Step Into the Wild With Elizabeth Restaurant

By Patty Wetli | Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Iliana Regan, chef-owner of Elizabeth Restaurant. Credit: Jen Moran, www.jenmoranphotography.com

Elizabeth Restaurant is one of the hottest tickets in town, though it’s yet to serve a single dish. Foodies are already predicting Michelin stars and chef-owner Iliana Regan recently received cover-story treatment from The Reader. It’s the kind of breathless anticipation that typically accompanies the announcement of the latest venture from Grant Achatz or Graham Elliot, not a self-taught chef who up until a couple of months ago was creating elaborate multi-course underground dinners out of her apartment.

No one is more surprised than Regan.

“It’s kind of one of those things, it’s beyond my wildest dreams,” she says, as she prepares to open up her storefront at 4835 N. Western Ave. (next to the tire shop) Sept. 19. “I remember being 16 years old and saying I want to have an old house and a garden out back and a farm stand and set up the house like a restaurant for dinner and I’d just have great parties. It was like this hippie restaurant co-op. And I kind of did that…. It’s this complete crazy dream come true.”

Whether Elizabeth lives up to the hype remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Regan’s concept has Chicago’s gourmands intrigued. While tasting menus and communal dining tables (both of which Elizabeth will feature) are nothing new, her emphasis on foraged ingredients–which she’s dubbed “new gatherer cuisine”–is. In addition to growing her own garnishes such as sunflower sprouts, pea shoots and arugula, Regan plans to incorporate wild ingredients into her menus. Dandelion, mushrooms, lamb’s quarters, oxalis (wood sorrel), purslane (poor man’s spinach), violet, sassafras leaves, pine needles, spruce shoots–all can be found in nature, many in her back alley.

How exactly does this work? “For example, I have spruce shoots that I juiced,” she explains. To that she adds an infusion of pine needles and brews an earthy tea. Then she takes sassafras (found in root beer) and incorporates it into an ice cream, which she marries with the tea. The result is “like a very far removed root beer float” that she insists is “still approachable.”

“Everything in a way is unusual but at the same time familiar,” says Jennifer Moran, who’s been photographing Regan’s food for the past few years. She recently came on board as Elizabeth’s office manager–having offered to fill any role, from hostessing to dishwasher–and the two have partnered on a book due out this fall: LOVE FORAGE BOUNTY SUSTAIN: Inspiration From The Plate and Through The Lens. “I can see her vision and I really respect it. I love that she combines a strong artistic sense with a love of nature.”

New gatherer cuisine at Elizabeth Restaurant. Credit: Jen Moran, www.jenmoranphotography.com

Melissa McEwen, who blogs at huntgatherlove.com, spent some time in Sweden and likens Regan’s approach to the New Nordic cuisine exemplified by Denmark’s Noma. Hallmarks include the use of hyperlocal ingredients often cultivated by the chef, attention to botany and horticulture, and extremely intricate presentation. (Regan has served dishes off the bottom of a shot glass.)

“It’s not just visual, it’s flavor and texture, it’s very multi-layered,” says McEwen, who managed to snag a seat at one of Regan’s underground dinners. One memorable course featured venison smoke, “almost like you were out in the woods.”

One concern of Moran’s is that Elizabeth could be perceived of as chasing a fad, or worse, sparking one. Gatherer cuisine absolutely “has to be tied to passion and respect for nature,” she says. “It needs to be done in moderation, with measure.”

For Regan, who was raised on a small farm in Indiana, foraging has always been a part of her life. “My parents were very homestead-y,” she says, canning peaches and cherries and hosting apple-picking parties. Her grandparents lived on a 100-acre spread where Regan explored forests and ponds and gathered mushrooms.

“I think the important part to me is I was always so extremely curious,” says Regan. “Can I eat that? Can I eat that?” The landscape surrounding her house became her own edible garden as she learned to identify which plants to avoid and which were safe for consumption.

Shannon Hruza was part of a group that trekked along with Regan on a mushroom hunt in fall 2011. “She literally, if she had a tent in the forest she’d survive,” Hruza says of her guide, adding that foraging is not for the faint of heart. “It’s like, ‘See this one here? This is Queen Anne’s lace. There’s another one that looks exactly like it but can kill you.’”

