In his version of the German standard "Mack the Knife", Mark Lanegan sings, “Some are children of the darkness, some are children of the sun.” But Lanegan omits a third possibility. Some, like chef Iliana Regan, are both.
Her right arm is covered by a sleeve tattoo of white rabbits and forest ferns. On her left arm is a revolver spraying bullets in every direction. In Regan’s words, this is not a contradiction, but a “contrast” that runs like a rabbit from her rural upbringing straight to the heart of her Midwestern culinary queendom.
Regan is the chef and owner of Michelin-starred Elizabeth Restaurant in Chicago, as well as Japanese-inspired Kitsune; crowdfunded Bunny Bakery and Workshop; Waste Not Beauty; where restaurant waste is converted into skincare products; and, most recently, The Milkweed Inn, the realization of a lifelong dream of merging modern cuisine with the agricultural wildness of her childhood.
I sat down with Iliana Regan after a monumental 16-course collaborative dinner at Montreal’s Le Mousso, where she and Mousso chef-owner Antonin Mousseau-Rivard turned even the most unforgiving of winter ingredients into a barrage of explosive flavors and playful presentations.
Much like the cadence of her recent memoir Burn the Place, Regan speaks with an impressive economy of words. Whether it’s a deadpan joke about a serial killer or a brutally honest discussion of her sobriety or sexuality, Regan does not waste or mince words, nor does she flinch from the light and the dark that she has harnessed like two pearl-handled pistols.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
MUNCHIES: How did you get to Montreal from Chicago?
Ilana Regan: I drove.
Why did you drive 13 hours in minus 20 weather?
I don’t like flying. I prefer to drive because I love roadtrips. It gives me time to read while I’m in the passenger seat and decompress from work, because I got in the car literally right after my work week. Also, when we do collaboration dinners, we bring so much food and I worry about the air cabin pressure.
What did you listen to while you were driving?
Podcasts. Last time, we were listening to one about some cult where people think they were aliens. This time, I literally cannot remember.
Why did you decide to do a collaborative dinner with Le Mousso?
Antonin had asked me to do it about three months ago. I always feel like there’s a lot more to learn and I love cooking, you know? So I’m always curious about what people are cooking and how they’re doing it. I’m really interested in their soy sauce production here. My chef de cuisine Shannon said a really interesting thing about collaborations. She said, “You could be like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, but you’ll play with another band and you’ll still learn something and take something you’ll take away from it.” And that’s the way we operate. We don’t pretend like we know everything, because we don’t.
Are you more Beatles or Rolling Stones?
I would say we are neither. Probably more Bob Dylan. Not everything’s perfect. There’s a little bit of rough patches in there. That’s just how I see us.
You seem like a very cerebral person, but there’s also certain simplicity to your food too, like Bob’s music.
I guess it just happens that way, because we really distill our food by who we are and the things that we love. The mushroom tea that you had is something I’ve been doing for a really long time, and that tea is made from mushrooms that we forage in the fall, that my dad and I used to forage for when I was young. Same with the foie gras owl. We make that little owl shape because it’s adorable and you can’t say that it’s not, unless you’re a serial killer, but even Ted Bundy would be, like, “That’s a cute owl!” [ laughs] But then we make it tasty. It can seem really simplistic, but the craft and the time spent on it is super cerebral. But then the outcome is fun and not complicated and it doesn’t hurt your head to think about it.
It seems like mushrooms have been a big part of your development as a person and a chef.
That was one of the first things that connected me when I was young to food, things that were edible and around me. That was one of the most fascinating things when I was a child; we would go and pick things that we were later going to eat. I grew up on a small farm, so I saw that pretty frequently with vegetables and other things. It opened up a part of me that was always very curious, like “Can I eat this?” or “Can I eat that?”
Based on the way you write about those experiences it seems like you’re not afraid to confront darkness.
My editor was really excited, he was like, “You’re so honest.” A lot of people say I have a dark humor. It’s probably true.
