"I shouldn't eat this," Iliana Regan says, frowning at the tiny green ramp fruits in her hand. "If it's poisonous at this stage I could be in trouble." The young plants are usually eaten in the spring; as ramps mature they flower, fruit, and then go to seed. She decides against tasting them, but takes some with her so she can try pickling them later.
It's a hot Wednesday in late June, and Regan is in a forest preserve at Foster and Cicero, foraging for wild edibles. Previous excursions to these woods and others have turned up morel mushrooms that Regan dried, ground, and made into cookies; dandelions that she turned into a custard; and garlic mustard that became a salad sponge served with goat's milk sorbet, sunflower sprout sorbet, and lemon-saffron gel. Today she's come across apple mint, some tiny wild raspberries—it's been too dry for them to grow well, she says—and Queen Anne's lace, also known as wild carrot or wild parsnip. The tiny bulbs of the plant smell like carrots (a good sign)—but, as Regan points out, "You've got to be careful. It also looks very close to water hemlock, which is how Socrates died."
Regan's hands move constantly when she talks, either gesticulating to emphasize a point or fidgeting with whatever's nearby. Though soft-spoken, she's passionate, and her words tend to come out in a rush—not in sentences but in one long, unbroken chain punctuated by profanities. In response to questions, she'll often talk for several minutes, pausing only occasionally for breath, and end with: "What was the question again?"
She cooks the way she does, she says, because that's just how she thinks about food. And she forages because the woods are her favorite place to be. "Some people like swimming and some people like ice-skating and some people like to go to the East Bank Club. I like to be in the woods. That's where my connection to God is."
A couple days after that conversation, Regan sends me a text message: "Yes woods = god. If I have children the first will be named Dakota wolf. The second will be timber birch. . . . I'm not making that shit up."
Regan is about to open her first restaurant—an ambitious and innovative one by any standards—in a city where innovation and ambition are the status quo, and where fine dining establishments lately seem to be closing as fast as they open. And while she's spent more than half of her 33 years working in restaurants, she's been at the helm of precious few kitchens besides the one in her Andersonville apartment (of course, what she's done there has been impressive).
What will likely set her apart in this hypercompetitive restaurant scene is her emphasis on foraging: it's a concept that no other Chicago restaurants and few in the U.S. have attempted. That potentially makes foraging her greatest asset—and her greatest challenge. "You can pick things in the woods, and they'll be really interesting things," says Gary Alan Fine, a sociology professor at Northwestern University and the author of Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work. "'Gee, I've never had stinkweed before. I've never had nettles. I've never had a hundred different types of mushrooms.' But the test is, can you make something with those that's not just an interesting idea but also tastes good?"
Fine has eaten at many of the world's best restaurants: El Bulli in Catalonia (now closed), the Fat Duck in Berkshire, Noma in Copenhagen, Alinea here in Chicago. With the exception of Noma, the aforementioned are all pioneers of a type of experimental cooking often called molecular gastronomy—a term that many of the chefs have rejected. In 2006, Heston Blumenthal (Fat Duck) and Ferran Adria (El Bulli) issued a joint statement with Thomas Keller (French Laundry, Per Se) declaring that "molecular gastronomy is dead."
Fine is inclined to agree. He says "molecular cuisine" is now a historical term, useful only in the way that "nouveau cuisine" is—as a way to describe what's already happened. "Early on, molecular cuisine was all about technique—what can we find that will surprise our diners, shock our diners? That was a great advance, even though not all the dishes tasted good. That's OK when you're experimenting. They were saying, let's try nitrogen here, let's try foam, sous vide, techniques that hadn't been used before."
The best chefs have taken what worked and moved on from there, Fine says, and what they're doing now is generally referred to as modernist cuisine. He compares Regan's cooking to what Phillip Foss is doing at El Ideas, Chris Nugent is doing at Goosefoot, and Curtis Duffy will presumably be doing at Grace when it opens. "They're all kind of in the postmolecular vein," he says.
Regan has come up with her own term for her food: "new gatherer cuisine," which emphasizes the role foraging plays. Though she's been inspired by Alinea, where she worked as a server, and Schwa, where she staged a few years ago, her techniques are more traditional. In some ways, Regan's cooking is more like the new Nordic cuisine exemplified by Noma, which is highly local, seasonal, and innovative.
The word "ambitious" came up again and again as I discussed Regan's upcoming restaurant, Elizabeth, with people in the industry. Scheduled to open later this month, it will offer three fixed-price menus of ten to 22 courses, at price points as high as $200. Though untested as a restaurateur, she's built a reputation locally on the beautifully intricate dishes she served for the last two and a half years at One Sister, the underground restaurant she ran out of her apartment. Fine, who ate there a couple times, says, "I thought the food was really very compelling—she's very talented."
Elizabeth will have the rare distinction of being one of four restaurants in the country to use the reservation system developed for Next, which requires people to pay up front to reserve seats—essentially buying tickets for dinner. Nick Kokonas, the business partner of Next and Alinea chef Grant Achatz, contacted Regan in August to see if she was interested in using it. "She's putting together something very unique," he says. "If you have an innovative system that you're trying to roll out to the public, you want to be associated with other innovative people and businesses." So far only Next, Alinea, and the New York restaurant NoMad use the system.