While Elizabeth may seem a logical outgrowth of Regan’s early fascination with the outdoors, she took a far more circuitous path to becoming a chef.

“I wasn’t raised in a family where you pursued art,” she says. Her father worked at a steel plant and although her parents also ran a diner called Jenny’s, cooking “wasn’t something real that you did.” When it came time to enroll in college, she chose chemical engineering as her major.

She never completed the degree, though, and eventually headed to Chicago. “I was so adamant, ‘I am never ever ever living in a city,’” she says. “But living in Indiana for me was not very progressive socially.”

At about the same time as the move north, Regan’s sister Elizabeth, for whom the restaurant is named, died. Regan was 23 and Elizabeth, 16 years her senior, had played a significant role in Iliana’s development. Regan has two other sisters, 15 and 13 years older, respectively.

“My sisters were wild,” she says. “They were three pretty girls who were bad.” Asked to elaborate, she lists behavior that included smoking, breaking curfew and, most notably, forging papers to discharge themselves from Catholic school. “So, bad in that kind of way.”

Yet Elizabeth had a creative bent that Regan found inspiring. “She was interesting, she had this cool artistic ability,” says Regan. “She was kind of a mother figure and role model…. I know she absolutely adored me.”

Asked how her sister’s presence manifests itself in her namesake restaurant, Regan replies, “I think it’s like a collaboration. All of it kind of has her spirit.”

Moran, who bonded with Regan over the death of her father, believes the experience of loss informs Iliana’s passion for life. “We have a sense of a mortality,” says Moran. “Instead of taking it to a dark place, she completely embraces life.”

One Sister, Regan’s underground dining enterprise, also paid homage to Elizabeth and helped pull her out of a period of stagnation. While studying fiction writing at Columbia College, Regan bounced around restaurants, applying for front-of-house jobs including receptionist and waiter.

“I was 28 and on a nowhere path,” she says. “I didn’t want to work as a waiter for the rest of my life.”

Gigs at Trio and Alinea were a revelation, presenting cooking in a new light. “For the first time, I saw that this was what people did because they were born to do it,” she says. “I saw the art behind it.”

Crockery lines the shelves at Elizabeth. Credit: Patty Wetli

The challenge for Regan: “How do I get back in [the kitchen] and prove I can cook too…at the level I’ve been exposed to?” The answer: “I started to dig into myself…what was part of me–gardening, foraging, sustainability.”

Harvesting beets from her garden and working with a pasta dough recipe passed down from her mother, Regan began making pierogies and selling them at farmers markets. “People went crazy,” she says, and in short order she was supplying them to shops like the Green Grocer.

“Then I became the pierogi person, I didn’t want to be known as that.”

By that point, her reputation had reached the ears of Larry Anderson and Patty Rasmussen, owners of Tre Kronor. The pair met Regan at the Green Grocer and brought her in for an interview.

“We really loved that she was different,” Anderson says. “I got a sense she’d been a server and liked cooking.”

Regan was hired as a sous chef and given free rein in the kitchen to devise daily specials. Anderson recalls her as the kind of chef who could walk into a pantry or cooler, grab a bunch of random ingredients and produce an ethereal masterpiece. “She was very impressive, super artistic,” he says. “Everything else, I consider her to be completely unemployable.”

Such talent, according to Anderson, came at a price. “She would make things and she wouldn’t put them on the menu–it was art,” he says. “I probably had the sense she would not last long.”

The final straw came when Regan let loose a vulgar remark aimed at an elderly customer who had sent a dish back twice. “The dining room heard it,” says Anderson. “Our guest started crying.”

And thus ended Regan’s employment at Tre Kronor. “There was a real sense of anger, a chip on her shoulder,” he says. A year or so later, she returned to apologize. “She said, ‘I left a lot of bad flavors in a lot of restaurants’ mouths.’”

(Regan’s reply, sent via email: “I can respond by saying it was an unhappy environment overall at tre kronor [sic]. I can also say that he has no personal experience to speak of my work prior to or after my work with him. That is between me and those employers.”)

