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Stateside Podcast: U.P. foraging with chef Iliana Regan

Sara Stathas

For years Michelin star chef Iliana Regan was tormented by the incredible amount of electricity and water restaurants use. It was keeping her up at night. So she left behind the buzzing Chicago culinary scene for a quieter life in the woods of the Upper Peninsula.

"I get to be out there and forage and grow my own things," Iliana Regan said. "...I can't say that I necessarily sleep better at night, but there's a part of me that, you know, isn't having to always think of some of those things that really weighed on me at the restaurants.”

Regan has documented her new, slower-paced life in the book Fieldwork: A Forager’s Memoir, and it brings forward the story of Regan’s life in the Upper Peninsula. She and her wife founded the small bed-and-breakfast Milkweed Inn in Nahma Township in 2019.

It’s a follow up to her 2019 memoir, Burn the Place, which chronicles the years she spent in the Windy City, founding well-reviewed restaurants like Elizabeth and Kitsune. She also shared moments of searing beauty from her rural childhood, her struggles with addiction and so much more.

“I love everything about the writing process. I think of it in a lot of the same way as I do with cooking” she explained. “It kind of plays into, like, that creative side of my brain and allows me to express myself in ways that I probably wouldn't otherwise.”

Since moving to the Upper Peninsula, Regan has been focused on sustainability, both in her personal and professional life. The Milkweed Inn sells all-inclusive glamping experiences with food included. The maximum capacity at the inn is 12, a far cry from the crowds at her Chicago restaurants.

“Cooking for ten people a weekend is much different than cooking for 150 a week.”

All of the items on the menu are foraged by Regan, grown in the inn’s garden, or sourced locally. While she is a seasoned forager, Regan did have to acquaint herself with the different edible plants that are available in the Upper Peninsula. She turned to books on mushrooms and edible plants and Indigenous foodways guides to help her source ingredients from the landscape around her.

“I wanted to be in the woods, and this was like one of the best places to do it. Like, when I think of the woods and foraging, I often think of the north woods.”

Aside from the usual foraging suspects (ramps anyone?), Regan has some ingredients that you are less likely to find on a restaurant menu. Some of her favorite foods to forage in the U.P. include trout lilies, campion flowers, and choke cherries.

“We just have so many choke cherries everywhere. And they have a big seed in them, but I like to cook them down and press them through a sieve to sort of extract all the pulp. And it has this really lovely, like floral, almost vanilla-like flavor.”

And, of course, there’s the inn’s namesake: milkweed.

“I like to get the pods when they're really young and fry them. And it's almost like a fried okra, but it has like the seeds inside that are attached to the silk [that] sort of melt. And it has a little bit of a funkiness to it, like a cheese. So they're like a fried okra or fried jalapeno popper without the spice.”

In line with her focus on sustainability, Regan said she’s always conscious about how much of the common plant she harvests – and makes sure to leave plenty for the monarchs.


Looking for more conversations from Stateside? Right this way.

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Music in this episode byBlue Dot Sessions.

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Mercedes Mejia is a producer and director of <i>Stateside</i>.
April Van Buren is a producer for Stateside. She produces interviews for air as well as web and social media content for the show.