Podcast Episode 89

Beyond the Michelin Stars: Chef Iliana Regan’s Transition to the Great Outdoors

Iliana Regan | 47 Minutes | August 15, 2023

In today’s episode, we speak with our guest Iliana Regan, a self-taught chef who currently runs Milkweed Inn with her wife Anna.

In this interview, Iliana shares why she turned over her successful Michelin-starred restaurant Elizabeth to her employees to run a 150-acre bed and breakfast—set deep in the upper peninsula of Michigan. She also divulges intimate details about finding her identity as a chef and what it took to write her debut memoir, Burn the Place, which was included on the National Book Award Longlist— being the first time a food writer was listed since Julia Childs.

Listen as Iliana talks about growing up on a 10-acre farm, relying on instinct and memory to create dishes, and serving “new gatherer” cuisine at Milkweed Inn.

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Notes & Transcript


Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. Today, I’m speaking with Chef Iliana Regan, a self-taught Michelin-star chef and prior owner of Elizabeth restaurant. In 2020, she turned Elizabeth over to her employees to run her latest venture with her wife Anna, called Milkweed Inn Bed and Breakfast, a 150-acre property set deep in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Back in 2019, Chef Regan’s debut memoir, “Burn the Place,” was long-listed for the National book Award – the very first time a food writer was listed since Julia Child won 40 years ago.

She recently published her second memoir, “Fieldwork,” highlighting her years spent foraging and living in the woods. In addition to working as the chef and owner of Milkweed Inn, she recently earned a Masters of Fine Arts in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Chef Regan has received national recognition for her culinary arts endeavors, profiled and reviewed by the New Yorker, Lucky Peach, and the New York Times. Chicago Magazine named her pierogi “the best in the city.” She was also named 40 Under 40 in Crain’s Chicago Business. David Chang called her one of the best chefs he has ever known.

Join me today as we speak with chef Regan about finding her identity as a chef, her deep connection to the great outdoors, and becoming the pioneer of “new gatherer” cuisine.

And there she is. Good morning, Chef. How are you?

Iliana Regan: Good morning. I’m good, thank you.

How the Weather Changes Menus

Kirk Bachmann: I’m a little exhausted after the introduction. There is a lot there. A big congratulations, first, and a big thank you. We are so appreciative of your time.

I think it’s important. How are you? How’s the weather? I heard a puppy in the background. How’s the weather in May?

Iliana Regan: It has, occasionally, when we’ve come out here, it has snowed. Especially before we leave, because we leave in the fall. We might get that October snowfall. This is the most I’ve seen this late in the season. I have never seen it snowing in May before. I think I saw on the Weather Channel for the U.P. this is a historic event. It’s the most snowfall they’ve had this late.

It’s been a pretty snowy winter up here. Once the snow starts to come down in the fall – really come down – we have to be gone because we’re eleven-and-a-half miles down a logging road and there are no plows, no anything. If we’re not out, then we’re hiking.

Kirk Bachmann: You’re there or you’re hiking or a helicopter comes in. I live in Boulder, Colorado. We too have had a very extended spring with snow as recently as last weekend. My 12-year-old has had several baseball games canceled already. Does it impact what you’re thinking about for the menu? Like spring ramps. Does it throw all of that off?

Iliana Regan: Yeah, I think it will certainly delay things. I just drove in a few days ago, my first time back here since last season. I was checking out my spots as I was driving nice and slow. The ramps are coming up. They’re still pretty small.

I’m used to foraging in the Midwest around the basin, the bottom of the Great Lakes, the bottom of Lake Michigan – northwest Indiana, northeast Indiana, Illinois area. Up here, we’re about three weeks to four weeks behind. The ramps were ready a while ago there. Now, they’re just coming up here.

How this affects them though? I want to say that the ground is still warm enough that I don’t think they’ll completely freeze, maybe the tips of them. But they’re pretty hardy. We’ll see, but it’s certainly going to delay some of the fiddlehead ferns and the dandelions and the violets, the stinging nettles. It’s definitely going to delay a lot of the other greens and the morels and things like that.

But, the nice thing is that this is all going to melt. They had a lot of snow this winter, so we know that our wells are full and our rivers are full – maybe some of them too full – but at least the ground has plenty of moisture for the summer.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s great. That’s the optimistic side of it all. I was just this past weekend in the Huron, Ohio area. I was at the Chef’s Garden. They’re just a few miles off the lake there. It was ramp weekend. Ramps were everywhere. They didn’t even have time to package them. They were just bringing them in in crates and people were grabbing them. The aroma of that was just spectacular.

