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The Mind of a Chef

What’s it like spending every moment obsessing about creating the perfect doughnut? Or checking at 3 a.m. to see if the menu is updated online? The woman behind Michelin-starred Elizabeth takes us inside her frenzied world.

A Week in Iliana Regan’s LifeThe chef documented a typical one for us with a series of pics from her iPhone. Above, from left: Snuggling with George before going to work; a practice dish for our Noma dinner series; staff planting the rooftop garden; my prep list for the day

Adapted from Burn the Place by Iliana Regan, to be published July 16 by Agate Midway. All rights reserved.

Some mornings I pop up like I’ve awoken from a nightmare. Whites of my eyes red, bags over bags underneath, pupils dilated. Everything compounds, like the collapsing of a concrete building floor by floor: my list for the day prep, emails to answer, paperwork, store run, call to the IRS, checks to sign. I hear myself through all of it, the subliminal hum of creativity and inspiration, me teaching myself while dreaming how to fix a dish. What was that? I try to recall. Right. Try to dehydrate it before freezing it. Also, add more acid to the sabayon because the aeration dilutes the flavor. I send myself an email. My life is a series of reminders to myself, and if I don’t remember to send them, I will never remember, and it’s just another collapsed floor.

By the time I get to work, I’ve just about finished the cortado I picked up at my neighborhood coffeehouse. I’ve got about five hours of sleep in my system, and it’s going to be a long day. I scoot in past my staff, smile as they all chime, “Good morning.” A lot of them are good kids, and my goal is to teach them, even when I want to yell at them. I obsess with them about the food we make, our service. Even on the days I don’t feel like a success — when I’m hating myself — I have to pretend like I do and encourage them to keep getting better, explain to them how things work, why something emulsifies or sets, what to do to cure the meat or preserve the berries.

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A good day for me is when my prep list reads:

Make chicken skin “snacks”
Practice new vegetable-ash
ramen noodles
Make milk ice
Decide on themes for next year

A worse day for me is when my prep list reads:

Call state
Health department inspection
Pay insurance
Get someone to repair back door
Pay myself?

I love testing ideas, random inspirations — those last-minute ones I think up right before a busy shift, which I know drives my staff insane. I love this part of the day, when all the adrenaline rushes through me, when every particle of me is filled with creative energy. It’s like a high.

Sometimes I write an entire menu in a single sitting. Other times I put this energy into a new dish, and if I can complete it just before service, I can set it in the daylight to photograph. There is no better time to shoot food than midday. If it’s a little cloudy, even better.

Any achievements I’ve earned as a chef are the result of long hours and constant obsession. Each second of the day I’m calculating, learning. I watch everything and take mental notes.

From time to time, someone at a table may stop me: Where does your creativity come from?

It comes from everywhere. Sometimes it’s a dream. Sometimes a daydream. One of my employees once said she could tell if I was daydreaming. She said I’d be standing there, looking at what was going on, but there would be a disassociation with the present, as if I were actually just looking through everything. “What are you seeing?” she’d ask.

When I’m making a new dish, I see the finished ingredients, the textures, the colors. I see it in the overcast daylight, just as if I were taking a picture. Light and dark colors, bowl or plate, all of it already there.

The inspiration may come from nature, from a walk through the woods. Sometimes it comes from a good home-cooked meal, one I’ve had or always wished to have. Or a photograph by Signe Birck. Or plates, pottery, service ware. I can’t go into a clay studio, garden store, antiques store, Village Discount, or Salvation Army without coming out with a whole new set of menu ideas.

 
A day I liked my hair and sent the picture to Anna, my wife; my team at work
A day I liked my hair and sent the picture to Anna, my wife; my team at work

I’m not always nice in my kitchen. I’ve hollered like a coyote. I’ve thrown trays and food. I’ve picked on people for being too slow, too messy, too disorganized. I’ve behaved all those ways the big bad-boy and bad-girl chefs do, but at the end of the day, when that happens, I feel ugly. Sometimes I remind myself of the people I promised myself I wouldn’t be like. If I’m lucky, I realize it and make the necessary apologies and we move on. These days it happens much less than when I first started, or when I was still drinking.

Here’s the thing: Before I opened my first restaurant, the one thing I couldn’t teach myself was how to manage others. This was something I’d never really thought about. What I did think about all those years was the food I wanted to cook. The ingredients I wanted to play with. The places I foraged. The time I wanted to spend in the woods collecting. The time I wanted to spend in my garden nurturing all the vegetables and fruits. I thought about the stories I wanted to tell, how I wanted the food to look. I thought about the cookbooks I wanted to write. But I never, ever gave a thought to all the 20-somethings I’d come to hate and love.

I opened Elizabeth on September 21, 2012. For the first year, at least, I was there every single day — at the end of the night on my hands and knees, scrubbing the floor. Over time, for the sake of sanity, things evolved. My job went from being part of the prep staff and executive chef to executive chef and business owner. Sometimes the transition was hard for the staff. I could feel them become resentful when I was no longer prepping with them and instead focused on managing the bills.

