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Iliana Regan, the forager

'How can I serve things in my my home that people compare to some of the best restaurants in the world?'


Regan, 32, is a forager and the creator of the underground supper club One Sister.

I'm originally from northwest Indiana, a small town right between Hobart and Merrillville on a little country road. My grandparents had a 100-acre farm. That land is amazing—it has this sandy, loamy soil. It has beautiful birch trees and oak trees, basically everything you need to forage all year round. My grandfather had his gardens and tons of woods. On the trail that led into them there would be berries and mushrooms. There was sheep's head and honeycaps in the fall, chanterelles in the summer, and morels in the spring.

I have a course where I put a big old heirloom cast-iron pot that I have from my family in the center of the table, and it's filled with foraged juniper branches that I steam oysters in. While they're steaming they fill up the whole room with the scent of juniper, so it smells like Christmas.

I have four to six dinners a month, and I host eight to 12 people at a time. It's 18 courses. I don't have the luxury of a restaurant, where you look at a sheet and say, "Oh, I'll order this and this." I go to the farmers' market. I grow 95 percent of every single garnish I put on my dishes. I have one dish that's 80 percent homegrown.

I've worked in restaurants since I was 15. I worked in the back of the house till I was 21, and then I started working in the front of the house at Trio and Alinea. I was inspired. I've always wanted a restaurant, but I thought it would be something I'd do later in life, like, after I'm a famous novelist or something. But, uh, that is not gonna happen.

Then I was like, "You know what? I have absolute faith in myself that I can do my own menus." I had been going to kitchens that would let me work for free—restaurants like Schwa and L2O. That's how I implemented the techniques I was seeing at Alinea and Trio. I didn't have the experience of modern cooking. I knew how to cook for volume. I knew how to cook fast. My modern cooking was all self-taught.

My menus take about 50 hours. I'm including going out to buy everything. I usually start on Tuesdays. I end on Saturdays after the dinner. I do it all by myself, but I do have a server and a dishwasher because I want it to feel like a restaurant in my home. I want people to have water filled, I want their wine poured, I want new silverware.

I have a regular kitchen with a four-burner stove. I don't have a Pacojet to make smooth sorbets. I don't have an immersion circulator. I don't have a centrifuge. But I do have clear consommes. I do cook sous vide. And I do have very palatable soft ice creams and sorbets. It was a lot of being creative. How can I do this without having millions of dollars of equipment, serving things in my home that people compare to some of the best restaurants in the world? I have customers that say, "When we're in Chicago we come to One Sister, and when we're in Denmark, we go to Noma."

I don't want to pigeonhole myself, because I'm gay—I don't want people saying, "She's a man hater!" But the thing is, it's so hard getting investors as a woman. If I was a guy, I know by now someone would be like, "Yeah, dude, here's the money. Rock on." Especially if I was a guy who had a drug problem. I want something small, something that's 20 or 25 seats, not much bigger than what I do now in my home. I'm not looking to sell cookbooks or be famous. I just want to have a little restaurant.

My older sister died when I was 22, so when I do open a restaurant, I'm going to call it Elizabeth, which is her name. My dream is to have a 20-acre farm with a nice little country house on it with four rooms, where people can come at noon and there's meats and butters and cheeses, and they can go retire to the little reading room. Or they can come on a foraging trip and pick out the things we're going to have for dinner. And then I create a nice, big multicourse meal for them, all in one room, and then they stay the night. And I would like to have a little teeny cottage in the woods, and that's where I would live. —As told to Kate Schmidt

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