Iliana Regan: Never been to Chef’s Garden, but they seem like nice people over there. I have definitely used their products before when I was at Elizabeth’s.

Pierogi Art

Kirk Bachmann: That’s great. They are wonderful.

I saw on Instagram – coming back to the pierogies – I saw something that talked about pierogi art of some sort. The photos almost looked too delicate, almost too beautiful to eat.

Iliana Regan: My Instagram?

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. So somebody’s putting it on your Instagram.

Iliana Regan: I’ve been making them for so long. Back in the day when I started at Farmer’s Markets and things, that’s what I was making because that’s what was selling. I was building a name for myself. I would make about 100 dozen a week. That is a lot of pierogi. Needless to say, it’s a task that I can do rather quickly, but I dread doing. Sometimes, I only have to make 20, and I’m just dragging my feet.

Lately, I’ve just been doing some things to – I don’t know – make them look more beautiful. I’ve been embossing them with flower petals or dried herbs and things like that. Just trying to change it up a little bit for myself. But yeah, they definitely look very pretty. I know what you’re talking about.

In the Family

Kirk Bachmann: Well, they’re getting attention. 100 percent.

Let’s get into your story. It’s intriguing. Somewhat unconventional. I read and you mentioned in an interview – these are your words, “All my sisters are really good cooks. My mom’s a really good cook. My dad’s a really good cook. Even if I tried not to do this, it might still have been the outcome. It was going to happen no matter what.” So, in many ways, it sounds like becoming a chef, becoming a great cook, a forager, was predetermined, predestined, in a way. It just kind of runs in the DNA.

Similar for me. I grew up more on the pastry side with several generations. I fought it. I fought it for years. But if it’s in the DNA, it’s in the DNA. Would you say that’s the case with you?

Iliana Regan: Absolutely. I think I was exploring that a lot in my book “Fieldwork,” because that book isn’t just about foraging; it’s more like foraging than being about foraging. As I was writing it, I was thinking a lot about visually, symbolically, DNA and family trees, and the actual trees in the forest and how the forest functions and how family functions. And how there’s a lot of interconnectedness, obviously, below the ground with mycelium, but also a lot of interconnectedness with our passions and traumas in families. I think that was something I was discovering more and more as I wrote more and more.

Because not only did my parents have a restaurant in Gary, Indiana from 1975 to 1980, prior to them having that, my grandmother owned that restaurant space that my parents eventually took over. My grandmother, she was from Poland. She actually had a little inn in Poland. The cooking and the restaurateur aspect of my family stretches way back. And my parents, it wasn’t like they were trying to be chefs or become chefs. I’ve been exploring a lot lately for a new book I’m writing, which is a narrative cookbook, but it’s all about the recipes that happened at their restaurant called Jenny’s Cafe in Gary. It’s a little bit of history in there.

I come from a family of steelworkers. Even though steel-working was their main job, they all had side hustles. For my dad, being the bookkeeper and the manager of Jenny’s Cafe was, I guess, his side hustle. My mom was the chef. I feel like a lot of that definitely was – I think I talk about this in “Burn the Place” – it’s osmosis. My mom was pregnant with me when they had the restaurant. She was working in the kitchen. Somehow that just got embedded in me. Because once I started working in restaurants, I never really left. I’ve tried to leave it! But I get pulled back in.

Food and Memory

Kirk Bachmann: I love that story. Sure. Your mom was about to have you. You heard and you felt and experienced just like she did.

I’ve read that your culinary talent is – and I think this is so interesting – it’s based on instinct and memory, to your point. An almost other-worldly connection to ingredients, to the food. This is a great message for students. It’s one of the hardest skills to teach, this connection and curiosity around ingredients, the ability to even create a narrative to explain that cognitive, critical thinking piece around ingredients. Can you describe, in your words, a little bit more how you connect with ingredients?

