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Chef Iliana Regan finds inspiration in the Telluride winter

Chef Iliana Regan at work in the kitchen of Telluride’s Ah Haa School.
Gavin McGough
/
KOTO
Chef Iliana Regan at work in the kitchen of Telluride’s Ah Haa School.

Chef Iliana Regan came up through the Chicago food scene, eventually opening her own restaurant in Lincoln Square — Elizabeth — which earned her a Michelin star, one of the most prestigious culinary honors.

Regan now runs a bed and breakfast, the Milkweed Inn, in the nether-regions of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The inn shutters in winter, allowing Regan to focus on her writing, and her teaching, which for the last two winters, has brought her to Telluride’s Ah Haa School.

Regan has left the kitchen lights off, and is doing prep work illuminated by the dim gray which permeates the windows of the Ah Haa School Culinary Classroom. A morning snow is falling in the street outside, and Regan is peeling carrots, roasting the dimpled leaves of a savoy cabbage between sheet pans to a rosy, burnished crisp, and watching the progress of a bread starter.

Regan does not interrupt her work, and her hands are never idle. The kitchen hums with a fan, an oven heating, a timer blaring. She recalls her intimate relationship to food goes back all the way to childhood.

“I was around food that was always seasonal,” she says. “They, my parents, were doing a lot of preserving and cooking from scratch. So it was like family functions and holidays and almost everything was always around food. You know, my dad butchering things in the garage and making homemade sausage and my mom canning from as early as I can remember.”

That beginning has guided Regan’s ethos ever since.

When she ran Elizabeth in Chicago, she became known for working foraged ingredients and a devotion to process into her cuisine.

But, says Regan, “Even though I was still serving a lot of local stuff and things that were from the wild, I couldn't do it myself because I was running a small business. You know, I was doing sales taxes and payroll and all the things that are, like, super unfun.”

 Roast cabbage leaves: prep work for one of Regan’s tasting menu dinners.
Gavin McGough
/
KOTO
Roast cabbage leaves: prep work for one of Regan’s tasting menu dinners.

So Regan eventually retreated from the city to start the Milkweed Inn, where she serves only a dozen diners each weekend of the summer. Downsizing has allowed her to return to a sense of process and control. And yet, she recognizes it has not changed the nature of fine dining.

“For me, when I'm really ultimately looking at it, it's an entertainment business, sure there's food for necessity, but the people who are having my food are doing it for entertainment and culture and lifestyle. There's a price tag on that, for me to be able to facilitate and work and do the things that I do,” she says.

“If I can make some difference in some small ways, then that's good enough for me. Like when I was doing it at the restaurant, I think all of those little existential things would get to me and get me down. It just makes so much more sense to me to be having so much less waste, you know, and there's very little that I'm wasting at this point.”

What can Regan’s students and diners expect from a class or dinner at Ah Haa during her residency?

“It'll be a small, intimate environment, both the classes and the dinners. The dinner will be like a little story of, you know, the progression of the flavors and some of the seasonality. I don't think anything's going to say: ‘this is absolutely Telluride! You're eating Telluride right now!’ — you know, like it is when I'm at the Milkweed Inn. But it's still going to be fun and delicious,” says Regan.

Some things are definitely drawn from my heritage and food culture, which is based in Eastern European cuisine. So, people have a good time!”  

Reflecting, she continues, “I also love feeding people, food brings people joy. And especially eating with others and together, I think that pausing and having a meal, not only for nourishment, but enjoyment and with others, is always a special thing,” says Regan. “Because I’m an introvert, I would rather be the one cooking and giving people the thing than being a part of the thing myself.”

Watching the industry, Regan recognizes her struggle, and the struggle of the farmers, servers, cooks, and small business owners trying to make an impossible food system work. But, she says, the kitchen remains her place.

“I get to do all the hiding behind the scenes, in a way,” says Regan. “So sure I teach the classes and do these dinners, and it is kind of one-on-one me with people, but still I do kind of get to hide behind the scene. I think that's what will probably always keep me cooking and always keep me writing. It's my form of communication.”

Regan’s residency at the school runs through early February. She offers two pop-up dinners each week, and twice weekly classes.

In the meantime, Regan is in the Ah Haa Kitchen, folding dough, and inventing menus from the offerings of the Telluride winter.

Copyright 2024 KOTO. To see more, visit KOTO.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including KDNK.

Gavin McGough