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Acclaimed chef Iliana Regan finds a sense of belonging in the forest

Chef Iliana Regan, pictured in 2019. She and her wife, Anna Regan, opened up their rustic cabin in Michigan's Upper Peninsula to guests who will get an all-inclusive food and wine experience. (Kendra Stanley-Mills for The Washington Post)

There’s a video on chef Iliana Regan’s Milkweed Inn TikTok account. She’s driving in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and sharing the view from her Jeep. Paper birch and jack pines pass in a blur, and light shimmers as the sun rises. The slide guitar and banjo twang of Neko Case’s “Magpie to the Morning” play — a fitting anthem. It’s a wholesome and joyful view of the wilderness Regan calls home. You’ll wish you were in the passenger seat. That desire doubles after reading her new memoir, “Fieldwork.”

“(It’s true that) what I’m doing here is trying to give people something like the feeling of what I experienced as a child. Being in an untamed place yet feeling safe and nourished,” Regan writes.

Regan’s first book, “Burn the Place,” is a woman’s coming-of-age story. She scrabbles to find her reason for being. The journey led to a stunning career in professional kitchens where Regan won public admiration and a Michelin star for her restaurant, Elizabeth, in Chicago.

Fieldwork” is about how Regan came to foraging, and how she and her wife, Anna, transformed a remote camp in Michigan into the Milkweed Inn. If the first book was about finding herself, the everlasting beauty in “Fieldwork” is the sense of belonging.

“I feel as creatively satisfied writing as I do cooking,” she says.

Breaking from the confines of memoir, Regan characterizes her current book as “auto-fiction.” While out foraging one day, she conjures a great-grandmother she never knew, Busia, whose life runs astonishingly parallel to Regan’s — she ran a remote inn in Poland and a restaurant in America.

“Busia and I entered the forest. She and I went alone, nearly a century apart but also together. … We disappeared into the dense forests. She wore a cape. I wore a mackinaw jacket.”

A cookbook was meant to follow “Burn the Place” in her initial contract. But Doug Seibold of Agate Publishing suggested she write about foraging next. During the pandemic, Regan earned her master’s in fine arts in creative writing. After turning in the first draft of “Fieldwork,” Seibold was concerned about the effect of academia on the narrative. To rediscover her voice, she reread “Burn the Place.”

“I had to lean into how I write and put less weight on outside opinions,” Regan says.

This intense period of self-reflection and focus matured her writing — there’s more poetry in her prose. About the imprint of the landscape on her, she writes, “I smelled like so many things, from a long day in the forest, but mostly like the beautiful dankness of it, and even still, I’d never be as outside as the underbelly of a wolf or the caked earth beneath a fox’s nail.”

How acclaimed Chicago chef Iliana Regan found her bliss in the woods

While the global pandemic was ripe for writing, the inn had to close for two seasons. Now, however, it’s reopen and booked through 2024. From May through late October, guests make the journey to the “camp” in the Hiawatha National Forest to dine on Regan’s hyperlocal cooking. The climax dinner on Saturday night is a multicourse adventure that might include cardinal red nasturtium flowers filled with sour cherry and rhubarb paste or, when mushrooms are abundant in the fall, turkey tail ice cream with fried lichen and crispy rice — the kinds of ingredients Regan forages and lovingly describes in her second book.

“Fieldwork” reads like Americana, a story of a rural Midwestern family of Eastern European descent. Many heads will bob in recognition. The details may change, but hunting, foraging for wild plants and preserving ingredients were seasonal activities for most country people. Regan’s mother, Sandra Lee, canned peaches from their tree and picked mulberries for hand pies. As a small girl, Regan scoured the forested perimeters of their farm with her dad, Lawrence — her size at 5 years old was an advantage for spotting mushrooms. He passed down lessons just like Busia had done with him. “I started my fieldwork in 1984,” Regan writes.

One of her treasured possessions is a lovingly battered copy of a mushroom guide her dad checked out of the Gary, Ind., Public Library as a young man. It’s now a half-century overdue. “He dog-eared all the pages that featured mushrooms he spotted in the forest. He and Busia sat at the kitchen table under the warm glow of the kitchen light, and as he pointed at each one, she would recite its name in Polish,” she writes. “Dad wrote down the Polish names next to the pictures or drawings.”

The first chapter of “Fieldwork” is about insomnia and night terrors. Regan is standing by a window on a night when a big storm has rolled off Lake Superior or Lake Michigan. All imaginable dangers are present in the darkness and isolation. Outside it’s tempestuous. Inside her, too. As a distraction, she turns her mind to foraging. “When I finally closed my eyes, I thought about the wild things and what I’d do with them. I thought of the nettles. I thought how I’d wilt them with homemade vinegar and sizzling lamb fat,” she writes.

Vulnerability is not something Regan is shy about, but opening with a panic attack is a risk. She shows us her weakness. That’s how we know she trusts herself and us. “The fear was so present, I had no choice but to put it in,” she says. “It struck me in 2021 how uncocky I’d become. In a big storm, the remoteness reminds me how small we are in comparison to the place.”

She drew a foraging map when she first moved to Michigan, to mark places of abundance: “The map was drawn on two yellow sheets of legal pad paper that I’d extended with scotch tape. And that time, it was folded into sixteen rectangles, and fit in the back pocket of my Carhartt dungarees.”

But tramp the same terrain, and you’ll soon know intimacy. Memory and knowledge of nature’s signs make a physical record superfluous. Now she can’t remember where the map is filed. “And sometimes you know things because the forest has whispered them,” she writes. “Or your ancestors are inside you, so you know things because it’s in your blood to know them, deep in your bones.”


In an earlier version of this story, Doug Seibold's name was misspelled.