Iliana Regan: I definitely agree with you that there’s a little aspect of it that is, in a way, other-worldly without sounding too “woo” about it or whatever. I love being in nature. I was out in nature a lot when I was young because I grew up on a ten-acre farm. My dad was always having the garden. My mom was always cooking the things from the garden. We always had an animal that my dad was going to butcher. I was definitely around having things in season. We would go out foraging in my grandfather’s farm, so I was out in nature that way. I would pick mulberries with my mom, or hazelnuts, or crabapples. I have that inspiration from being very young. My sisters had it, too, but they didn’t necessarily follow that path.

I think for students and also chefs and people who are interested in cooking and the culinary world, not everybody has that history or connection. I know that there are lots of people I’ve met over the years who said, “Yeah, I grew up with my family who wasn’t good cooks.” I’ve met plenty of people in this industry who said that their parents were the Swanson’s frozen chicken Kiev in the oven, and tater tots, and maybe [inaudible [00:13:01] and things like that. But it doesn’t mean that you have to have some sort of deep history with food to have a connection with it. I think that’s a thing for students to be able to look at and think, “Okay. How do I start building my connection with food? And what is it that inspires me about it? Maybe if I go on to have a family someday, how do I create my own new tradition and passions and connection with food in a way that I can pass it on? Or even just be able to cook for others and have some artistic expression through it?

Because food tells a story.

Kirk Bachmann: It does. I love that word, expression. I love this conversation. It can be an entire podcast. It’s probably the quirky me, but this idea of connections and memories. I think about the movie, “Ratatouille,” when the critic was so tough on the kitchen full of rats, but he had that one dish and it took him immediately back. I thought they did a wonderful job of depicting that.

To stay on that topic just for another moment, I’m really curious. Earlier, you talked about the ramps and the fiddleheads and the morels and what’s happening currently. Are there times when you are in the kitchen, or even when you had Elizabeth, and you immediately were able to go back because of something that happened? Or some instinct of how you reacted to a particular ingredient [that] took you right back to that ten-acre farm? I guess I’m asking, Chef, are those influences from way back then still with you today in how you treat an ingredient or react to an ingredient?

Iliana Regan: Absolutely. I think that there’s lots of times that happened. A lot of times it’s been connected to smell memory. Chanterelles, for one. That is actually something I talk about in one of my books. Sometimes if I’m making sausage, particularly blood sausage. Usually it is connected to olfactory.

I will say that certain wild mushrooms – if I find a hen of the woods, which we also call sheep’s head. Sometimes they’re also called maitake. It just depends. Those, I really treat them so simply just like my mom did. I can almost always going to guarantee that I’m going to coat them with a little bit of cornstarch, dip them in egg, and all-purpose flour with a little bit of salt and pepper in it, maybe a touch of paprika, and then shallow-fry them in a cast iron with butter. I remember whenever my dad and I hunted for sheep’s head, we would bring them back, and my mom would clean them up. She would just immediately do that right in the skillet, and we would eat them right then and there.

I would say most of the time when I’m cooking, I’m treating stuff in a way that is first and foremost about it being delicious and actually pretty simple. I think the way that it ends up falling in a tasting menu and seeming a little bit more on the high-end or modern is just all aesthetics. That’s the plating, and where it falls in line, and creating this little narrative arc of flavors and textures and the building up, things like that. Most of the time, I would say that I’m using unique ingredients but really treating them in the way that highlights what they are. I think a lot of that I take from what my mom used to do with ingredients.

Her Journey

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. Such an appropriate story for the Ultimate Dish, going back to memories and sharing.

Let’s fast forward just a little bit. You started working in some really significant and celebrated Chicago restaurants as you were growing up, foraging, and being on the farm. Food was just part of your life, again, your DNA. Was it always part of your dream to work at a high level? What was that journey like, getting to that level of – gosh – prestige, sophistication, notoriety?

Iliana Regan: When I started working in restaurants, especially when I was 15 and started working in restaurants through to the time I was 21, I didn’t even know such things existed: restaurants with tasting menus and wine pairings and all that kind of stuff. I had been to some casual fine dining restaurants and to some nice places, but nothing like Charlie Trotter’s. Even though I had lived in Chicago, by the time I got the job at Trio in Evanston, where Grant Achatz was working, I had been in Chicago already three years, and I don’t even think I knew what Charlie Trotter’s was or had heard of it really.

Except in one of the casual fine dining places I worked at, one of my friends one day started to talk about it. Then I saw that there was an ad out for a host at the restaurant, Trio, which I knew was of that caliber of the Charlie Trotter’s. I thought, “You know what? I’m going to go check that out.” I staged for the front-of-the-house position. It was the first time I had ever seen food like that or saw service like that.