Today the adjective most often used to describe Regan is “soft-spoken.” Self-contained and vaguely other-worldly also spring to mind. Moran calls her “humble and profound,” and paints a picture of a far more controlled, thoughtful person. The two met back in the Green Grocer days, with Moran driving three hours from Waukegan to purchase pierogies; they became friends when Moran tagged Regan in a Facebook photo of the dumplings. “She chooses her words wisely,” says Moran. “She weighs things out instead of bulldozing and saying things quickly.”

“Her personality shows through her food,” adds Hruza, who dined twice at One Sister and blogs about Chicago’s restaurant scene. “She’s so loud with her creativity.”

With One Sister, Regan finally found a suitable outlet for her ambitions. “I think I was definitely born with a talent to cook,” she says. Lacking any classical training she honed her technique volunteering in the kitchens of restaurants like Schwa and L20.

“I would email [former L20 chef] Laurent [Gras], ‘May I come to work?’ I’d pick a day and just show up. People were generally nice and they appreciated the help.”

At home, Regan practiced the dishes and methods she’d observed, picking the brains of fellow cooks when she couldn’t achieve the desired results. Ultimately she gained enough expertise to run One Sister, singlehandedly cooking and serving 12-course meals in her own apartment, four to six dinners a month for eight to 12 people at a time.

Diners will share communal tables at Elizabeth. Credit: Patty Wetli

“She did not seem like an amateur, no not at all,” Hruza says of her One Sister experience. “It’s super, super exciting cuisine. Every ingredient serves a purpose and is treated with a lot of respect.” Hruza is still thinking about a dish that paired chicken liver with chocolate. “I can’t get it out of my head,” she says. “That’s what baffles me–how do you know that these things go together?”

With Elizabeth, Regan is attempting to reproduce One Sister on a far more ambitious scale. There will be three communal tables seating eight diners, each table serving a single menu at staggered start times.

“I think it’s going to feel the same,” she says. To recreate the ambiance of her apartment, she’s stacked mismatched plateware and crockery on shelves in the dining room; whitewashed walls and hanging sprigs of dried herbs lend the space (formerly home of Prix Fixe) the look of a farmhouse kitchen. “It will still feel extremely interactive; people will still feel like they’re dining in my home.”

Whimsical touches, like serving courses in owl-shaped mugs, are intended to help break the ice of eating with strangers. “It’s always very awkward,” Hruza says of communal tables. “Then the food comes and you all have something to talk about. We all felt like a family sitting around the table.”

The warmth and comfort of the dining room will contrast sharply with the degree of difficulty Regan aims to pull off in the kitchen. She’s developed three ingredient-driven tasting menus that vary by price ($65-$205), theme, number of courses and complexity: The Owl menu is the shortest at 8-10 courses, the Diamond menu the most challenging at 20-25 courses. Though Regan will be assisted by three chefs and three servers, the potential exists for the kitchen to turn out 50 different courses in a single night.

That’s one of the reasons Regan opted for a ticketing system similar to the one used by Next. Each month via outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and/or an email list, she’ll announce the release of a new batch of tickets. Explaining her decision, which she acknowledges will not prove popular with a certain segment of potential customers, she says, “For two to four people not to show up, that’s 200 plates of food.” A ticketing system cuts down on waste — “we know exactly what we’re making every night” — and anxiety. “For me, it eliminates that thought of ‘uh-oh.’”

At the same time she doesn’t want to isolate herself from the surrounding community. She’s aware that she’s the second upscale restaurant to open just north of Lincoln Square in the past year, Goosefoot being the first. Though both operate out of unlikely storefronts off the beaten path (“It’s what I could afford”), Regan hopes to be slightly more accessible.

“One of my good friends has lived in this neighborhood for 20 years. She wants to go to Goosefoot [on Lawrence Avenue] and she can’t get in,” says Regan. To create flexibility at Elizabeth, she commissioned a two-top table, which will be set aside for friends, walk-ins and locals; the seats won’t be sold in advance.

“I was in the alley the other day sweeping up cigarette butts,” she says, and ran into a neighboring business owner. “I told him, ‘If you ever want to come, knock on my back door, say what day and I’m going to get you in.’”

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