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The Queen of Midwestern Cuisine

Wild sassafras. Deer hearts. Frogs she spears herself. At Elizabeth Restaurant, Iliana Regan is upending how America thinks about the region’s food.

Photos: Jeff Marini

Despite Iliana Regan’s best efforts, no frogs will die tonight.

A Monday evening in mid-May is too early to go hunting for them—the season doesn’t peak until June. But it has been warm recently, and Regan heard croaks on a foraging trek the previous weekend. So on this trip to her cousin’s horse farm outside of Valparaiso, Indiana, the chef and owner of Lincoln Square’s Elizabeth Restaurant thought she’d get lucky. She thought that when the sun dipped below the tree line, the call of bullfrogs would turn deafening.

She would click on her headlamp and skulk around the edges of a retention pond behind the barn, carefully making her way through the knee-high grass, searching for tiny eyes barely breaking the water’s surface. She’d sneak up on a frog, force it to stare directly into the headlamp’s glow to render it immobile, and, with huntress-like precision, impale it with a four-pronged spear. Ideally, she’d skewer 20 of them, enough for most of a night’s customers to get a leg. But if she brought back only enough to share with a few favorite guests, that would be just fine.

She’s done this with vanfuls of curious customers on daylong foraging expeditions followed by an all-foraged meal (she charges $100 a head); with her childhood friend Getty, a groundskeeper at a nearby golf course who has an unwritten agreement with other groundskeepers that allows him to frog-hunt at their courses with abandon; and sometimes all by herself. Tonight she’s with her 74-year-old father, Larry, and her teenage cousin Natalie, who got roped in because she can drive the farm’s John Deere Gator utility vehicle.

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When dusk comes, though, it’s silent. Regan doesn’t give up right away. She pads along the pond’s muddy edge for several minutes, turning hopeful every time she spots a disturbance in the water’s stillness, tensing her wiry frame. But inevitably, it’s only a water droplet, or a bubble, or nothing at all. She wanders back to the Gator empty-handed.

Everyone hops back in and heads toward the barn. Then, partway through a field, Regan shouts over the sound of the engine. “Stop!”

The leaves of the milkweed plant are the same shade of green as the grass that surrounds them, making them particularly tricky to identify when you’re rolling past at 20 miles an hour. And yet Regan has spotted some. She leaps out of the cab, unrolls the sleeves of her blue chambray shirt, and adjusts her military cap. She grabs a plastic Target bag and, from her back pocket, a hunting knife and starts harvesting.

In all, Regan collects close to 20 stalks. She likes to fry the soft young pods; cooked like that they are a woodsy cousin to jalapeño poppers, their creamy silk standing in for oozing cheese.

“How did she even see that?” Natalie asks incredulously. “I completely missed it.”

In the woods, Regan sees a lot of things people miss—and what she sees has become the basis for one of the most distinctive restaurants in the city, a scrappy tasting-menu-only spot in an unmarked storefront on Western Avenue, sandwiched between a soccer store and a tire shop. The 35-year-old opened Elizabeth in 2012, and in her first gig as head chef, she has garnered (and maintained) a Michelin star and been named a semifinalist for a James Beard Award for best chef in the Great Lakes region. The first round of tickets for her last menu, a foraged riff on the foods of the Game of Thrones books, sold out in two hours. “What she’s doing is completely unique,” says one of Chicago’s most celebrated chefs, Schwa owner Michael Carlson (for more on him, see “Ten Years Later, Schwa is as Excellent as Ever”). “She’s clever, smart. Totally innovative.”

Elizabeth often draws comparisons to Noma, the restaurant in Copenhagen headed by René Redzepi and considered one of the world’s best, in part because of how it revels in the not particularly celebrated bounties of the Nordic countryside. Regan does the same with the bounty of northwest Indiana. And in doing so, she has accomplished the unthinkable: She’s taken the food of the Midwest and made it sexy.

