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Elizabeth Chef Iliana Regan Brings Farm-to-Table to Nature Museum

By Patty Wetli | March 27, 2013 6:21am

LINCOLN SQUARE — Growing up in rural Indiana, Iliana Regan learned to forage and grow her own food, but her experience wasn't necessarily typical.

"We did farm, we did garden. At the same time, I had friends who ate Rice-a-Roni for dinner," said Regan, the chef/owner of Elizabeth restaurant, 4835 N. Western Ave.

On Monday, Regan visited the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, where she's featured in the new exhibit "Food: The Nature of Eating"

The exhibit aims to teach children where food really comes from.

Although she was surrounded by acres of soybeans and corn during her childhood, Regan said, "I don't think that ever translates to the table. Even though we're seeing it, we're not connecting."

City kids with access to farmers markets are "getting more contact with farmers than I did growing up on a farm," she said.

Her town's idea of a market was vastly different from what it means today, Regan said.

"We had 'market days' set up in our school gym, and you'd order frozen food like chicken Kiev," she said.

Regan considers herself "blessed and lucky" to have come from the sort of household that encouraged her to head into the forest to forage for mushrooms.

That's the story her piece of the Nature Museum exhibit tells, and how Elizabeth, with its emphasis on seasonal ingredients, builds on Regan's youthful passion.

Jen Moran, a photographer and Elizabeth's office manager, provided the images included in the installation.

"I'm just tickled. It's incredible," Moran said. "To be part of this museum and exhibit, it's a dream come true."

It's been a whirlwind six months for Regan, who opened Elizabeth last fall after operating the underground restaurant, One Sister, out of her apartment. A profile in the Chicago Reader and a slew of "rising chef" and "best new restaurant" nominations for her "new gatherer" cuisine have kept her front and center among the city's foodies.

"I don't really think about that [stuff]. I'm not enjoying the glamour of it," she said.

Regan opted to open Elizabeth with minimal outside assistance and often spends as many hours meeting with her accountant or logging checks in QuickBooks as she does experimenting with new dishes.

"Luckily that [creative] part is the easy part. It comes easy because I love it," she said.

On Monday, she made time to meet a group of pre-schoolers from St. Matthias who were taking part in a field trip to the Nature Museum.

"We're planting the seeds now," said Nancy Garber, a St. Matthias teacher. "Knowing how to appreciate their food and where it comes from. To be a part of growing and being responsible for their own food."

Regan is proof that lessons learned in childhood can carry over into adulthood.

"We've been so used to going to the grocery store and picking up anything. I'll think, 'What is in season? What is forageable? What can I make with that?'" she said.

The community garden movement, also highlighted in "Food," is a "really beautiful" way, Regan said, for urbanites to gain an understanding of the plant life and cycles she became accustomed to as a child.

"It gives people more of an appreciation when they try it themselves. This stuff isn't so easy to grow."