Those first few months, I had difficulty gaining the respect of my male employees. In the few kitchens I’d run before my own, there were usually only one or two employees. Then, with Elizabeth, suddenly I had a kitchen full of 6-foot-plus men in their 20s drawing penises on prep lists, order boards, and the tape on their mises en place. On. Literally. Everything.

I’d try to engage, being raunchy, too, or I’d just tune it out and work in silence. Then, on some days when it all became too much — the jokes, the disrespect, the blatant inability to listen to what I wanted — I’d fly off the handle and become “the crazy woman.” As a boss, owner, chef, errand person, disciplinarian, and all the other things I had to be, I was still expected to maintain my female dignity and smile.

The only thing I was able to do consistently was work hard. I’d work even harder when, behind my back, I’d hear them say things like “This place wouldn’t run if it wasn’t for me.” One by one, they all weeded themselves out. They left so they could remain prep cooks or go into another industry entirely. Each time a new crew member came in, it was easier for me to say, “We don’t talk that way here” or “I’m not going to babysit you.”

I continued to teach myself. I learned how to say no without feeling like I was being mean. I learned how to say exactly what I wanted without having to explain why it should be that way. As of today, I haven’t found a drawing of a penis in almost five years. I occasionally get a new person in who questions me in a way I don’t like. If his last chef was male, I’ll say, “Would you ask him that question?” Most times there’s silence, because we both know the answer. Either way, that question always leads to one place, if not that day or week, definitely within that month: the door. There is no question about who is in charge.

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On any given day, I transform, moment to moment, from businesswoman to chef to mother to motivator to counselor to teacher. It’s exhausting. But I do it and I will probably fall over dead doing it. One second, I might love everyone — employees, humans, the world. Then hours later, I’ll be at home, leaning against the bricks of the garage, inhaling cigarette smoke so deeply you’d think I was begging for it to take me out then and there.

I become paranoid sometimes, thinking, It’s all about to go to shit. How can I do this another day? Another season? And if my front-of-the-house captain comes up to me one more time and says that table wants their tartare course cooked up, I’m truly going to gut him instead of just imagining it. Then suddenly service is over and it was good and I’m congratulating the staff on a job well done and I feel better. We talk about our prep lists, place orders, try to relax a little. I remind them not to go out and be a bunch of drunks because tomorrow is another busy day and they need to be 100 percent present.

I wonder if we chefs are unfit for whatever a normal life is. I believe I am.

 
Making miso; a visit to the potter for our new B&B
Making miso; a visit to the potter for our new B&B

It’s 2:48 a.m. I get out of the shower at the end of the day, too tired to shave my legs, which look like tarantulas are crawling on them, and lie in bed, and somehow even now I can’t stop working.

I open my sticker-covered laptop and go to our website to double-check that the photos we have up look right and relevant, and then I see the menu page.

I send an email, no punctuation, at 2:50 a.m.: “please i dont want to micromanage but can you just have the webmaster put the same menu up as the menu we are currently serving then next time check what it says.” Then I just do it myself.

On another day I get an email: “We want to know your favorite Thanksgiving Day recipe. We want to include you because we don’t want to hear from all guys, you know?” So there’s that — the gender thing. Do they really want to hear from me? Or do they just want another voice, any woman’s voice, trying to balance things out? I don’t respond.

There were definitely times in the beginning of my career when my gender and soft-spoken nature may have made it more difficult for me to advance or get the things I wanted, like financing. When I was 23, I knocked on the front door of Il Mulino on Dearborn. An older man opened it. “I’d like to pass along my résumé,” I said. He scrunched up his crooked nose and said, “We don’t hire females.”

I’d hear about male chefs, certainly with less credibility and business sense than me, closing deals with a handshake over beer. Meanwhile, at Elizabeth, I started with mostly home kitchen equipment and a used stove that came with the place. I had to save up for the proper refrigeration. Jesus Christ, some chefs show me their stoves, and they cost more than what I spent total to open my restaurant.

 
Dropping things off at the cabin; my nephew doing the dishes
Dropping things off at the cabin; my nephew doing the dishes

I began to obsess about bread and baking. Even after getting our first Michelin star in 2013 (and every year since), I felt like I needed to accomplish more. For a while, all I could talk about was bread, fermentation, crumb structure.

I started working toward opening a bakery before I even knew I wanted a bakery. I had a good brioche recipe, and a few other yeast dough recipes, but no solid foundation to make that yeasty, funky, custardy, hard-crusted naturally leavened bread.

I heard a story on NPR about a coffee shop in San Francisco that sold toast. I thought that sounded nice and simple — like, I could do something like that. So I booked a trip to go to this toast place and to Tartine, which everyone says is one of the best places for bread.

I went out there and researched bread making on my own — walking the streets of San Francisco, up and down the hills, the houses like wedding cakes. That way, I knew what I was trying to achieve. My approach to this kind of thing is to pursue the standard and then immerse myself in the details to learn how to make something aimed at a level of craft and quality that is imperceptible to some. Luckily, the majority of people who come to my restaurants do recognize it. So I pursue it for myself first, then my staff, then for those customers who appreciate it.