 
Iliana Regan foraging
On a foraging trip, plucking clovers and dandelions she may use in a dish

You’d be forgiven for thinking that “haute Midwestern cuisine” is an oxymoron. In the great, delicious pantheon of American regional food, ours is not especially compelling. It doesn’t come with the deep colonial history of New England, the all-natural evangelizing of the West Coast, the comforting appeal of the South.

It’s not even clear what Midwestern food is exactly. Doing a Google search of the term turns up a lot of corn and cheese and terrible jokes about casseroles. A BuzzFeed video showing people tasting Midwestern food includes in its culinary samplings beer-cheese soup, Cincinnati chili, and Jimmy John’s subs.

More heavily researched takes, such as the Food Network host Amy Thielen’s 2013 cookbook, The New Midwestern Table, focus on a few common threads. Dairy products. Seasonal produce. German, Eastern European, and Scandinavian influences. Canned and pickled everything.

“I see that as how the consumer sees the Midwest,” Regan responds. “Things in boxes, microwaved, and things that can be put all together and thrown in the oven. But I think there’s more there.”

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Every dish she’s ever served at Elizabeth has some sort of grounding in this particular nook of the country: bear jerky balancing on a tiny tuft of puffed wild rice, itself balancing on a smooth river stone; deer hearts dusted with olive oil powder and tucked beneath arching ribbons of shaved celery; hen of the woods mushroom tea.

When you ask Regan to tell you what Midwestern cuisine is, her definition meanders. She’ll talk about “a lot of Eastern European flavors,” heavy on the “meat and potatoes, though I don’t think it’s just that.” She’ll talk about the seasonal bounty at the height of summer and the canned and preserved vegetables come winter. But there’s no unifying theory, no neatly organized narrative.

Instead, ask her to show you. She’ll take you to forests she’s explored her whole life and gather the species of mushrooms her dad taught her to find, the wild edibles that grew on her family’s farm.

“Everything ties to something reminiscent of where I grew up,” she says. Because when she cooks, she cooks her story.

 
Iliana Regan in the kitchen at Elizabeth
In the kitchen at Elizabeth (with menu-inspiring Game of Thrones figurines)

Like Midwestern cuisine, Iliana Regan is hard to define. She is both endlessly talkative, the kind of person who speaks in complete paragraphs, and quiet and bookish. Her arms are covered in sleeves of tattoos, and her hair is shorn into a buzzcut. She’s got a sharp, dry wit, and she laughs and smiles readily.

In the kitchen, she’s meticulous, focused, detail oriented. To prep for the Thrones menu, she reread all five books in the series, underlining every mention of food. She then dog-eared the pages referencing dishes that particularly inspired her and typed up the relevant passages, which she distributed to each member of her staff.

Since her early 20s, she has shared, off and on, an apartment in Ravenswood with her mother, who works in the cheese department at the Whole Foods in Lincoln Park. Regan was married once, for four months at the end of 2013, to a woman she started dating while on a break with her current girlfriend, Tonya.

“It was a bad idea,” she explains.

She has also been a self-identified alcoholic since she was 14, and she checked into her first outpatient rehab clinic at 18 (at her parents’ urging, “after a night that was really bad”). Alcoholism runs in her family. Nineteen years ago, her sister (after whom her restaurant is named) died at 39 of a stroke, which Regan believes was brought on by a lifetime of heavy drinking. She herself didn’t get sober until 2009, and she still goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings twice a week and keeps a hardcover copy of Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions in the console of her Toyota FJ Cruiser.

Regan has learned to avoid alcohol in the kitchen. She hasn’t tasted the whiskey glaze on the doughnuts she’ll serve at her new venture, a microbakery called Bunny that she hopes to open in Lake View by August. If she’s working on a red-wine-based sauce for a dish and she samples it before the alcohol has burned off, she’ll immediately run to the sink, fill up a cup with water, and rinse out her mouth, no matter how bustling the kitchen may be. When she does this, her staff is unfazed.

“We don’t talk about it, but if they ask, I’ll tell them,” she says.

She’s channeled the part of her that used to fixate on alcohol into her cooking. “It’s allowed me to take on the really large amount of work that I do,” she says. “Now I don’t have anything to shut my brain off, so my mind is constantly working on things.”

