NAHMA TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Chef Iliana Regan drives the last nine miles into the Milkweed Inn like a teenager, with reckless abandon. She jerks the steering wheel back and forth in a futile attempt to limit the impact of crater-size potholes on the single-track logging road. Branches slap the windows, and rocks slam the Jeep’s undercarriage. Her obsession: two large Lake Superior trout she left smoking over an open fire at the inn and the sporadic droplets on the windshield promising rain.
She skids to a halt near a large log cabin, cutting the engine and bounding from the vehicle in one swift move. The fish are dangling undisturbed from hooks over a slow-burning fire. She quietly fusses with them, and they turn up later as the centerpiece of a homestyle dinner, the pale coral flesh succulent with just a scattering of translucent salt shards.
On the threshold of her 40s, Regan is launching the inn — an intimate weekend “glamping” retreat — and has a just-published memoir, “Burn the Place.” In it, she traces the roots of her “new gatherer” cooking to a family farm near Medaryville, Ind. “I was in love with that place,” she writes. “Everything about it was outrageously enchanting. It was in that house I cooked my first chanterelles, gathered from my grandfather’s farm. I stood on a footstool and stirred in the butter. My mom and I added salt and pepper. The earthy aroma filled my sense memory.”
Charming vignettes punctuate her memories of a hardscrabble childhood spent in a small rural community held together by dirt roads and a few stores. It’s her life story, not a glorified inventory of restaurant accolades or a manual for how to become a chef. “I’m not trying to make this like every other chef memoir,” filled with “douchery,” she writes. “No, I’m just trying to keep it real.”
Writing is quiet, reflective work like cooking and foraging, and scrabbling to string words together is a lot like scouring the forest for wild edibles. The process was not cathartic; she had already done a lot of the inner work. But it did stir a deep longing in her. “I didn’t know how much I missed the farmhouse,” she says. “I was generally unhappy and wanted to go back to a place where I felt safe.”
Home to Regan is beyond the reach of modern technology, tramping the loamy forest foraging for mushrooms, wood sorrel and tiny wild strawberries. For now, that means deep in the Hiawatha National Forest on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, on a 40-something-mile-wide slip of land between two Great Lakes, Michigan and the stormy Superior. There are jack pines with branches hanging like blousy sleeves and birches whose silvery leaves flicker in the wind.
She and her wife, Anna, bought 150 acres sight unseen in November 2018 and wouldn’t step foot on the property until late April because snow made the road impassable. But Regan knew that when it came to her true calling, foraging, this was verdant territory. The ingredients she gathers go into the meals, the real point of the journey. “In Illinois and Indiana, I have to go to several different spots to gather ingredients,” she says. “Here, I have everything. In the yard around the cabin there are dewberries and wild buckwheat.”
Regan's parents were counting on welcoming a boy and naming him Brandon. When faced with the reality of a fourth girl, her father encouraged Iliana's "boyish behaviors," she writes, going so far as to introduce her as his son. For a time she longed to be, and then it receded. "Boys weren't my problem . . . it was the girls," she writes. "I knew I was feeling things for girls that were way different from how I felt about the boys. While beautiful in their own right, boys were an obligation. Girls were different, they were complex and exciting. It seemed so much more complicated to accept myself as a female, though, while knowing I was also attracted to females."
She grew up mostly under the influence of any substance promising to turn the introverted young woman into the life of the party. Hair-raising escapades dominated her teens and 20s; one chapter opens with, “Tequila makes me go to jail.” There’s no skirting the hard bits when it comes to addiction, and about recovery, she’s not self-congratulatory, which speaks to the decade of sobriety behind her. “Up until a couple of years ago, I never told anyone from the press, but I’m writing a memoir, and I have to talk about it,” she says. A group of sober chefs once invited Regan to participate in a collaborative dinner in the Pacific Northwest, but she didn’t go because “it was a whole lot of dudes.”
A minimalist when it comes to gender matters, she does touch on the different standards for measuring leadership, noting that in the early days she had difficulty with yelling as a way to assert authority because men are viewed “like army sergeants. I was just a ‘crazy bitch.’ ” The economic difficulties women face when trying to finance a restaurant are also up for consideration. “Bro-ish handshake deals over cold beers have not been my experience.” These occasional missives speak volumes, and one imagines the ranks of women working at stoves raising their fists in a show of support. A plaque in her kitchen reads, “Girl Boss.”