You did make a Ted Bundy joke five minutes into this conversation.
[Laughs.] I think the woods have that too. Not only is it magical and enchanting, but it also has that kind of scary element. As a child, being in the woods, we were told we could play in there but we were also told, “Don’t be in there alone!” As an adult, if you’re in the middle of nowhere and walking through the woods and you hear a little creak, you want to see if someone is following you. It can be mystical and scary at the same time.
In your book, you also write about being out in the woods and imagining the ghosts of Native Americans on horses. Where do you think that imagery came from?
With memoirs, you kind of combine things to make sense. I remember on our farm, there was our house and then a big garden and a barn and behind that was a hilly area that my family never manicured. It was just wild weeds and grasses. I have this memory and it might be a dream—I can’t remember if it actually happened or if it was one of those recurring dreams—I remember my sister and her boyfriend and us standing in the back, right before that area where no one really went to and us seeing a Native American guy on a horse. Again, I don’t know if it was real or a dream, but either way that’s what I was thinking of when I wrote that part.
So from a young age you had a heightened awareness of the history of the space you occupied?
My father was tilling all of the time, and after heavy rains there would be lots of arrowheads and things like that. It could have also been me as a child associating that with stories and then thinking that, but there was a lot of richness of Native American lore or history in the area where I grew up.
Speaking of Bob Dylan, I remember him saying that growing up in rural Minnesota forced him to go inward and develop his imagination.
Oh, that makes sense. I think that’s a big part of where my creativity comes from. I usually identify it with escapism. It’s a way for me to just be in my head, but with things that I enjoy, like writing or creating dishes or food or conceptualizing whatever it may be in a creative format in my mind. Going inward is definitely part of that process.
How is going inward a form of escapism?
As a small business owner, I have two restaurants and I’m about to open a bakery in one of them. I also just bought a cabin in the upper peninsula of Michigan and I want to do a thing during the summer months where people come and stay the weekend and have a really elaborate 15-course dinner on Saturday nights. I have 150 acres, so we really want to access what’s on the land: the berries and the woods and the sap. We have 300 feet of rivers for brook trout fishing. That’s always been my dream and I’m trying to realize that, but because I have all of these things going on, it’s a lot of pressure. At Elizabeth, I run payroll and do PR and do the bookkeeping—it’s a lot of work. For me, going inward and doing the creative stuff is escaping from the pressures of everything else.
I guess that’s better than the other forms of escapism.
It could be alcohol or drugs, which is how I’ve always coped in the past with outside things. They've never been as big or as stressful as the things I do now, but that was definitely a way to be out of my head or not necessarily anywhere. I just got nine years [sobriety] in December; I go to AA meetings on Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays, those are the nights I can actually break free and go. But even before I was working in a restaurant environment, I very strongly identified with drinking being my drug of choice, at a pretty early age. That’s a whole other kind of escapism, but this one is a better one.
Professionally, you’re spinning a lot of plates. Do you think you’ve replaced alcohol addiction with work?
Yes. Absolutely. No doubt about it. Work is my drug of choice and I love it.
It’s also unlikely that you would have gotten to this point in your career without getting sober.
Exactly. I would have never had anything that I have today, not even just in a material way, but in the absolute spiritual or mental and all the ways.
Alcohol, the forest, mushroom foraging, and your gender all collide in one chapter of your book, where you feel very unsafe around an uncle who was an alcoholic.
I think that it was always a little bit confusing to me. It’s so hard to say. All I knew was that when I was really young, I was attracted to women, not even from a sexual perspective obviously. That being said, I thought, “If you’re somebody who’s with a woman, then you’re a boy.” It was weird to feel that way, but to also feel powerless and insecure when scary guys like him were around.
Sounds like there was a lot of light and a lot of darkness in that forest.
Yes, I’m glad you’re able to see all of it.
What are those tattoos on your arm?