It was the first time I had ever seen anything of the sort, and I was really inspired. I took that job. Then one thing led to another. I learned so much. I worked at Trio for a while, then eventually went with Grant, too, and that kind of started the whole thing.

I think that was a huge impact on my career, not only on my writing career, but also in my food career. That passion and creativity that those restaurants expressed…I was very impressionable, so that really stuck with me.

Kirk Bachmann: That was an amazing time in Chicago. I almost forgot until I started doing a little bit of research that you worked with Michael Carlson for a little bit over at Schwa as well.

Iliana Regan: Yeah, I staged there. When I worked at Trio, that’s when I met Michael. He was working in the garde manger section of the kitchen. We were friends. When Grant decided he was going to do Alinea and left Trio, Michael was offered a CDC position or something at Alinea, but he passed it up because he really wanted to open his own place.

That really opened a door for a lot of chefs. I’m sure that there were small fine dining boutique restaurants before that, but at least in Chicago, he was the first time I saw anybody open a restaurant that was fairly low budget, really small, that could be 100 percent chef-driven. I remember him saying something like he opened it with $80,000. That was a huge inspiration to me because most people think if you’re going to open a fine dining restaurant, you need millions of dollars. And lots of people do. But it was a really cool aspect to think, “I could really do this.” I think a lot of chefs saw that and thought, “Wow! I could really do this, and I can do it nearly on my own.” Schwa was such a hit back in the day. It’s still very popular. It’s a chef’s chef type of place.

A Michelin Star Story

Kirk Bachmann: Let’s talk about Elizabeth, your wildly successful restaurant in Lincoln Square. Classic location in Chicago. Chicago is very near and dear to me. My parents came over from Germany in the ‘60s. We had a bakery on Irving and Austin for several years in the ‘70s. I always come back to Chicago. My kids were born there.

For you, Chef, what was the inspiration behind Elizabeth. Did you expect to earn a Michelin star? Did you even think about Michelin stars within your second year of operation? It’s incredible.

Iliana Regan: I had thought about it, but I didn’t have too many expectations around it. I had some hope, but no expectations because I really didn’t know what it necessarily took to get one. But, I was very inspired by the fact that I could probably do this little boutique place. I had launched a little underground supper club in my home. I was cooking for people because even though I had built a name for myself at farmers’ markets selling the pierogies, I didn’t want a Polish restaurant or a pierogi business.

So I started doing 10, 15, 20 courses in my home on the weekends for ten guests at a time. That’s where I found a few investors. I think we had $125,000. We found a little storefront in a little strip right in Lincoln Square. It had already been a restaurant, so it had the liquor license. It was like a turnkey. We knew all we were going to have to do was essentially remodel because if you do a restaurant build-out, you’re looking at a lot – a lot – of money. In this case, we just had to remodel. I wanted it to feel warm and cozy, because that’s what I had been doing, cooking out of my house.

Obviously, when I started becoming a chef in the kitchen full-time, because I had been back of the house, front of the house, back of the house, front of the house over the years, just depending on what I was doing with school and things like that. When I started to create menus that were in the way of long-form, like tasting menu format, I really went back to my roots, like we were talking about. Incorporating foraged things and preserved things, and making sure it’s very seasonal and all that. That was a big part of it.

We did the best we could with this little tiny storefront. As for Michelin, I think the first year we were opened, we opened in September 2012. The Michelin Guide came out in November of 2012 for the following year. We were too new to be able to have been in it.

But then that following year, we had started to get some questions through emails from Michelin that seemed a little bit suspicious. I was starting to cross my fingers. Maybe a month before the announcements came, I got an email that said, “We’re updating our files. We would like to know the chef’s phone number.” I knew the day that Michelin comes out, they always call you in the morning. That was also hopeful.

Then I got invited to the Michelin party. I thought, “Okay, if we don’t get a Michelin star, this will all be a dirty trick by them for having asked me all these questions and things.” That morning, I was in my car driving to work, and I saw the “unknown caller” come up on my ID, which typically I wouldn’t answer, but I answered it. And it was them, and we got a Michelin star. That was pretty incredible. The whole staff was really excited, because most of them had been there from the beginning. For that year and couple months that we had been open, that was very affirmational that all this hard work that we had been doing showed up in that accolade. That was really huge.