Regan has always had a precision-trained head. In her first semester at Indiana University, she studied chemistry, having excelled at science and math in high school and having adored Tom Robbins’s fragrance-centric (and restaurant-set) novel Jitterbug Perfume. She left Indiana to pursue a creative writing degree at Columbia College (“Biochemistry came along and it was really freaking hard”), but she would adopt the rigors of science in her career as a chef.

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She’s worked in restaurants since she was a teenager—an Italian joint in high school, the beloved Bloomington, Indiana, pizzeria Mother Bear’s in college, an upscale French restaurant while at Columbia. Even after graduating, she stayed in the service industry, working in the kitchen and the front of the house at some now-defunct Chicago-area restaurants, including Grigio in Oak Park and the Lincoln Park location of kosher bistro Shallots. Eventually, she wound up at Trio in Evanston during the tenures of both Carlson and Grant Achatz. In 2005, when Carlson opened Schwa, his own idiosyncratic venture, Regan became intrigued and decided she, too, could open a chef-driven place.

First, though, she’d need to learn how to make food that felt like her. She got her hands on cookbooks for restaurants she admired and read them front to back, often while taking bubble baths. In the French Laundry’s cookbook, she came upon a photo of foraging expert Connie Green carrying a basket of mushrooms. “I was like, I did that my whole life with my dad, and this lady is making a career of it,” Regan recalls. “I wanted to incorporate the things that I had grown up eating.”

 
 

Along U.S. Route 30 in Indiana’s Lake County, you’ll find Ross Township, a small sliver that’s becoming overrun with strip malls and housing developments but for a long time was in the middle of nowhere. It’s where Regan was born, where her family owned about 10 acres that they farmed mostly for pleasure. “It was kind of my dad’s hobby,” she says. Covered in cornfields and vegetable gardens, the property was home to pigs, chickens, and even the occasional cow. The fridge was always filled with pickled pig’s feet, the rec room with crocks of fermenting cabbage. Both of Regan’s parents grew up in the area, too; her dad learned to hunt for mushrooms in the woods where he taught his daughter to do the same.

Iliana Regan walking in the woods
Iliana Regan in mid-June

Regan decided to use northwestern Indiana as a point of inspiration. “I didn’t gravitate toward that because I thought, like, Ooh, I’m gonna hop on this seasonal, local train,” she says. “I gravitated toward it because it was the fundamentals of what I knew best. I love the landscape of the Midwest.” But she would filter it through the lens of the avant-garde cuisine she’d been exposed to.

She started to deepen her knowledge of wild edibles. She made regular trips to the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Medaryville, Indiana, using what she’d gleaned from her repeated reads of Samuel Thayer’s The Forager’s Harvest to find plants she could cook with—fiddlehead ferns, birch bark, sassafras.

In a blog she kept at the time, Finding Foods! Chatter About Food, Cooking, Nature, and Other Things, she detailed the flavors she discovered. How snail eggs taste like dirt. How one day, while distracted by a particularly gorgeous wildflower, she stumbled on a single perfect blond morel. And she was always experimenting with what she found.

“Today I used my polyscience smoking gun to applewood-smoke watermelon,” she wrote in an entry from May 2011. “The watermelon, which I had sliced in 1-inch slices, was perfect. The flavor was like watermelon bacon.” Photos of a haul of hen of the woods mushrooms were followed by a note that she found three ticks on her body upon returning home—this a few days after dealing with poison ivy.

To raise money for her restaurant, she sold pierogi at area farmers’ markets, using a recipe her mom had taught her and stuffing them with seasonal fillings—ramps, elote-style corn, lamb. And she hosted a series of dinners out of her apartment under the moniker One Sister. Those generated enough buzz from local bloggers that she soon became a fixture on the underground dining scene.

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After landing investors to supplement her savings, Regan secured a space for Elizabeth. She kept the decor spare—white walls, a few animal heads, shelves to display forest-themed trinkets. She put an open prep kitchen in the back and a long wooden dining table, lined with mismatched chairs, in the front.

