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Why did superstar chef Iliana Regan open a Bed and Breakfast in the middle of nowhere?

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When Iliana Regan bought the Milkweed Inn in Michigan’s Nahma Township with her wife, Anna Hamlin, in 2019, she was looking for a home. One might assume that the critically acclaimed founding chef of Chicago’s Michelin-starred restaurant Elizabeth might be feeling too isolated at Milkweed; the 150-acre property sits deep in the Hiawatha National Forest, a wide strip of land where three Great Lakes meet on the US-Canada border. But it was here that the couple put down roots, intending to run the bed-and-breakfast for 12 guests for the six months of the year when the dirt road leading to the rustic cabin wasn’t buried under lake-effect snow.

Also in 2019, Regan’s early memoir, burn the place down which became entangled with her childhood, alcoholism and the path to becoming a chef, she was long-listed for the National Book Award. (The last food writer named a finalist was Julia Child, in 1979.) Regan then earned a Master of Fine Arts in writing from the Art Institute of Chicago, attending classes largely remotely from the Upper Peninsula between hikes and chores at the Milkweed Inn, which she and Hamlin opened in 2020 at the weekends. The scents, ingredients, and cooking techniques she used to attract followers to Milkweed fill the pages of Regan’s latest memoir, Field work, documenting his childhood in northern Indiana and his adult search for the comforts and familiarity of home. Each of Regan’s books describes the turmoil within her life with security and vulnerability: her swing between sobriety and addiction, her three marriages, her six consecutive Michelin stars, and the death of her beloved sister Elizabeth, for whom she was named. the chicago restaurant .

Regan has become a benchmark for modern American cuisine: she has been profiled and reviewed by The New Yorker, Lucky Peach, Y The New York Times. And the inn is a smashing success, usually selling out a season in advance. Combining foraged ingredients with cooking techniques from East Asia, Eastern Europe and the Midwest, his style is uniquely American. Regan, who never attended culinary school, discovered her knack for cooking from her as a child. “When I worked at some fancy restaurants, I knew more about seasonality and what certain foods were than a lot of the chefs, just from growing up around them,” she told me.

Regan at LaBagh Woods in Chicago (Photo: Jeff Marini)
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The 43-year-old was raised in Merillville, Indiana, a suburb of Chicago, on a ten-acre farm in a working-class family. There he learned about the color, taste, smell, and toxicity of black walnuts. He observed the crooked posture of certain mushrooms and discovered that not all of them were edible. He ate homemade ferments and Maruchan ramen noodles. The last of four daughters, she was cunning from an early age. “A lot of attention was paid to where the wild plants were and what they were doing, when they flowered and when they matured,” she says. “So every time I go out looking for food on a trail, I have to constantly be looking at what is available.”

Regan’s great-grandmother ran a popular restaurant in town, and although it closed before she was born, Regan considers cooking to be her birthright. “All my sisters are very good cooks, my mom is a good cook and my dad is a good cook,” she says. “Even if I tried not to, this could have been the outcome, it was going to happen no matter what.”

Regan began her exposure to cooking when she was 15 years old, and during her college years she worked in some of Chicago’s most celebrated restaurants. She also sold pierogi and microgreens at farmers markets, and in 2010 she began hosting a supper club in her apartment. Her success attracted investors, who backed the launch of Elizabeth in 2012. Regan’s delicate but also playful cooking earned her food and wine the magazine’s prestigious Best New Chef accolade in 2016. After the closure of a second short-lived restaurant and bakery in 2019, Milkweed presented itself as a refuge from the daily grind. In 2020, she transferred ownership of Elizabeth to two of her employees and committed to her new venture 350 miles north. “I came here to the woods because I always wanted to do something that felt a little more sustainable,” Regan says. “It just made sense to cook for ten people a week instead of 150.”

“I came here to the forest because I always wanted to do something that felt a little more sustainable. It just made sense to cook for ten people a week instead of 150.”

At Milkweed, a plethora of meals are presented to pilgrimage guests for a $750-a-person weekend of fish, forage and fermented dishes cooked by Regan in the cabin’s small kitchen. When diners arrive on Friday, she builds a large outdoor fire, then conjures up the entire first meal using different parts of the fire. Her goal has been to prepare “as much as possible, and use as little as possible, and search as much as possible.” In the process, the menus have been transformed into something woven from the earth. One recent night she watched her serve up a plate of young milkweed pods, fried and served with ketchup made from chokecherries.

While cooking for her guests, Regan finished Field work. “I write outdoors, even in winter,” she says. “I have as much attention deficit as anyone else. When I’m outside, I’m a little less distracted.” Field work’The vivid and extensive descriptions of foraging persist in the often overlooked connections between people and the great outdoors. Regan spends several pages detailing the sensory memories associated with a single moment in the woods, like mushroom picking with her father, uncovering powerful memories related to coming of age, trauma, and a sense of home.

Childhood impressions of the farm maintained by her parents, sisters, and close-knit extended family have been elusive to Regan as an adult. “I’m still looking for that feeling. If I die and go to heaven, it will be that farm. I guess that’s my place,” she says. Despite cooking in Chicago for the better part of 20 years, she now thinks of that city as a place she was just “passing through.” Putting down roots in Milkweed helped ground her, she says, satisfying a nagging longing for a point of origin. “I’m still that place, although now I’m also a bit of this.”

Buy ‘Field work’