Then, of course, I went through our period of, “Well, can we get two?” and really striving for that. We never got to the two, and I’m not going to beat my head about it nowadays like I used to be thinking about it. I still think one is a pretty awesome achievement, and to have it consecutively every year from when we were open is really nice.

Leaving Elizabeth

Kirk Bachmann: It’s spectacular! It’s such a nice story. I have chills just listening. I love how you bring the team into it as you shared that incredible accolade with the team. It’s really special.

Speaking of the team, back in 2020, you decided to transfer ownership of Elizabeth to the team. You launched Milkweed, which was about 300 miles away. I read a quote where you said, “I came out here to the woods because I always wanted to do something that felt a little bit more sustainable. It just made sense to be cooking for ten people a week rather than 150.”

First of all, brilliant. I love that. Like I said at the beginning, I think it’s every chef’s dream to be able to do something like that. How difficult of a decision was that to go forward and leave Elizabeth to the team? And go to a remote location? Or was it exciting?

Iliana Regan: It was definitely not a difficult decision at all. About four years into having Elizabeth – it was a small business. Not only was I the chef and the front-of-the-house manager, but also the bookkeeper. I did the sales, the taxes, reconciled the bank accounts, wrote the paychecks. I did all the things. I very quickly got burned out, but I think the thing that I never expected was going to be as hard as it was was managing people. Being the overall manager of everything took its toll on me.

After having a couple other ventures – I had a little bakery for a while. I had Kitsune, which was a Japanese-inspired restaurant – and trying to even manage more, but not having the funding to be able to create teams around management. Also trying to control quality and being at two places at once. I thought, “Scaling up is not for me.” It solidified for me that I needed to figure out what my next thing is and make sure that it’s something that is smaller, that I can largely run by myself, has little management, but also is more conscious about natural resources and other things. That was something that always weighed on me.

I had already had this going in my mind that this was the thing I was going to do. In 2019 was when we opened for the first season. That was prior to the pandemic. Elizabeth was still open, and I had a guest resident chef, Jenner Tomaska, who has Esme restaurant in Chicago. He didn’t have Esme yet, so he worked there for that six weeks at Elizabeth while I was up here for our first season. We just have a short season.

But when I got back, I was already thinking about it. “What am I going to do next? Because I’m going to go back there next season, and if I don’t have my team ready for me to be able to leave for six months, how am I going to do this?” Then once we got back, there was the typical management drama. I went to my guy who was my writer who worked in the office. At the time, I had taught him how to do a lot of the bookkeeping and payroll and things like that. He had been in restaurants for a long time. We worked together at Trio, actually. I just said, “Hey, I don’t think I want this place anymore. Would you like to have it?” I said, “Literally, you can give me a dollar for it. That’s how ready I am to get out. You know it’s not worth it to sell it.” He had gone through my Kitsune sale with me. I said, “We probably won’t cover the cost of the bills we currently owe, and all the paperwork that has to go with it. You can just have it, or I’m going to wait for the lease to run out and then close it down, and maybe put up a little sale for people to come in and buy the equipment.”

So he took it. We completed the paperwork. Then the pandemic happened. I said, “Do you still want it?” He said, “Yeah.” I think in July of 2020, we made the official transfer. Then we waited about a year until he reopened until we made the announcement. Either way, I was gone by July of 2020, and I never looked back.

He’s recently changed the name and remodeled the inside and has made it his own, which I think is a really good job. I think even though most people knew I was gone, a lot of people didn’t. They still thought it was my restaurant. So it’s completely his own now, and he’s got a great chef from Connecticut who has become a finalist in the James Beard. His name’s Christian Hunter. I’m really proud of them. I did a residency there over the winter for a couple weeks. I created a menu. This was right before the new chef started. Even going in there and working in my old restaurant, there’s not a part of me that says, “Aw. I wish this was still mine.” Not even the slightest. That’s how ready I was to be done with that chapter.

A Milkweed Weekend

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. It’s a great lesson.

When it comes to Milkweed, it says on the website, “Hang out completely off the grid. Glamp. Stargaze. Eat. Drink. Relax. Fly fish. Kayak. Hike. Dream for yourselves.” So exciting. I’ve been all over the website, my son and I both, actually. Can you walk us through what a guest experience is like at Milkweed? What’s it like to work with Anna every day together to realize this dream?

