From its foraging-based approach to cuisine to the owls that decorate its nooks and crannies, few restaurants have reflected their chef-owner's personality and outlook more completely than Iliana Regan's Michelin-starred Elizabeth in Lincoln Square. Named after Regan's late sister, the restaurant is intended to be like a tea party in the woods (as Regan told the Reader before the opening). The announcement that she's kicking herself upstairs and appointing a chef de cuisine with a considerable degree of authority over her restaurant is a bit surprising. But as she explains the decision to put San Francisco chef Aaron Martinez in charge of Elizabeth, it makes sense why she responded to his sensibility—and she hopes that Elizabeth will only get better as she moves to oversee both it and her new bakery, Bunny, and its pop-up space, Wunder POP, in Lakeview.
With the demands of multiple locations, Regan originally planned to hire a sous chef—someone with the authority to execute her menu on a day-to-day basis. Martinez had worked for and foraged at In de Wulf in Belgium, as well as working at San Francisco's acclaimed Quince (where Sixteen chef Thomas Lents also spent time), and most recently at Oakland's Commis, which has a similar tasting menu format. Martinez recently moved to Chicago and has been working for the last few months as a consultant for Lettuce Entertain You; along the way he did a pop-up at Elizabeth. Regan was impressed enough that she decided to shift her view of what she was looking for and hired Martinez not only to oversee the kitchen but, as the title chef de cuisine implies, take an active role in devising the menu. At first that will mean recipe development for spring and summer menus that are already set, including the Game of Thrones-themed menus she's planning, but will become more collaborative in devising the full menu over time.
For Martinez, who hopes to open his own restaurant on similar lines to Elizabeth over time, it's a chance to experience that kind of operation firsthand—and also to learn the food that grows, cultivated and foraged alike, in the midwest. I spoke separately with Regan and Martinez separately (but merged the interviews into one conversation) about this change and what it means for her—and for Elizabeth as an extension of her personality. Tomorrow I'll speak with Regan and one of her cooks about one of the first examples diners will see of one of the things that prompted this decision: the ramen pop-up that will inaugurate Wunder POP.
Michael Gebert: You've got, really, three projects happening at once soon. Did that much activity kind of force you to find someone to help run Elizabeth?
Iliana Regan: Yeah, I might have a little ADD! Since all of that's going to be happening and it's a big project and it's like Elizabeth where I run the entire place, I’m going to be taking that aspect over at these restaurants, too, where I do the social media and pay our sales taxes and payroll and everything else. And essentially having to be an executive chef at a new place all over again. So for the first time I'm hiring a chef de cuisine.
Aaron did a pop-up here on March 6. I saw his menu beforehand; that was part of the requirement, just send me your menu and let's see what it's like. And he did, and he started coming in and prepping items, and even his prep was just beautiful and immaculate. The day he did his pop-up he was working with the staff on teaching them some of the things that he needed to be done, and they were really receptive to him. And when he actually plated the food and I tasted it, I found myself asking him a lot of, "How did you do this? How did you do that?" I was just really intrigued by it, but also I just loved the aesthetic and felt like it was a really good fit for us. We're very like-minded and, honestly, there was some of his food that I thought, this guy is way better than me.
While I was planning all of this I was thinking [that] I already have the spring menu made up, I already have our summer menu made, I'll hire a strong sous chef to implement things while I'm not here during the day. And I'll come here in the evenings just to make sure things are going well and because I think that's an important part of Elizabeth; people like to see me here. Most people who come here probably don't have a clue who I am, they just think I'm another server who also works in the kitchen, but then there's people who definitely know who I am and they expect me to be here.
With this guy, I saw the opportunity—I wasn't planning on doing it, but I said, wow, this is a great opportunity. He was trying to establish himself here; his fiancee's family is from Saint Louis so they picked this as the city to settle in. He's had some really great experience at places with a focus on seasonality and terroir. I feel like seasonality isn't something they have so much in California, they have everything all the time. But he's really excited about doing it out here. He had actually contacted me prior to him doing the pop-up because he was really interested in what happens when the summer months come and the spring—what is there to go out and find, and what farmers should I be looking to use stuff from?
For Lettuce, he was in the running for one of the menus for Intro, but I think he thought that the food he wanted to do isn't so easily prepared for a hundred people. And this was a good fit for him because he eventually wants to have a small place like this, so I said that was part of the draw, because he could find out what it's really like to have a small place and coach him through that, because you can't hire PR and you can't really pay for a front-of-the-house manager and you really have to do everything yourself.
So I'm really excited about that, and he's going to start implementing the Game of Thrones menu right away. He's not as big of a fan [of the show] as I am, but I have the menu written and he will work on developing some of the recipes and implementing some of the aesthetics.
A while ago I asked Homaro Cantu [Moto, Berrista], because I knew he started working on other things and I knew that he had hired an executive chef, and I asked him, "How does that process work?" He said, when the guy comes in that is better than us, that's better than me, I turn to my staff and I say, OK, this is our new boss. I guess that's how he felt about Richie Farina, and I had that moment when Aaron came in and I thought, I want to learn from this guy.
Aaron, tell me about how all this happened from your side.
Aaron Martinez: Well, I did the pop-up at Elizabeth and it went really well. I think her style, my style, we have pretty much the same kind of sensibility. We make food on the same lines.