For most of the restaurant’s existence, Regan has fluttered around, performing the duties of owner, head chef, and, when needed, server. “She is very much a leader, but she does it in a quiet way,” says Anna Schaye, who was recently promoted from beverage director to director of operations to unburden Regan of some of the day-to-day tasks. “I’ve had guests ask me, ‘Is the owner here?’ and not realize she’s been serving them the whole time.”

 
Iliana Regan foraging in a field
 

On most days, Regan arrives at Elizabeth around 11 a.m., an hour or two before most of her staff. This is her time to test recipes and experiment with whatever she picked up in the woods over the weekend.

Prepping for this summer’s menu—an exploration of the foods of the American Indians who lived in the Great Lakes region in the 18th and 19th centuries—was a months-long labor of love. Spare moments were spent poring over articles about the eating habits of the Ojibwa tribe and scouring cookbooks for tips on how to make pemmican, an energy-bar-like blend of meat, fat, and fruit consumed by the native people of North America. Diners can choose from two categories: the meat-heavy Hunter or the vegetable-focused Gatherer. Edible ants will make an appearance. “I’m approaching it from a scholarly standpoint,” Regan says.

She’s also been busy preparing to open Bunny and WunderPOP, a space for pop-up dining events under the same roof as the small-scale bakery and casual eatery, with partner Phil Tadros, owner of Bow Truss Coffee Roasters. Originally, Regan was supposed to work on these projects with Elizabeth’s first-ever chef de cuisine, Aaron Martinez, whom she recruited from the San Francisco Bay Area. But their relationship soured after Martinez began to question Regan’s themed menus; he departed at the end of May, and Regan has no plans to replace him. “I’m just going to have to do it myself,” she says. “I tried, but Elizabeth is best run only by me.”

On a Wednesday morning in mid-June, she’s at Elizabeth testing a recipe that she and a staffer have developed for Bunny. They’ve finally gotten the alchemy of ingredients right for ­caraway-flecked burger buns, but now they’re finessing just how big each ball of dough should be. Because Regan can’t be in two locations at once, she’s trying to control for errors by figuring out exact recipes for everything, down to the weight of each prebaked bun—150 grams, too small; 175, too big. “Maybe they should be 162, 163 grams,” she says.

She sips coffee from a La Colombe to-go cup and looks over the day’s to-do list, organized by things she must do (bake the buns, soak sunflower seeds for a dish she’s perfecting for Elizabeth’s summer menu) and things she’d like to do (conduct a trial run of the burgers that will go into those buns—a combination inspired by a roast beef sandwich at a carry-out spot her mom used to take her to). The list spills onto a second sheet of palm-size notepaper.

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But no matter how long the list, Regan always makes time to take Bear, her seven-month-old brown shih tzu, on a midafternoon walk. Invariably, she breaks into baby talk when addressing the Ewok-looking pup. “Sometimes when we get really busy, she forgets and talks to us in that voice,” says Patrick Fallwell, one of Elizabeth’s cooks.

Dusting off her hands on her railroad-striped apron, Regan selects the next task from her list: slicing scallops with a mandoline and placing the paper-thin sheets into a dehydrator. Later she’ll grind them into a powder; cooking with powders is a Native American technique.

Not every ingredient in every dish at Elizabeth is specific to the Midwest. But those that come from outside the region—usually glamour items such as lobsters or oysters or, in this case, scallops—never get star treatment in Regan’s kitchen. “They’re always just the backdrop for something I really love,” she says. The scallop powder, for example, will be sprinkled into a sauce that showcases late-summer carrots and sunflower seeds like the ones her dad used to dry out on the back porch.

When she thinks of the Midwest, that’s where her mind goes—back to Indiana, where she’d run between the stalks of corn her dad planted and jump over his bean plants. Where her mom would ­shallow-fry zucchini. Where she’d wait impatiently for jars of pickles to be ready.

For a region without a food story, that’s a pretty good one.

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