When I came back from San Francisco, I had an idea. I had just pulled a loaf of our brioche out of the oven and said aloud to my staff — like I do with so many ideas — “What if we just added sugar to this brioche, cut it into doughnut shapes, then fried them?”

“Hell yes” was the unanimous response.

Here comes the process: I take the same brioche recipe, reduce the butter and milk a pinch, add a touch more sugar and some vanilla bean, then beat the hell out of it in the stand mixer. I put it in the refrigerator for up to 48 hours to let the flavor develop. It’s a mixture of natural leaven and yeast. When I take it out, I roll it on a lightly floured surface to about a half-inch thickness, then punch out circles. I let them rise at room temperature for an hour and a half, then put them back in the refrigerator to cool so that I can handle them without deflating or stretching them.

But this method didn’t just appear to me the day I asked my staff that question. First I went out and tried doughnuts everywhere people told me the doughnuts were good. Each day at work, I tinkered with a recipe. When I found something I liked, I would test its sturdiness: Can it be frozen? How long can we refrigerate it? Can I give this recipe to someone else to execute? Each time I found an error, I went back to the drawing board. I filled scrap paper and whole notebooks with recipes, crossing them out one by one as they failed. I turned to science, researching how yeast and dough and resting and rising and temperature all play a crucial role in doughnuts.

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After about eight months, I had a dough I liked. A bit sturdier than I wanted, but a recipe I could hand others to execute. The key, though — along with the amount of time it had to develop, rise, and rest — was the temperature of the dough. It had to be a certain level before it went into the fry oil.

Finally, I had it. The best doughnut. Ever. My friend, the food writer Jason Tesauro, would later say eating it was like going down on a cloud.

That day, we all stood around the kitchen pass. My apron was covered in flour, my hair aromatic with fry oil. I dipped the doughnuts in a whiskey glaze. Everyone smiled. Yeah, that’s pretty fucking good. Months upon months of talking about doughnuts, making doughnuts, redoing doughnuts, getting mad at the people making the doughnuts, sending angry texts when I couldn’t find the doughnuts — all of it paid off in those first couple of bites. I knew that when we opened this bakery — which we didn’t even have a name for yet (we would eventually call it Bunny) — it was going to be great.

 
Whiskey-glazed doughnuts and canelé; snuggling with Anna when she’s busy
Whiskey-glazed doughnuts and canelé; snuggling with Anna when she’s busy

It’s almost noon. I pick up my handwritten prep list and pour myself a second cup of coffee. I walk through our dining room at Elizabeth. Some of the ceiling tiles have shifted out of place from the wind. People are enchanted by our “tin” ceiling, but really, it’s a drop ceiling with plastic tiles, hiding the debacle above. A few months ago, it fell in and we got a whole bunch of water damage all over the place.

I pull back the curtains and tie them together to let in the daylight. I turn on the lights. Before I get in, my staff often works with only the kitchen lights on. “How can you guys do this and not fall back asleep?” I ask. I forget they are still in their 20s.

I check in with everyone on their prep lists. I ask them if they need anything. I discuss a bit of what is on my agenda for the day, what I’ll be working on in the kitchen or the office or offsite. I reflect on the night before — what I think could have gone better, what I did and didn’t like about the plating, service, and preparation of the food.

I look at Mikey. “We have to add a bit more lemon juice to the sabayon.”

“Yes, Chef.”

I look at Nathaniel. “Dehydrate the egg yolks a bit longer before they go into the freezer.”

“How long, Chef?”

“Until it’s right.”

“Yes, Chef.”

I want them to trust their instincts. I want them to be good cooks. I want them to be chefs themselves someday. That’s the whole point, right?

Over time I’ve learned there are many things that need exact recipes and many things that require touching and tasting. Some fruits are sweeter at their peak. Some tomatoes are tarter. It just depends. I try to encourage these kids to make decisions for themselves.

I go to our back kitchen, sit down, and open my list. A baker who’s been with me for five months says, “Hi, Chef.”

“Hi,” I say. “So on the list today for you, I have test doughnuts, and let’s test out the croissant recipe in the new oven. I really think its heat is going to give us what we are looking for.”

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“Yes, Chef.”

I head to our office, where I am greeted by my office guy. “Good morning, Chef.”

“Hi. Morning.” I’m still feeling salty about the website.

“So you know, I contacted JJ and he’s updating the website.”

“Thank you,” I say, and walk past him. I unlace my boots and put on my clogs, then my prep apron. “When we change menus, can you double-check things like this so I don’t have to come across it?”

“Yes, Chef.”

I walk downstairs. I fold and tuck a towel into the side of my apron. I put my scissors in my back pocket, my tweezers in my breast pocket, and clip a Sharpie to my apron. As I wipe up the table where I’m going to set down a thick wooden cutting board, I think to myself that chefy bro phrase “Make it nice.” Sometimes you just can’t escape it, even if you really want to.

I’m going to teach myself how to make xiao long bao.

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