Iliana Regan: I think considering the fact that we’re together 24/7 and mostly working, especially when we’re here, we do a pretty good job. It’s definitely not easy working with your partner. We have to try to be mindful of ourselves and of each other because it’s very easy to get in some ruts and get frustrated and annoyed. Every once in a while we have to take a step back and have our little powwows and say, “Hey, I’m sorry. I was frustrated.” Then we have our moments, too, where we shine. I think that’s particularly when guests are here. I’m a little bit more introverted and she’s extroverted. I have to be so busy cooking that she gets to really make a nice guest experience. She’s really welcoming and is a chatterbox. People really enjoy being with her. It works out really well.

The guests come on Friday evenings. We meet them at a pick-up spot because it’s not an easy place to get to. We have a pick-up spot. They follow us back or they drive with us, depending on their vehicle. They get here. We do a little orientation. Then I cook seven or eight courses, family-style. A little more casual, but I do it all over the open fire.

Then they go outside afterwards around the fire where we do a bonfire with smores and digestifs. That’s usually where Anna entertains, and I am still preparing stuff for the following morning for breakfast.

The next morning, they wake up. They have pastries ready for them. Grab and go. Then I make a second breakfast around 11 [a.m.] that’s a little bit more savory. Then around one-thirty or two, I do lunch, which is two courses, usually a salad and something hearty, like a pasta. Sometimes I’ll do a little dessert with it; it just depends. About 5:30 we have a cheese charcuterie and pickle board, and Anna does cocktails. About seven-thirty or eight is when we have our main dinner, which is anywhere from ten to fifteen courses and has the wine pairings and everything.

Sunday morning at eleven, we have brunch, and we take people back out. On Saturday, most people hike. A lot of people sit around and read and sit on our deck because there is a really beautiful view of the forest. We have an ATV that people can drive around in and explore. Sometimes they forage. There’s archery and some yard games. We do have fly fishing equipment, but there’s lots of trees down in our river, so it’s not great for fishing. People have caught some little fish here and there because you can also reel fish as well. It’s not the best for it, but it can be done. There’s a lot for people to do in between meals and also just be out in nature and reconnect.

We do get people who are local, but we also get people from really far away. We’ve had people from San Diego, from L.A., from Portland, Oregon. We’ve had people from New York, all down the East Coast, Florida, Oklahoma. We’ve had people come from everywhere. Canada. It’s pretty amazing. The majority of our weekends, we have a couple from Chicago and then lots of Michiganders, lots of people from Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Kalamazoo, Trevor City. I feel like a lot of Michigan people feel their immediate connection to the U.P. It’s really opened us up to a lot more people. I will say when I was in Chicago at Elizabeth, there wasn’t a whole lot of people coming from Michigan to visit us even though we were a lot closer. But now, there’s a lot of people that come up to us all the way from lower Michigan. That’s really nice.

Most people say that it exceeds their expectations, which is really nice to hear.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s the ultimate compliment. That’s lovely. You know what it feels like? I was getting chills listening. Growing up, maybe it was my parents’ European-style, but it feels like company coming over for the weekend. When guests or family came over, they called it “company.” “Company’s coming over.” I know it’s a ton of work, but it feels like company’s coming over, and they can just relax.

Iliana Regan: They’re staying the night. We’re waking up in the mornings and they’re here. We’ve actually made a lot of friends by doing this. We have, over the years at Elizabeth. Aside from being a chef in a restaurant, I’ve taught classes and had foraging trips. I’ve had all sorts of ways to connect with my guests rather than just serving them food. This is a whole other level of that. We’ve really made some nice connections with people because of this.

The Surprise and Fear from a Successful Book

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it.

Chef, we can’t leave today without talking a little bit about your memoir, “Burn the Place.” I’ve read a lot. Have the book. It’s your life. It’s including your struggles to find a sense of belonging as a chef. It’s described, in my reading as – quote/unquote – “raw, like that first bite of a wild onion, alive with startling imagery and told with uncommon emotional power.” I read this morning, “Publisher’s Weekly” called in – and I think this is beautiful – “a blistering, yet tender memoir that chronicles one chef’s journey from foraging on her family’s farm to running her own Michelin-starred restaurant and finding her place her in the world.” I would think that deserves a high five. It’s absolutely beautiful. Would you agree with that description?

