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Chicago Chef Iliana Regan on Opening Elizabeth and Earning a Michelin Star

Photo: Tim Hiatt

A little more than a year ago, Chicago chef Iliana Regan opened her first restaurant Elizabeth, named for her late sister and based on her successful underground supper club. Elizabeth was hotly anticipated for its focus on sustainable and foraged ingredients — self-dubbed the "new gatherer cuisine" — that were organized into three tasting menus of varying lengths. Elizabeth's opening was also notable as the first restaurant in Chicago outside of Alinea and Next to use Nick Kokonas' touted ticketing system.

In the year that's passed, Regan has made some changes to Elizabeth: the three menus have been condensed to one and there's no longer any communal dining at the restaurant that originally tried to recreate the supper club feel. But most notably, as of last week Elizabeth now holds its first Michelin star. In the following interview, Regan talks about the Michelin nod, Elizabeth's first year, and her career path both inside and outside of the kitchen.

So I know you grew up on a farm and held some front of the house jobs in restaurants. When did it become clear you wanted to be in the kitchen?
I actually started working in kitchens. When I was like 15, I was a dishwasher. It was an after-school job at an Italian restaurant by my house. Then, when I was 18, I worked at a French country cooking restaurant and learned a lot of fundamentals like braising, roasting, and making stocks and pies and quiches and different custards. When I moved up to the city, I worked in a couple restaurants, and then when I turned 21, I started working front of the house.

I kind of always knew I wanted to have a restaurant, but it was one of those "someday" things. When I was growing up, even in the '90s and early 2000s, there were very few places that were chef-owner driven. It was mostly restaurateur-driven. So that's why it was always a someday thought.

And that was always the kind of restaurant you wanted.
Well, I just thought that's the process. Business people or people that have financial backing open restaurants. But then the landscape started to change. I worked in some really nice restaurants throughout the city, gained tons of knowledge, and loved to be in the kitchen. I grew up essentially in a kitchen with my mother always cooking from scratch. So I always kind of knew that was something that I wanted to do. When I was about 28, I thought, "Okay, well, I want to have a place where it's my restaurant, but I'm doing all of the cooking and everything. A little chef-driven restaurant." At the time, I was working at Alinea in the front of the house, but I started staging in kitchens around the city to learn how to do more of the modern techniques that I had been around.

That was me implementing all the new techniques I had learned.

So I was doing that and then I started my little business where I was taking things I made to farmers' markets, which is kind of how it all launched. I did that to test myself, can I run a business on a small scale and can I build a name? That ended up working, so that was how the transition went to back of the house. And then I worked at a couple more restaurants during off-farmers' market season in the back of the house. So I had some kitchen experience from that too. But then when I opened my underground supper club, that was me implementing all the new techniques I had learned, the modern stuff along with a lot of traditional cooking skills that I already had. That was a means to showcase what I wanted to do at a restaurant.

How did you develop that into Elizabeth?
Well, the supper club really took off because people liked the food, they liked that it was fun. But they also, I think, liked that I interacted with them so much. So we thought, okay, this has to be part of it. People would say, "This is a magical experience. How are you going to make that happen in a restaurant?" And I thought, well, if it's small and it's intimate and if the kitchen's open, ideally. I already had an idea that I wanted a kitchen [that was] completely open and basically right there in the dining room with everybody. I thought that way I could literally greet half the guests that come in. So that was part of it, making it like it feel like my home still. That went into the decor and everything. How do I make this a part of myself, but also very cozy and warm and everything.

Yeah, it looks like a really cute space.
Yeah, people walked in and felt like they were still in my house essentially. And then in the beginning, too, we still had the communal dining. Eventually we switched out of that just because it would take diners so long to dine as a table of eight. After about three and a half hours, you start to lose people. There are those marathon diners who want to dine that long, but the majority I think would like to be out sooner. We just wanted to enhance the dining experience, so we ended up separating the tables. And when we separated the tables, at first we had three tasting menus but now we just have the one.

And how has that changed things at the restaurant?
I think that it allows us to put more focus onto each dish. But also it does expedite the time that people dine. It takes two-and-a-half to four hours for a four-top to dine rather than maybe three to five hours as it did in the past. So I think the dining experience for the guests being a little bit swifter is just overall a touch better. But it hasn't really affected much else.

I guess we can call it new-gatherer because that's kind of what it would represent.

So I know you're described as new-gatherer cuisine. What does that mean to you?
When we were opening, somebody who is a big foodie, he came to a lot of my dinners, said, "You're probably one of the only restaurants — you'll be the only one in Chicago — aside from Willows Inn and just a few other restaurants who really focus on that kind of gathering and foraging cuisine aside from the New Nordic movement. So you should have a name for it." We tossed around a couple names and I said I guess we can call it new-gatherer because that's kind of what it would represent.