When I worked at In de Wulf, it was a place that had a similar style and had the same foraging aspect to the food. In San Francisco we didn't have the foraging aspect and we cooked very different things, but Commis was very much on the same lines of a tasting-menu restaurant and had the same style. So it felt like a good fit.
California, needless to say, has a very different climate and idea of what's local and when than the midwest. How will you adapt to the seasons here?
Martinez: Well, I know you have to do a lot of preserving and pickles and fermentation—all these things that are a big new trend but have been around for so long, that people in Nordic countries have always done. I never saw the climate as a problem when I was working in Europe, because that's what everyone has always done there. Everything in food there has a time and a place on the table. So I'll keep with that philosophy, and explore it a little more with Iliana—two heads are better than one.
This move surprised me, Iliana, when you told me about it, because if any restaurant is a reflection of someone's personality, it's Elizabeth. Didn't you have qualms about backing away from a place so identified with you personally?
Regan: That's one of the things that I've been thinking about a lot. But at the same time, I felt that he and I were so very similar, and I collaborate so much with my staff now—I say, here's the thing I think we should do. Here's this dish I want to make. What do you guys think we should do with this or what if we did this? It's always a collaborative staff effort, and I think with Aaron, once he starts developing even more dishes, I still think the personality will be there because essentially I'm going to be here in every other aspect, I'm just not going to be managing my kitchen on a day-to-day basis.
Which actually right now I don't; I'm just crossing my fingers that I hope they're doing what they're supposed to be doing, because I'm so busy with other things [getting Bunny/Wunder POP ready]. I think [hiring an executive chef] is also moving in a direction that I've been thinking about, which is—I think none of these places, Elizabeth or Wunder POP or Bunny, is something that's going to make us all a ton of money. They're all passion projects, I just wound up opening more passion projects. So while I'm doing it and working a lot of hours, I want to have a lot of fun. I want my staff to have a lot of fun.
One of the things I've thought about is, how do people who are restaurateurs, how does somebody like Paul Kahan create so many restaurants and yet they all feel like you're at Paul Kahan's restaurant? Because you know at Dove's Luncheonette that he's not back there cooking the food, or Big Star, and yet when I'm there I feel like I'm at his restaurant. So that's the goal, and when I ran across Aaron I thought that when people come into Elizabeth and have his food, or his food and my food combined, they're going to still feel like they're at Iliana Regan's restaurant.
What was it about his food that made you think it was a step up?
Regan: I think the extraction of flavor. I think that's the thing that we as a team at Elizabeth are still striving for, like how do we take this one idea and really enhance it and get the most out of it? And everything that I tasted from his menu really popped. Like, he had an oyster course that had a creme fraiche mousse and a dill oil and a Granny Smith apple granita over the top. I've made many different oyster courses over the past several years and when I had that dish I was like, "I wish I'd made that."
And then the question was, how did he get that granita to taste so good? Because we've also made Granny Smith sorbets, but they weren't that good. So that was what was going on in my mind, that I could learn a lot from this guy. I'm sure I could have figured some of it out, but there's an extra layer of flavor extraction that I thought, I want at my restaurant.
Obviously if there's things that I don't think are a good fit—I don't want to see avocados all over the menu, like you would in California. But I think the philosophies he learned at In de Wulf and Commis are ones we share here, so it may just be that when he's thinking of menus we may have to subtract some things and I’ll think of some things because of our different knowledges of the land.
He's also really excited to learn about some of the gathered items here, which he had some experience doing in In de Wulf. So I think my personality will still come through in the ingredients that I gather, and I bring them to him and we say, what can we do with it to really make it shine? I think that's the other fun part.
Aaron, you'll be out in front of customers, really on stage cooking at Elizabeth. Is that something you're used to?
Martinez: You know, Quince wasn't, but Commis in Oakland was a similar style with an open kitchen—in fact even more so, because we had a chef's counter with six seats, close enough that they could touch us. All eyes are on you, so everything has to be perfect, down to how your chef's coat is pressed.
It's nerve-racking. I told myself I would never do it again. But after a while I kind of missed it—I missed having that direct connection to customers, seeing people eat and get excited. You can see their faces as they eat your food, which is kind of a mindfuck experience, you know? It’s kind of fun to be that close to the dinner.
This is definitely the kind of restaurant I want to have for myself, so this is an exciting opportunity for me to be able to do this.
Iliana, do you feel like Elizabeth needed a refreshing in any way, that people felt that it was kind of a been there, done that thing?
Regan: I don't think so, because I think the people who know of us and come back multiple times like to follow the evolution. My food is evolving, it's true, I am one of the newer chefs and I haven't already had fifteen years of being a chef behind me, I've had a lot of cooking experience. But if I took my first three menus, and took all the elements of all those dishes and recreated them again, they'd be entirely different. Conceptually, the way the recipes were formulated, the way it was cooked, the way it was plated—we definitely evolve over time.
I don't think we needed that by any means, but . . . I think that I needed that. Because I want to make Wunder POP and Bunny just as appealing, even in their casual senses, as Elizabeth is to people. And I know that the only way that we are going to remain very, very good is by me having in the kitchen someone who has a similar philosophy, has a similar aesthetic, and can manage the staff during the day. But who has enough investment in the food, because it's partly his, that by the end I'm extremely happy and he's extremely happy.
Tomorrow: previewing the ramen at Wunder Pop