Iliana Regan: Yeah. It’s incredible. As I was writing it, I was just going for it. Things that I learned when I was an undergraduate for writing: “Write how you talk. Write about what you know.” Using some tricks here and there to string the stories together. I read a lot, so that’s another way that I’ve informed myself as a writer. I was certainly thinking about the craft of it, but mostly I was just telling my story and trying to tell it in a way that is entertaining. Just like when I’m cooking food, I’m trying to do it in a way that’s going to be nice for people visually, but also thinking about how I’m crafting it. Ultimately, wanting to make it really delicious. I was approaching the book in the same way.

When I put it out there to the world, I didn’t have any expectations of what was going to happen to it next. I thought, “Maybe some people who know me are going to read it, and people who know about Elizabeth.” But I didn’t think it would get a lot of the awards or the attention that it did. I was really just – I don’t know – I surprised myself.

It did make it a little more difficult to write the second book because getting Michelin stars or James Beards Awards, you have now this expectation of yourself that you have to meet, and then you put the pressure on. I felt that the first book I just wrote with abandon, not thinking about anything. Then the second book, as I’m writing it, it doesn’t matter. The thoughts still crept into my head even if I try to push it out. “Well, how are you going to make sure that this lives up to that?” Whether it does or not, I don’t have any control over that, but I did my best.

That book exceeded my own expectations.

The Power of Discipline

Kirk Bachmann: That’s wonderfully said and magical in many ways. There will be a lot of students that listen to our chat, and they’ll be incredibly inspired and motivated. And some might even want to follow your path. That’s not to downplay that. There’s so much behind the scenes that people don’t know. Would you have any words of advice for someone who would want to end up in a similar place?

Iliana Regan: I don’t think anybody can wait for the inspiration or motivation. A big part of what I do on a daily basis is discipline, even though it sounds like it’s all inspiring. I’m exactly in the place that I dreamed of being, but those are dreams I had when I was in my 20s and 30s. Now I’m in my 40s, and it’s a lot of hard work, and a lot of times it’s waking up. There’s a whole bounty of things outside there to forage, but sometimes, I’m like, “Okay, I’ve got to pick ticks off my body when I get back.” Then there’s a whole bunch of processing that you have to do, and cleaning things. Being a chef, doing what I do, at any point of it, even having your own restaurant, there’s a lot of unglamorous parts to it. That’s where a lot of discipline comes in.

This is a hard industry and a hard job. Sticking it out to make it, to have your own place, or to become an executive chef, there’s a lot of drive and focus and discipline that is required. I think you can do those things and do them in a way that is healthy mentally and physically. It doesn’t have to be in environments that have a negative culture or abusive culture.

Bottom line, this is not brain surgery. We’re in, essentially, the entertainment industry. This is an industry where we should be having fun and learning and growing and appreciating what we’re doing. Not banging our heads against the wall over perfection. I think that’s something to be mindful of.

Iliana Regan’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: Really good advice. I love the concept of discipline. Very well said, Chef.

Chef, the name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. My final question: in your mind – it can be a memory, or ten courses – what is the ultimate dish?

Iliana Regan: The thing that I think is probably the ultimate dish is…okay. If this was going to be my last meal, I would like to eat charred octopus with potatoes with lots of lemon and onion and peppers and olive oil.

Kirk Bachmann: You’re going to laugh! I swear I’m not making this up. I was at a Greek restaurant, of all places, in Ohio when I was with my friends at the Chef’s Garden. We had charred octopus with beautiful German butter potatoes from the farm, and lemon and herbs. It was spectacular. It was so simple.

Iliana Regan: That’s my favorite. It’s a very Spanish, Mediterranean, Greek, Italian thing. You see it a lot on all those different menus.

Kirk Bachmann: Really well done. I love it. I love it.

And thank you for your time. We’ve gone a little over. I know you’re incredibly busy. Best of luck, always. Such a beautiful conversation. Hello to Anna and the puppies. They behaved really well.

Iliana Regan: They did pretty good. This was pretty good.

Kirk Bachmann: I hope you have a great season, and thanks again for joining us.

Iliana Regan: Alright. Thank you.

Kirk Bachmann: And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. And if you can, please leave us a rating on Apple or Spotify, and subscribe to support our show. This helps us to reach more aspiring individuals ready to take the next step toward their dream careers. Thanks for listening.

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