My left arm with all the cowgirl paraphernalia was my tattoo of my twenties. My right arm, with all the nature, fine detail, and woodland elements, is the tattoo of my thirties. The tattoo of my forties is potentially getting them all removed.
I read an article that described you as “young, gay, and female.” Does it feel a bit reductionist to be described with that kind of identity checkbox?
I’m actually not that young, I’m 40 [laughs]. I guess there is a moment of cringiness because you could take away any of those and any of them would be fine. Maybe that helps with the clickbait.
But the culture is changing.
Sometimes people are going to be excited about certain books or artists or whatever it may be because of the timing. As this discussion has been happening about underrepresentation of gay chefs or women chefs or all of these things, a lot of people will push back and say, “Why aren’t we just all chefs?” That’s true, but also there’s a lot of truth that there is all of these different gender roles and sexualities within every industry. I think they’re all important to talk about, especially in an industry like this where being underrepresented can also mean that it could be a worse or harsher environment. We don’t always have the corporate setup or HR. In my kitchen, there’s a little bit of everything, but I definitely do that on purpose.
Do what on purpose?
My hiring. Making sure there’s women and people of color, gay, and straight.
Why is that important to you?
Honestly, it just makes me feel a little more comfortable. The yelling and screaming and boy stuff in the kitchen makes me roll my eyes a little bit. It’s not that it’s good or bad, it just happens in certain ones. I choose mine to be different so that when our guests come in, they’re like, “It’s so nice in here and calm and peaceful.”
Do you ever lose your temper in the kitchen?
Maybe once in the last two years, where I was mad. It wasn’t even at the kitchen. It’s because I stuck my hand in hot water and then I went in the back room and threw a glass against the wall and then I just left. That’s something I do often if I get mad about something, I just get my things and leave.
That can also be hurtful to a subordinate.
That’s why I always let them know what’s going on. That was something I had to learn. Sometimes, I would have to leave and I would get a text saying, “Are you mad at us?” Before I say anything shitty, I just want to go and calm down and assess the situation and see what the better approach is. When I raised my voice, it wasn’t always effective.
There seems to be a notion that you can’t succeed in this industry if you’re not loud and domineering. But you’re clearly demonstrating the exact opposite of that, based on what I saw tonight.
I think that means we have to be really careful with the staff that we choose and I think people weed themselves out. Some chefs kind of need being yelled at and breathing down their neck and all those kinds of things. We show people how to do it, we ask them nicely and tell them how it needs to be done. So, for someone to be working in our environment, they need to be goal-oriented and perfectionist themselves, because we’re not going to chase them around all day.
In your book, you write about the strangeness of shooting guns with the men in your family when you were only five years old. Do you ever feel like a five year old with a gun in the kitchen?
That’s a really good analogy [ laughs]. That’s funny. No. But I’m going to use that now, I’ll make sure to reference you when I use it. That’s funny. You hit the nail on the head with that one. Some days, I’ll look around and be like, “Oh my God, there’s no adults here.”
You grew up around guns and Vietnam vets in Indiana. Was it a conservative environment?
Actually, my family is all hardcore Democrats—union Democrats. I’m very lucky in that respect, especially in today’s environment in the United States. Maybe it just feels normal to me because I grew up in that environment, but I felt like it wasn’t as weird in the early 80s to teach kids how to shoot, because it was a sport. Maybe it was.
There is still something inherently fun about shooting guns though.
I think that guns are pretty scary, but it can also feel a little bit empowering. There’s still something exciting, it’s kind of like that light and dark at the same time. To aim and shoot at a box and hit it and feel like you’re developing that kind of skill and a bit of knowledge, there’s a little bit of empowerment to it and something interesting. But it’s also dangerous and scary at the same time and I think that makes it feel even more chaotic.
Sounds like a night of service, straddling that line between chaos and discipline.
Any advice for young cooks?
Don't do it. But if you do, you'd better love it. Be ambitious, creative, study, read, work hard, and long.
Would that advice be any different for young women?
Be the five-year-old with the pearl handle revolver.