Iliana Regan, the chef behind beloved Chicago restaurants Elizabeth and Kitsune, as well as Bunny Bakery, divulges her origin story in her new memoir Burn the Place, released by Agate Publishing in Evanston Tuesday, July 16. It begins on a farm in Indiana where Regan grew up with her parents and three older sisters. In addition to her earliest memories of learning to forage and cook the mushrooms, milkweed and other ingredients she found in the woods and fields of Indiana, the book chronicles the formation of Regan's identity as a lesbian and a woman as well as her struggle with alcoholism and foray into entrepreneurship after coming up in Chicago's restaurant scene.
Concurrent with the launch of her book, Regan is in the process of relocating to Michigan's Upper Peninsula with her wife, sommelier Anna Regan, to open the Milkweed Inn. Guests will enjoy Regan's gourmet new-gatherer creations and enjoy hiking, fishing, kayaking and relaxing at the glamping-style bed-and-breakfast.
Regan will briefly return to Chicago to celebrate her book launch at Women and Children First Thursday, August 1 with a reading, signing and conversation with Louisa Chu, Chicago Tribune Food & Dining reporter and co-host of the Chewing podcast.
Chicagoans may recognize some of the restaurants Regan worked at in various roles and the streets and bars she caroused in between work and engineering classes. Regan became known for the pierogis she sold at farmer's markets and stores in Chicago, then hosted her first underground dinners at her home in the city and studied fiction writing at Columbia College.
Windy City Times: You could have written an entire book centered around any one of your main topics. What are the advantages of combining your stories about gender and sexuality, food culture and cooking influences, and alcoholism into one book?
Iliana Regan: You are right. Definitely could have made several books on each however, it was a one-book deal so I combined my life as best I could into one. The story is ultimately about me and all things that represent who I am today.
WCT: What do you hope that people will take away from the book regarding sexuality and gender identity?
IR: I hope that people find some relief, from anyone who is struggling to perhaps confused. Hopefully they'll find that there is no set definition and they don't have to conform or put themself in a box or be any one thing or identity.
WCT: There are a lot of people in this book. Did you approach many of them during the writing process to talk about their role in your story, or did you just say "everything goes?"
IR: I had talked with my editor at length about my story and the others within it. I didn't talk to anyone about their role except my wife. Any person we thought who's identity we should protect we changed the names so that I could write the story to the best of my memory.
WCT: Cooking, entrepreneurship, and writing can all be really unstable careers, but you've found ways to thrive in them. Did you ever feel pressured to "get a normal job," and what drives you to keep going during tough times and take leaps of faith?
IR: I thrive in the chaos and sometimes it feels like way too much. I still feel as if I'm just below the surface of finding balance but that is my current goal. I want to combine more of how I want to live in tandem with my career, because at the rate I go, it's not sustainable. However, I could never have a "normal" job. That's not who I am.
WCT: You said in another interview that you hire intentionally to create a diverse kitchen and underrepresentation for chefs is something being discussed right now. What would you say to queer people pursuing a career in the Chicago fine-dining world?
IR: Keep going and make space because there are a lot of us. We need to be seen and heard. We need to be open and honest and not afraid of what others think because it doesn't matter. If you set a goal and learn how to take rejection and criticism and learn from it and not let it get you down, you can do anything.
Burn the Place is available in hardcover for $25. The Book Launch Party will take place at Women and Children First Bookstore Thursday, Aug. 1 at 7 p.m.