Can you tell me about one of your signature dishes?
One of them that I've been doing for awhile is a hen of the woods mushroom tea. We serve it in these little cute, quaint espresso cups with a little cocoa nibs and chamomile in it. But it's largely based on the gathered mushroom of the Fall, the hen of the woods mushroom. So that flavor is really strong and predominant throughout. Oftentimes just that little broth is peoples' favorite course.

Elizabeth originally opened in Chicago offering only communal dining. [Photo: Tim Hiatt]

You're also on the ticketing system. People seem to give Alinea and Next enough grief for using that system and it seems like a pretty bold move to use it for your first restaurant. How has that worked out for you?
It's worked out really well. That was the thing, especially in the beginning having the three tables with the three separate menus. If we were going to have essentially about 50 to 60 different courses in the restaurant at one time, we needed to know exactly how much we needed to make of each. So we wanted to know in advance exactly how many people were coming, which I guess essentially reservations could do.

But, at the same time, being so small we wanted to eliminate that potential of people booking but not coming, which is often the case in the restaurant industry. People come into town or they decide well, let's make a reservation here and let's make a reservation here and then we'll talk to our friends and see which one we want to go to. So we wanted to make sure that if we were only going to have 24 seats that we knew those 24 guests were coming. I feel like it makes the guest a little bit more accountable as well as us more accountable. We felt like that was going to be a very smart move for us.

And then also we didn't have a big bankroll. We opened with very small capital. We just wanted to know what it was going to look like to help us figure out a lot of our fixed costs and food control and things like that. Because we get to buy exactly what we need for our guests, we could eliminate a lot of potential food waste, which was also really important to me. So there was a lot of different reasons for that. I think Alinea and Next get the grief from it because people just simply can't get in, you know? (laughs) So they're frustrated that they can't get tickets. Obviously that'd be a nice problem to have, but we don't have that. We're more often than not pretty open. There's always at least a table here or there.

I've talked to some restaurateurs of smaller restaurants and they're a little wary of going to a ticketing system even though it would solve the no-show problem. They think that diners would rebel. I guess that's not been the case for you?
I think there have been some people that aren't so excited about it, but for the most part I don't hear that from the guests. It hasn't seemed that people have minded.

I do think with Next and Alinea, if somebody can't come then they're like, "All right, your tickets are non-refundable." While we say tickets are non-refundable, we do allow people to take house credits. There's been plenty of people that at different times haven't been able to make their reservations because suddenly their spouse has to go on a business trip last-minute or whatever. So we'll just keep that in a house account and when you can come, no problem. There's people who say, "My trip [to Chicago] got canceled, I don't know when I'm ever going to be back." We'll refund them.

I knew I wanted to do something that was pre-paid, I just didn't know how. But then Nick had reached out.

How did you get on the system? Did you call up Nick Kokonas?
No, he actually contacted me. I knew I wanted to do something that was pre-paid, I just didn't know how. But then Nick had reached out. I never thought to contact him because I thought it was probably real expensive and I didn't know if they really offer it to anybody. So when he reached out to us and I found out that it wasn't much more than maybe what OpenTable or another kind of reservation system would be, we just hopped on board.

And so now this week with your Michelin star, were you expecting that in any way or hoping for it?
I was definitely hoping for it. The only thing that gave me slight expectations was that they had contacted us a couple times and asked for a photo "for potential inclusion." So they were very nonchalant about it, but of course that gave me a little bit of hope. And then back in the Winter, there was a Twitter post by them that said the tattoo on my wrist is prophetic. And I have a little star tattoo on my wrist. So there were some hints in that way, which gave me a small expectation, but I didn't want to think that way. I didn't want to expect and then have a disappointment. Really, I didn't know.

And then upon getting it, it felt like a relief because there's a lot of anxiety leading up to that. I felt really relieved and also very happy and proud that all the work we've been doing has been recognized by such a prestigious award.

Were you worried with changing the tasting menu to just one menu that it would affect your chances?
No, I thought if anything that's going to make us much better. And I think ultimately it has. It's really refined the food and the dining experience.

Your Michelin star also came at a great time to be a counterpoint to that Time magazine piece. A lot of people were pointing to you this week as an example of why that was wrong. What has all that meant to you this week, too?
I don't get too heated about that kind of stuff because it's just kind of the way it is and I don't like to perpetuate the sexism. But it's just how this industry is, as a lot of industries are. But I think a lot of other people were more of the worriers about it than I was. But I thought that it was really nice, especially I think Michelin gave a comment to Bloomberg saying they really love to give stars to women chefs because they can be role models. But, yeah, I didn't focus too much on that. I thought it was silly and I thought that the editor's response just made it even sillier. (laughs) I thought it was nice timing, sure.

And so now are you guys celebrating? Or do you have any plans for the restaurant going forward?
No, not really. That day my staff celebrated in the evening a little bit. I think that what we talked about that night was, okay, how do we keep pushing forward and continue on this path and still be really, really good and even better.

· All Iliana Regan Coverage on Eater [-E-]
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4835 N. Western Ave., Chicago, IL