"I pull most of my inspiration from nature and natural elements; the woods change depending on the season, and I love to use whatever nuts, seeds and mushrooms I can find at any given time of year," Iliana Regan says.
You'll see the Michelin-starred chef at Chicago's Elizabeth restaurant plenty—she wears just about every hat there, from social media maven to host—but it's her time spent out-of-doors that makes her cooking there special.
Regan is part of a new generation of foragers; she's called her style of finding things in the wild and cooking them "New Gatherer cuisine" in the past. We nabbed her before she opens her second project, a teensy bakery she's christened Bunny, to talk about how she creates her elegant, high-concept tasting menus.
To do so, she leaves Chicago far behind: The majority of the ingredients she employs are gathered by her own hands, such as wild onions, stinging nettles and milkweed flowers, often from the fertile woods and fields of Jasper-Pulaski nature preserve in Northwestern Indiana—some 90 miles southeast of Lincoln Square. They're turned into dishes like smoked vegetable jerky, fermented grains and beef heart, and smoked buttermilk and corn pies.
"Ninety percent of the menu is local," she explains, "so I incorporate seasonal—and often foraged—ingredients and pickling to keep the focus largely Midwestern."
One of the dishes she's become known for, fried hen-of-the-woods mushrooms served with garlic aioli (see the recipe), stemmed from a childhood spent outdoors—and bringing back the treasures she found there.
"When I was young, we'd go out on my grandfather's farm and hunt maitakes we'd call sheep's head mushrooms and bring them home to my mother," Regan says. "She would then dredge them in flour and shallow-fry them in butter with salt and pepper for us. This recipe, which is served with berries, greens and garlic aioli, is inspired by that childhood memory."
The mushrooms are exactly what we're craving right now: meaty, but not meat, with plenty of richness from the aioli and a hit of acid from dressed micro greens.
At the restaurant, Regan dredges the mushrooms in acorn flour, but home cooks can substitute rye flour to get some of that nutty taste. Regan ties it all together: "The sheep's head mushrooms form symbiotic relationships with oak trees—which produce acorns."
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