American author and restaurateur Iliana Regan’s memoir, Burn the Place
(2019), chronicles Regan's life from her roots in blue-collar Indiana to her success as a top chef and restaurant owner in Chicago. Along the way, it touches on subjects that include addiction, farm life, and queer identity. The year of its release, Burn the Place
became the first food book since 1980's Julia Child and More Company
to be long-listed for a National Book Award.
The youngest of four sisters, Iliana was born in 1979 in rural Indiana. Growing up, her parents cultivated much of the food for their family. She recalls her father stringing up cows in the barn, slaughtering them with buckets below to contain the blood and viscera drippings. Iliana also recalls in vivid terms her mother making homemade pasta, an experience that helped ignite her love of cooking. "She plunged her hands into what was now dough and began to fold it over and over onto itself. Little by little, the flour on the cutting board disappeared into the ball beneath her hands. Like a little yellow sun beneath her palms. