least there was this article by Alan Richman in GQ where he just completely annihilated what he called “egotarian” cuisine.

Saying that it’s all these young men--- well obviously I’m glad he discounted me, but he’s also been said to be a bit sexist. At least I wasn’t included in the article, so that’s fine. But it’s all these young men with tattoos that have little teeny restaurants and tasting menus and the food is gross and blah blah blah.

The interesting thing about that article is that he is the one who actually really put Michael Carlson of Schwa on the map. He had a great start with Schwa but then he ended up leaving, closing it for a little bit, and Alan Richman was the only major reporter or big-time journalist that Michael let in at the time. So this guy got in and wrote a feature in GQ, which kind of… every chef was like, “Yeah, you made Michael a rockstar!” But there’s only room for one or two right? 

So Alan Richman, the same guy who hates this “egotarian” cuisine, seven years earlier was the one that publicized it. And Michael was one of the first guys that did it. I remember when he opened Schwa, I worked with him at Trio and his sous chef at the time, Nathan Klingbail, was one of my best friends. That set the scale for this model. This guy can open a restaurant that’s high-end, and make it whatever he wants inside, but serve the awesome food that he wants, for eighty-thousand bucks. If he can do that, I can do that.

So I think it is a model that people will go for, but whether it’s sustainable or not I don’t know. There’s been a lot of Michelin-star restaurant closures in the past year because I think Chicago doesn’t have the drive or the tourism that San Francisco and New York have. We don’t have as many people coming in that are looking for our type of cuisine on a daily basis. 

For me it was absolutely financial. I said in the beginning: I need to have something small so that if we do need growing time, we do need to experiment or whatever, we can do that and still make ends meet. That’s the thing, it just depends on what you want, you know? I can shut down for a month and go on vacation--- or staycation, cause it’s not like I can afford to go away very far, but you know--- because I’m really not answering to anybody. I only have one other investor, he’s a silent investor, and I pay him the amount he’s supposed to get paid every month due to his interest.  He will get his investment back with a small return and in turn I have a lot of freedom.

I know I’ll never make a ton of money from this place, but I’m making the food I love, I’m paying the bills, I’m paying my staff, and we’re staying open, so that’s good. Where we’ll be in another two years, our lease is up--- do I want to remodel or put more money into it? I don’t know what will happen. There’s a lot of questions.

But I know right now, at the moment, it’s… everything’s working out and I'm having a lot of fun.

How does the kitchen culture you create at Elizabeth differ from some of the high-profile establishments you’ve worked at in the past?

It’s definitely different, we’re absolutely more of a family here. Nobody’s playing dirty tricks on people or ruining their mise en place, doing stupid things. Nobody’s screaming at each other, or leaning across the table saying, “You fucking suck, you’re a piece of shit” or whatever the hell has gone on, that I’ve witnessed in places or using fear tactics. It was really, really negative as far as I’m concerned. For some chefs it works, I’ve had chefs in here that have worked in those environments and they don’t work out here because they need to be disciplined, they need to be yelled at I assume.

Here, occasionally I have to raise my voice, or I’m very disappointed, that’s part of management that isn’t so great. But I’m watching everything all the time, I’m just not choosing to fight every battle at every moment. If I was, then I would be screaming at them all the time, and that’s not the environment that I want. I do want to give people the chance to prove themselves, that’s the kind of environment I’m creating here: I want people to do good, but to do good for themselves first, you know? And then they excel here.

My chef Luke Jorgensen, he just created a menu for the restaurant, and we hosted his dinner for one night here. I don’t know of any other restaurant that looks at their own chefs and says: Pick a night, it’s gonna be your menu, we’re gonna close one extra day that week, we’re gonna all prep your menu together and then host it. And it gives them time to think: If I want to make a menu how am I gonna make it? All that kind of stuff.

Did you ever think you’d be opening a second restaurant?

Opening Elizabeth, there was a lot more fear at that time. I was like, “Oh my God I never want to do this again.” [laughs] But there comes that point where I asked: Where is my career going? I’m thirty-five now, do I want to spend another five years working sixteen hour days? What’s the next project, what might I be able to do--- and the next project, Bunny, is gonna be a really small space. It’s not like I expect to make big profits there either, but it’s all building parts of the career.  I'm still a working-class American but I do what I love and have my own business and give others jobs too. 

I think when anybody does something that, in the eyes of the public, they view as more simple than the complicated food I might be doing now, then they’re gonna expect it to be some of the best things they’ve ever had. And I think a few of the items we’re making at Bunny are some of the best things I’ve had.

Maybe the third place if there is one at some point, it will be something that’s a little bit more financially sustainable, or maybe I will be able to then invest in something else. But for the most part after a while it becomes a career move. When I’m forty-five I don’t want to be working sixteen hours a day here, I might like to work eight to twelve hours a day and check in at a couple other places. But I don’t think that prepping every day and running service at night is ideal ten to fifteen years from now for me.

Anything else on the horizon?

Beyond Bunny we’ve been discussing some other things with our project and we’re gonna do a pop-up within the space called WunderPOP, that’s gonna be on off-hours, and allow chefs to come in and test out their ideas just like they would in an underground restaurant, but actually do it in a facility. Or to take the thing that people want to beat into the ground--- so take some ramen and let’s have a ramen shop for like two months, you know? But when that trend’s gone let’s do the new trend, do whatever’s popular. And even have it for classes and things like that.  WunderPOP is going to be what I'm calling a culinary playground for me, my chefs, established and new chefs from all over.

Expectations are high, but I plan to meet those high expectations. 

Elizabeth Restaurant