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Iliana Regan Is Building Her Empire One Small Restaurant at a Time

The chef of Chicago’s Michelin-starred Elizabeth has a plan

Timothy Hiatt

"When I first opened Elizabeth, I said, ‘There's no way I'm ever going to open another restaurant.’" says chef Iliana Regan, who debuted that foraged-food-forward Chicago restaurant Elizabeth in 2012. But things have changed since then. Regan earned a Michelin star the following year, and as the restaurant continued to garner acclaim, she felt ready to expand. "Some systems just start to intuitively evolve. Now at Elizabeth, if somebody leaves, there's somebody else who knows exactly what that other person was doing... Everybody knows my palate so much better. I'm able to delegate more authority and responsibilities, so that's what frees me up."

Regan spent 2015 readying her second concept, a "micro bakery" called Bunny that, after significant delays, finally opened in January 2016. It was an instant hit with adorable toast, coveted whiskey-glazed doughnuts, and gorgeous breads. But even with a killer menu and a beloved concept, Regan couldn’t make the numbers work. By the end of April, Regan closed the bakery. She took to Facebook to tell her fans the closure "wasn't because we weren't loved and it wasn't because we weren't busy. We simply started financially behind due to delays and didn't have enough capital to keep u[s] going through the first critical months of leveling out."

"Small spaces allow us to be playful, creative, inventive, and even complicated."

The setback has not scared Regan off from growing her restaurant portfolio. She has a new concept in the works, an izakaya-inspired restaurant and pub that will be more casual than the tasting menu-centric Elizabeth. While a Japanese restaurant might seem out of left field for the Chicago chef, there’s plenty of continuity. "The whole focus of it is pretty much the kitchen and the bar, and then there's one wall with seating, so it's really small, just like Elizabeth," she says.

Eater caught up with Regan at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, where she was celebrating being named one of the magazine’s Best New Chefs. Here’s what she had to say:

1. Her next project, Kitsune, is just around the corner: "We should be open in mid-August, we're guessing. Our construction should be done pretty soon, but we're still working on the paperwork. Not even construction — I should say "remodel," because there was already a kitchen there, and it was a restaurant before."

2. And even though it’s inspired by Japanese cuisine, it’s not about chasing any trend: "The inspiration is to do something really casual and fun, and a food that I'm passionate about, [from] a culture that I think has a really beautiful philosophy about food... A lot of people have been saying, ‘Oh you're opening a ramen shop because that's the awesome trend,’ and there will be ramen there, but it's not a ramen shop whatsoever. There will be a couple different ramens, and maybe people will treat it as, ‘Oh, I'm going to go there and have ramen,’ but the emphasis is going to be on everything. Everything being just as important: using all of our midwestern ingredients, and being very seasonal. I think that's part of not only our philosophy, but a lot of the Japanese philosophy around cooking, food, and culture."

Elizabeth Lamb Bill Addison/Eater

3. She prefers operating smaller restaurants to big ones: "I think around 20 [seats] is the magic number."

4. Because small restaurants allow her more freedom, both with the food...: "I feel like it's more manageable. In that case, you're taking an ingredient and making it, but not with the pressure of mass quantity, like ‘What's the fastest, best way to do this much of this thing?’ I think it allows us to be playful, creative, inventive, and even complicated, but not have to have that massiveness: Not to have to be like, ‘Okay, we've got to make 80 of these things, and we need this much roasting space.’"

5. ... and with the business model: "With Elizabeth, we opened it on a dime, and the same thing with [Kitsune]. We've got a little bit more capital, but it makes me so nervous to think about having to pay investors back hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it just feels more manageable for me to be able to have something that's small and manageable in all aspects: Not only the capital that we raise, but also the way that the food's approached, the way that the systems operate, the amount of staff, the amount of food that's brought in... I do think there is an absolute quality that can be put into places that are big and high-volume, but it's something that I'm unfamiliar with. I feel like I'd rather just stick with what is manageable for me, because then I know I can do that."

The foie gras toast at Bunny, the Micro Bakery
Nick Murway/Eater Chicago

6. Bunny, the Micro Bakery closed, but she does want to open another someday: "I was working on it for a really long time, the recipes and all the development, and it was absolutely a passion project. I'm super in love with all of it, and everything we made there. A lot of it I've always done at Elizabeth. It was taking some of those things that people have really gone crazy over, and putting them in this accessible format. I really believe in the concept, and so do a lot of other people, so I think that when Kitsune is up and running, we'll revisit that."

7. And when she does go about opening a new Bunny concept, she wants it to be a little bit different: "I would open Bunny again in a way that I could have it be an all-day café... have wines and beers, so people can actually sit down for dinner, and have maybe a charcuterie plate and share-able things, [where guests can] get a loaf of bread and some soup, or whatever. Just have it be that kind of atmosphere."

... and one post-Aspen bonus, given the fame of her Game of Thrones menu: She found a lot to like in the GoT season finale: "The show may have lost some of its misogynist viewers over the past couple episodes as the women have become so strong. This season was eventful all the way through — super amazing. And our menu, as conceptual and as far removed at times as it may be in tying it all together, was often apropos. It is subtle, intense, beautiful, and at times, feminine. I wrote out the menu well before the season started, but it worked out great." Watch Elizabeth's Game of Thrones-Inspired Tasting Menu:

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