Regan, 33, plans to open her restaurant, Elizabeth (4835 N. Western Ave., no phone yet) on September 19. The ambitious project is gunning for the highest echelons of fine dining and growing out of the underground-dining series, One Sister, through which she made her name. Following the contemporary move toward ticketing, Elizabeth will offer three tasting menus, varying in price according to day of the week: nine courses ($65–$95), 12 to 14 courses ($125–$155), and 25 courses ($175–$205)—the longest tasting menu in town, we think. Regan hopes to launch her ticket-sales website on September 1. We talked to her about her new-era path through the restaurant world.
Dish: Where are you from?
Iliana Regan: I am from northwest Indiana, near Merrillville. I grew up on a small farm. We had a garden. We had animals. I remember all the summers, my mother canning food. In the barn there would be animals hanging upside down that my dad was butchering. We had a smoker for the meats. At my grandparents’ farm, we foraged for mushrooms—morels in spring, chanterelles in the summer, hen of the woods in the fall. One of my very first memories of food is standing on a stepstool at my house [where I grew up] and cooking mushrooms. When I was cooking chanterelles myself one day, as an adult, I had that smell memory.
D: Was it a natural move to restaurants from that background?
IR: I have had a series of behind-the-scenes kitchen jobs, all very useful. I went to school for chemical engineering. I got a degree in fiction writing. But during that time, I was working at restaurants, working to pay my way through school. I waitressed: Trio, Alinea.
D: How did you strike out on your own?
IR: I was 28, working at Alinea. I knew I needed to do something to start making the path that I wanted to make for myself. I started making pierogis at a shared-kitchen space and sold them at farmers’ markets, and they were a hit. Chicago magazine named them best pierogi in 2010. I was becoming known as the Pierogi Lady, and I wanted my restaurant to be entirely different. So then I started the underground supper club, showcasing more modern food. I just went around and staged at Leopold, Moto, Schwa. I just kept going to kitchens where I knew people. I would work or just hang out.
D: How did the underground dining series progress?
IR: My first menu was 12 courses. Then 14. Then 16. Then 18. This past June, I finished up with 25 courses. And I did it all myself. I did have dishwashers and a server. It would take me a good four days of preparation. Everything from scratch. I made all my stocks and reductions. That was $115 plus gratuity. It was a steal.
D: What was the food like?
IR: I kept my techniques traditional and thought of whimsical ways to present things. [For example,] I took glasses from CB2 and put in a growing medium and then a fertilizer and then wheatgrass. I collected twigs from outside and put the twigs in the wheatgrass. It looked like it was sprouting. I shredded zucchini on a long grade, very fine, and fried and dehydrated it. I made a fried zucchini nest and then I put that in the twig, like a nest in a tree. You could eat the nest in a single bite.
D: Why did you decide to use tickets instead of reservations?
IR: That was something that I figured in from the beginning. All three menus are distinctly different—no overlap. So I’m making about 45 to 50 [different] courses in a night. We can’t play any guessing games. I need to know for the next three days how much I need to be preparing. And it eliminates waste. If I am going to be making all of this, I would to have more of a commitment [from a diner] than just a reservation. With a tiny restaurant, if a few people don’t show up, a lot of food goes away. It’s notoriously difficult to get a seat at Next, and even I gave up trying. Any restaurateur would love to have the problem they do. I know that I want to have that problem. [But] I want mine to be more friendly. My customers know me, and I want it to be very personal. I’m just going to try to make it as friendly as possible.