Virtually everything that's been written about chef Iliana Regan has mentioned her preternatural relationship with nature and foraging. As she walked through the MUNCHIES rooftop garden, everything overgrown from a summer's worth of sun, it wasn't hard to see why. The chef—Chicago-based, for now—looked instantly at ease as she plucked herbs and flowers: sorrel, hyssop, yarrow, goldenrod. Raised on a hobby farm in Indiana where her family "grew everything" and she foraged with her dad, it's no wonder Regan ended up so familiar with the outdoors.
In the kitchen, Regan made a dish based on childhood memories: fried zucchini, just the way her mother prepared it, but served with a sauce made from blended rooftop herbs. Among the many food memories described in her memoir Burn the Place, which was announced as a nominee for the 2019 National Book Award in Nonfiction late last week, was "the way [her] mom lightly breaded zucchini before it ever made it to the fridge and shallow fried it in butter." When her mother made it, Regan recalled, "We would just take it out of the pan and start eating. It's comforting."
Recipe: Easy Fried Zucchini
Shortly after her visit, the author and chef-owner of Elizabeth, was headed back to Chicago, but not for long. In August, Regan and her wife Anna officially opened the Milkweed Inn, the do-it-all chef's newest project: a weekend-long bed and breakfast experience in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering "glamping" for just 10 guests at a time. "I have 150 acres in the Hiawatha National Forest," Regan said. "It's in the middle of the wilderness, like literally." That solitude and distance is purposeful.
Memoir and Milkweed aside, Regan has had a busy plate for years. "I opened some restaurants, I closed some restaurants, I did so many things in the meantime," she said. Elizabeth, the restaurant named in honor of her late sister, was the first big project. Opened in September of 2012, Elizabeth earned Regan a Michelin star by the end of 2013. For a while, she also had the bakery Bunny and the Japanese-leaning Kitsune, though both are now closed.
For Regan, the perks to Elizabeth are many. The restaurant is such an embodiment of herself, Regan said, that it's hard for her to spend much time away. Beloved by locals, 50 percent of guests on any given night have been to Elizabeth before, she estimated. But above all, she's in charge. "It's kind of a hole in the wall but we make beautiful food and that's the thing: I own it so I don't have to answer to anybody. I do my own social media and my book-keeping and my sales and do the payroll, which is the stuff I hate, but I'd rather be in charge of everything," Regan said. "It gives us the freedom to do the wacky things that I want to do."
But as she looks into the future, the sustainability of that lifestyle seems increasingly tenuous. "I don't want to manage 22-year-olds. I want to cook on a smaller level. We use local farmers, but still procuring quality ingredients for 100 people is a week is hard for me. I don't want to have a huge carbon footprint," Regan explained. Pushing towards Milkweed, and moving away from Elizabeth, is about finding what works for her life now but still allows her to keep cooking. "Now I'm like, 'What are the things I actually want to do?'"
Late last year, Regan and her wife bought their parcel of land in the Northwoods. The 150-acre plot has a yard lined with wild strawberries and blackberries and an estimated 300 feet of river, full of brown, rainbow, and steelhead trout. She has a cabin and an Airstream trailer, and Regan has gotten to work readying activities: fly-fishing equipment, kayaks, a 4-wheeler. The land is full of things to be foraged, but whatever she can't do or find herself will be local, regardless. "I just want to feel like what I'm doing with food makes sense and it's more conscious of the environment and it's focusing on what I actually love," Regan said.
For Regan, her wife, and her guests, the weekend-long experience will be immersive. Aside from activities, every meal is included, and all the food is prepared by Regan with a focus on local, foraged, and from the land. For the first weekend, she had the menu all dreamed up. On Friday, she explained, she'll take local trout and hang them over an open fire for six hours; she'll serve it with bread and the pierogies she used to make for farmers' markets. Saturday would be stew for lunch, followed by a 15-course meal for dinner, and then a light breakfast on Sunday.
As Regan explained all this, pulling up pictures on her phone of her open fire set-up, her excitement was obvious. Clearly, that was shared by prospective guests: the bookings for August, the only month Milkweed was available this year, filled up quickly. When the season is over, Regan will head back to Elizabeth, which she has left in the hands of Jenner Tomaska, the former executive chef at Next, while she's away. Next year, her time in Chicago will dwindle further, as Milkweed is scheduled to be open from May to October.
Despite Elizabeth's long tenure in Chicago, Regan said, "Hopefully, that's my next thing—where we just do Milkweed."