LINCOLN SQUARE — Iliana Regan's "new gatherer cuisine," which draws heavily on foraged ingredients for inspiration, has wowed diners and critics since she opened Elizabeth restaurant on Western Avenue in September of 2012.
Now she has a Michelin star to solidify her reputation as one of Chicago's top chefs.
"A Michelin star means that all the hard work, long hours, struggles and stress of owning a restaurant at this level makes it all worth it," said Regan. "I believe it's one of the very best recognitions we could receive."
Elizabeth was one of five restaurants to honored with its first star when the Michelin Guide announced its awards Tuesday, denoting "a very good restaurant in its category." Chris Nugent's Goosefoot, also in Lincoln Square, was among the repeat honorees, earning a star for the second year in a row.
In all, 25 Chicago restaurants received one, two or three stars.
Regan copped to checking the Internet for leaks "every 10 minutes" in the days leading up to the announcement.
"I had noticed five months prior to opening that they began to follow Elizabeth's Twitter account, so I knew we were on their radar," she said. "I was strongly hoping, based on some hints Michelin dropped, that we might in the lineup."
She received the highly anticipated call while driving to work.
"What I felt was relief," said Regan.
Her staff toasted the news with champagne and "talked about how we still will strive to improve on all accounts," she said.
A self-taught chef, Regan grew up on a small farm in Indiana, where she honed her foraging skills. She got her start selling homemade pierogies at farmers markets and became a star of Chicago's underground dining scene with One Sister, serving 12-course meals in her apartment.
With Elizabeth, Regan became even more ambitious, initally offering three separate menus, which had the kitchen turning out as many as 50 different dishes a night. She's since scaled back to a single menu consisting of 20 courses.
The intricacy of Regan's work almost defies description. Here's Chicago Tribune dining critic Phil Vettel writing about an amuse course after visiting Elizabeth in August: "white chocolate and hibiscus spheres filled with tomato water, a blanched garden tomato over burrata and Worcestershire pudding and a tableside-brewed tomato tea accented by shallots and lemon thyme, a virtual garden in a teacup."
Regan was one of only two women chefs in Chicago to receive a Michelin star — Carrie Nahabedian of Naha being the other.
"We love giving stars to women especially because it creates role models for other women,” Michael Ellis, international director of the guides, told Bloomberg News.
"It is certainly important for me to encourage other women chefs," said Regan, who made it a point to put her most recent female hire on the line cooking meats, not pastries.
"I try to show her as much as possible because I want her know everything so she can feel empowered," said Regan.
"There is a part of the [Michelin] award which satisfies the ego to say, 'See, I'm as good as the guys.'"