Out of the Woods and Into the Kitchen
Every season, good things come out of the woods and fields of Northwest Indiana. Mushrooms. Berries. Venison. Top chefs.
Top chefs? In the case of Iliana Regan, owner and executive chef of the newly launched and critically acclaimed Elizabeth Restaurant (4835 N. Western, Chicago, IL), the answer is most definitely yes.
Regan, a self-trained chef whose restaurant has been called “shockingly original” by Chicago Magazine and recently shot to number 4 on its 2013 ranking of the city’s Best New Restaurants, is a Merrillville, Indiana, native and experienced forager who regularly puts Indiana’s wild foods on her menus.
Take, for instance, her gnocchi made from white oak acorns (collected and frozen the previous fall, then made into flour), tossed with tiny bits of tender deer heart. Regan served the dish this past spring with foraged morels.
Elizabeth’s menus change with the seasons and the availability of local ingredients, but wild-harvested mushrooms, greens, fruits, nuts and game—many of them foraged from around the area where Regan grew up—are constants. She also regularly features meats and produce from the region’s sustainable and organic farms.
Foraged and farm-to-table food is all but de rigueur these days for the world’s top restaurants, but for Regan, who never formally trained as a chef (though she has worked both front and back of the house in many high-end establishments, including Grant Achatz’s Alinea), cooking this way is second nature. It’s how she grew up on her family’s small farm with parents who were also in the restaurant business.
“I saw from a very early age where my food came from. We’d go and pick zucchini out of the garden, and my mom would set up a deep fryer in the kitchen, and we’d fry zucchini for dinner. So I had that early association of knowing that ‘we just grew that’ rather than
going to the store to get it.”
As Regan puts it, she was farm-to-table before farm-to-table was cool.
Ditto for foraging. Regan’s grandfather owned a farm near Medaryville, Indiana, and she and her father would visit the farm and forage for mushrooms and other edibles. One of Regan’s earliest foraging memories is her father explaining how to identify a sheep’s head mushroom (also known as maitaki or hen of the woods): “basically a mushroom that looks like a fuzzy sheep’s head.” She was 3 or 4 years old.
From almost that age, Regan dreamed of opening a restaurant of her own. She ended up studying chemical engineering and fiction writing in college, but supported herself by working in kitchens, always thinking, “Someday I’ll have a restaurant.”
When she was 28, Regan decided she couldn’t wait any longer and hatched a plan. (Artist and scientist, Regan is both a visionary in the kitchen and a meticulous strategist.) Step 1: Selling pierogi at the farmers market in Crown Point, Indiana. Step 2: Move on to markets in the Chicago area. Step 3: Open an underground restaurant to attract investors. Step 4: Launch Elizabeth, which opened in September 2013.
Now in her early 30s, Regan continues to forage periodically on her family’s land in Northwest Indiana, but between running the business, planning menus and working in the kitchen, she has had little time to get outside. She looks forward to getting back to the woods back home.
“A big part of it—for me, the love—is to go out and gather and become inspired. And create new things based on that inspiration.”