One of the hardest stories in the memoir is about the death of her beloved older sister, Elizabeth, who died intoxicated in a jail cell screaming for her epilepsy medication. In one of the inn’s rooms, an intimate arrangement on a bedside table includes a photo of Elizabeth with a hand-carved slingshot leaning against it. “Recovery helped me to understand if it didn’t happen then, it would have happened soon,” Regan says. “Even if she got her medication and got out of jail, she would have still gone back to Valium and drinking.”
In 2012, two years after opening Elizabeth restaurant in Chicago, Regan won a Michelin star. “For a long time I was thinking, ‘We’ve got to get two,’ but my path is to be small, like when I did underground dinners,” she says. “I don’t want to be grumpy all the time, and right now I feel jaded about the restaurant.”
Doug Seibold of Agate Publishing approached her with the idea for her memoir in 2015, and four years later she’s embarking on a modest publicity tour. There were detours. In 2016, with some of the work complete, she was convinced to go big, and found a New York agent and publisher. She spent part of that year crafting a proposal only to have it fall between the cracks. In 2017, Seibold welcomed her back, and the pair worked for another year to finish it.
If life unfolds in seven-year cycles, then in 2019 it’s no wonder she’s restless and leaving one shore for another. To launch Milkweed, she shored up operations, shuttering two of her other restaurants, Kitsune and Bunny Bakery & Workshop, and is taking a summer sabbatical from Elizabeth, leaving it in the hands of a friend, chef Jenner Tomaska. “The only absolute I can say about my career is I’m done with management; I want to manage myself,” she says.
Regan's reserved, mildly misanthropic demeanor has found its perfect match in Anna, a gracious host who's curious and chatty. "I didn't want anyone else in my life, I just wanted more dogs, and then I met Anna," Regan says. "I expected to hate her and was thinking she was probably a . . . pan-transsexual millennial." The neo-hippie couple look like they would fit right in with the crowd at Max Yasgur's farm in the summer of '69.
Anna had been covertly dating women for several years. “My parents are extremely conservative Catholics, and growing up I had no context for being gay,” she says. “I didn’t recognize it until my mid-20s, and before then I just didn’t date.”
Regan flies solo from Friday through Sunday in her kitchen in the woods, cooking for 10 guests maximum. The raison d’etre of the weekend is a multicourse Saturday-night dinner that begins with a young fermented maple leaf fried to a crisp vellum finish. Funky charred onion paste and a scattering of tart, lemony ants top it. There’s a salt-roasted beet speared on a pine bough, jewel-like with a lacquer glaze of elderflower syrup, butter and vinegar. She slow-bastes a confit-like dish of oyster mushrooms until they’re almost translucent. An amino soy sauce made with toasted barley koji adds a soulful baritone note, the whole dish strewn with tiny green milkweed buds.
Anna has earned the Level 3 wine award from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, and the pairings with meals are inspired and playful. A biodynamic wine, Domaine de l’Ecu Faust Chardonnay 2017, accompanies the oyster mushrooms. The inn’s cottage-chic decor, from the six-point Hudson Bay blanket to the macrame art hanging over the log cabin beds, also bears her imprint.
Catherine Jacobi and Debbie Holm were there when Elizabeth opened and are here for the launch of Milkweed. Over the years, their relationship with Iliana and Anna has morphed into a friendship. “The first time we went to Elizabeth, we knew it was different,” says Jacobi. “She reveals what’s naturally present in the ingredient. We go to plenty of restaurants where that is contrived.”
The peace and solitude of life off-grid are also conducive to more writing. “My publisher wants a book about foraging on the Upper Peninsula next,” Regan says, “I was supposed to write a cookbook, but I hate recipes, because most of what I do is by taste and intuition.” As for “Burn the Place,” she calls it a coming-out story and hopes it connects to the LGBTQ community. People who haven’t read it yet assume it’s about food, and it isn’t.
What remains intact in the ashes are Regan’s self-described tomboy nature and love for wild places. After tending to the fish, she hops on an all-terrain vehicle and careens around the property, whooping with childlike pleasure. Close your eyes, and you can imagine she’s in the bush with her father. Milkweed is the place she has longed to return to her whole life. “If I traveled back in time and told my 30-year-old self restaurants are going to drive you nuts, I probably still would have done it,” she says. “But it’s been the springboard to this, and I wouldn’t change that for the world.”
Reid is a Toronto-based writer and chef. For more information on Milkweed Inn, go to milkweedinn.com.