Michelin-Star Chef and Author Iliana Regan on Closing Her Restaurant And Learning To Cook At Home
Iliana Regan is the owner and founder of Elizabeth, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago, and the author of Burn the Place, a National Book Award-longlisted memoir. Get her recipe for sourdough bread here.
9 a.m. ET: I pour my first cup of coffee and go outside. I open the screen door and the dogs burst through the morning air. I see a family of deer leap through a small clearing into the woods. I scan the ground for ramps and morels. They’ll be here in the middle of nowhere, Indiana, any day now. Soon the trees will have oyster mushrooms. fiddlehead ferns are still coiled tight and unruly Japanese knotweed is ready to pick. I keep my eyes open.
Under a grove of pines, the ground is soft from collected pine needles. I take off my shoes and walk barefoot, watching carefully so I don’t step in coyote sh*t, which our dogs’ clever noses always find. I shoo them away from any such rubbish as they trot and then flop down beside me. I plan lunch and dinner as Anna, my wife, still sleeps.
We left Chicago the day after our governor ordered all non-essential businesses, including our 20-seat restaurant, Elizabeth, to shutter. The day after I got inseminated for the second time. The timing is not great, you see, and Anna asked me if this is what we should be doing. No, of course it’s not what we should be doing, but each month that passes is another month I’m less likely to get pregnant. You feel old when your pregnancy, if it happens, is classified as geriatric.
Our days are now centrifugally spun around these events: lunch and dinner. It’s like when we are at our cabin, Milkweed Inn, which is also far from any city life, even further than where we are now, quarantined at her parents’ junkyard while they do their snowbird thing. There’s no Uber Eats, Grubhub, or Postmates. We are wary of anything that others have touched, not to mention companies that gouge small businesses. Here we make everything from scratch. I open a small note pad:
- Make sourdough.
- Feed starter.
- Rice and grain bowls with egg yolk.
- Brine chicken for fried chicken, use the bones to make stock, use the leftovers for chicken salad.
- Pasta e fagioli.
- French onion soup.
- Tuna salad.
- Steak and asparagus.
- Stuffed manicotti.
The quarantine strangles resources and finances with long slender fingers, so I regularly take inventory of the cabinets and refrigerator. The goal is to leave the house only once every 10 days or more. Quarantine has provided time to homestead. Soon I’ll till the garden and plant lettuces, radish, carrots, beets, nasturtiums, anything that will come up fast. The warm weather has just begun so these things will be ready in no time.
Anna and I share the cooking. You’d think she’s really lucky being married to a Michelin-star chef, but before quarantine I was happy to microwave a frozen dinner. After working all day, I don’t usually want to cook. But the quarantine version of me has proven to be very useful. I’ve dramatically improved my home cooking skills. Turns out I’m pretty good at this. I slow down, take my time, put as much thought and effort into our daily meals as I once did at the restaurant.
Anna is already a great home cook. She cuts everything into perfectly small pieces, flips through cookbooks for new ideas, reads recipes carefully and improvises. I dutifully provide a loaf of sourdough bread for us every day. I began a new starter while in quarantine and on Day 20 the fragrance is like unripe fruit. (You may have experienced the empty shelves of the grocery store where flour used to live. We may all emerge from this crisis with a belly made of 99% gluten.) Many of our meals revolve around the sourdough. A slice of it with everything. On the days it’s fresh from the oven, whatever we cook — steak, vegetables, eggs, salad — just gets piled on top of it.
We’re set about half a mile back from Highway 24. There’s less traffic now than when we first arrived. The motorcycles growl past. The powerful Harley Davidson motors shake the ground. I think of the biker gangs that run drugs or guns. Maybe the motorcycle guys of this rural countryside are running black-market PPE for the hospitals. One can hope, right? With all this time to yourself, the imagination can run wild or paranoia can set in. The slightest cough might mean death. You’re afraid of a run to the store. When people walk past you, you hold your breath. You close your eyes because you read that’s also where it can get you.
Between us and the highway, where semis carry precious cargo like farm animals and silver cylinders of flammable materials, is a car graveyard. There’s a least 1,000 cars between us and them. If it were the end of the world, like it seems some days, this junkyard would be the place to be. In 2018, Elizabeth hosted a zombie apocalypse-themed dinner here. Robert, Anna’s stepdad, created a dining room for us out of crushed cars. A large white oak tree stood in the center with a long dining room table welded out of scrap metal and hubcaps. It was epic.
The idea was that if it were the end of the world, you’d have to fend for yourself by finding and hunting your food. I served bluegill that I fished from the pond. We grilled the legs of bullfrogs over an open fire with a salsa made from wild greens. Anna begged me to catch the frogs rather than gig them. (To gig a frog, one person stuns them by shining a flashlight in their eyes while the other spears them through the backside with a prolonged staff.) So that’s what I did; I quietly crept around the pond at night, sneaked up behind each fat bullfrog and caught them in my hands. Maybe you won’t believe me, but it’s true. Anna says this way is less torture for them to endure. I mean, I still chop their heads off, but the results are a swift death. For salad, I served foraged greens and fresh lettuce from Sue’s garden. Sue is her mom. As a side dish, I grilled cattails from the pond. Dessert was wild strawberries sprinkled with elderflowers and a sweet cream made from violets.
We worry about the fate of Elizabeth; we barely hang on as it is. We worry about our colleagues and employees who are in this with us, the small restaurants and mom-and-pop shops that create the culture of our cities and towns. But I’m more worried about the safety of my immuno-suppressed wife. I’m worried about my mother, who is doing chemo, and my sister Nina, who is a nurse in the medical ICU at the University of Chicago Hospital. She texted me a picture wearing a face mask, shield, hair wrap, and gown with a caption that read, “I feel claustrophobic in all this gear.” When so many are faced with potential sickness and death, there’s new priorities. Sure, I’d like to have my restaurant back someday, but I want my family more.
After 12 days in quarantine, we find the insemination did not take. This is life, not unfamiliar to us. We will eventually try again.
Among 20 acres of land, ponds, trees, cars, trucks, broken engines and transmissions, mufflers, and flat tires, it’s quite beautiful. The song of crickets, cicadas, birds, geese, and even the screeching coyotes replace the white noise of sirens, horns, and the clunky chaos of the city. These critters never quiet and it reminds me that we aren’t completely in hell and we aren’t alone. Each morning I open my eyes with a panicked feeling that I’m forgetting something. Anxiety breaks in my head, telling me I must hurry up and go, I’m late. I feel like when I used to black out drink and I had to piece together how I got here. I blink a few times and realize I’m in my in-laws’ bed. I will not get up to go to work, will not answer work emails, run payroll, do prep work, accept orders, go to therapy or the bank, or work on our upcoming menu. Everything has become so surreal; any semblance of control or power over my life has vanished. The universe is now in charge.
I have a few cups of coffee, then feed my starter.
Read Iliana Regan’s guide to making sourdough bread here.
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