Thursday, June 23, 2016 12:01 am
In the kitchen at Chicago’s Elizabeth
Vegetable-packed and protein-rich nutrition
Among this year’s 11 honorees is Chicago chef Iliana Regan. Chef Regan’s four-year-old restaurant, Elizabeth, has already been awarded a Michelin star three years in a row, earning its first star in its second year of operation. Chef Regan has also been named a semifinalist for the 2016 James Beard Awards. The James Beard Awards are the Oscars of the food world.
Elizabeth restaurant is in an unmarked storefront in an unattractive commercial area in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood. The entrance is marked only by pictures of an owl, deer and diamond. On my first visit I walked past it three times before finding it. Elizabeth is small, seating only 24 people. The brightly lit open kitchen occupies about a fourth of the total dining room. The dining room is understated with a whitewashed tin ceiling and walls. There are no servers. Each of the 17 small courses of the fixed-price tasting menu is brought to your table by the chef who prepared it.
Instead of making a reservation, diners purchase a ticket online for the tasting menu. This innovative approach allows careful control of food costs and eliminates “no-shows.” Ticket prices vary with the time and day, ranging from $105 for off-peak hours to $165 for peak times. As of the time of this writing, the first available time slots are for October.
Elizabeth is noteworthy on several counts. Restaurant startups, especially in big cities, are financially risky endeavors and require significant financial backing to survive the early days. Elizabeth evolved out of “underground” dinners that Chef Regan hosted in her apartment on weekends. Her unique cuisine garnered a loyal following that allowed her to open and prosper in a brick-and-mortar establishment.
Chef Regan characterizes her approach as “New Gatherer” cuisine, with a focus on hunting and foraging for many of her ingredients. Though foraging is trendy these days, as championed by Chef René Redzepi at Noma, his world-renowned restaurant in Copenhagen, Chef Regan’s approach is derived from her upbringing in northern Indiana where she hunted and foraged in her grandfather’s woods. “Everything ties to something reminiscent of where I grew up.” Her menus include such things as bear jerky atop puffed wild rice, deer heart dusted with olive oil powder, and mushroom tea made from foraged hen of the woods mushrooms.
Chef Regan’s path to culinary stardom is also unconventional. She is not a graduate of culinary school. Though she worked in restaurants during high school and college, she developed her culinary artistry through on-the-job experiences at some of Chicago’s top cutting-edge establishments, working with such notables as Alinea’s Grant Achatz and Schwa’s Michael Carlson. To raise money for her restaurant she sold pierogis at farmers markets and hosted her underground dinners.
I’ve always held a fascination for what goes on behind the swinging doors of restaurant kitchens. I’ve begged my way into the kitchens of the late Jean Banchet’s legendary La Francais, Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Chicago’s Charlie Trotter’s. In the opening scene of the movie My Best Friend’s Wedding, the late chef Charlie Trotter (who plays himself) is screaming at his cooks as they prepare a dish for a food critic, played by Julia Roberts. “I will kill your whole family if you don’t get this right! I need this perfect!” This fictionalized death threat parallels my personal experience. While on a tour of Charlie Trotter’s kitchen, I witnessed the legendary chef scream at a line cook: “It’s my name on your f***ing paycheck and you damn well better do it the way I tell you!”
During my first visit to Elizabeth I was impressed at how relaxed everyone was. I asked the sous chef if the atmosphere in this Michelin-starred restaurant was always this calm and he assured me it was. This prompted me to ask Chef Regan if I could do a “stage” in her restaurant. A “stage” is derived from the French word “stagiaire,” meaning unpaid trainee. I explained to her that working in a fine restaurant was high on my bucket list. I also told her I was a bit slow, but worked quietly and neatly and knew how to keep out of the way. She graciously accepted my request.
I nervously arrived for my first day as a stagiaire dressed in my chef’s whites toting my knife kit. I could tell by the looks in their eyes that I was not what the 20-something kitchen crew was expecting. I was almost triple the age of everyone working for Chef Regan. I made an impressive first impression by cutting my finger as I opened up my knife kit.
My first task was to pick through tiny burgundy oxalis leaves with tweezers (just like the ones I use in my dental office) and lay them out neatly on a damp towel. Having successfully accomplished this job, I graduated to carefully pouring buttermilk panna cotta into clear glass bowls and carrying them to the cooler on a sheet tray without sloshing up the sides. This I accomplished less neatly. The sous chef had to clean up the insides of my bowls.
Unlike the tension and yelling I experienced previously in professional kitchens, the atmosphere here was almost serene. The chefs were all polite to each other and kept their work areas meticulously clean. Chef Regan spoke in a soft voice, calmly giving detailed instructions.
Chef Regan handed me written instructions for my next project. I whisked egg whites, melted butter, squid ink, powdered sugar and flour in a stand mixer. I submitted my tarry-looking batter for approval. I asked her what I had just made. “Squid ink tuiles to be made into little ice cream cones for sea urchin ice cream with fish sauce caramel.” I never would have guessed! The batter was spooned into round templates atop a silpat mat and baked until black pizzelle-like wafers developed. While still warm, the tuiles were rolled into little cones.
The time passed quickly, all the evening’s prep accomplished. Attention shifted to readying the dining room for the night’s dinner service. I packed my knives and said goodbye. I went back to my hotel to soak in a hot bath to sooth my aching back and reflect upon my day as a prep cook in one of America’s top restaurants.
This fall Peter Glatz will be on assignment in the woods of northern Indiana with Chef Regan to hunt for mushrooms and gig for frogs. He will take a pass on the bear hunt.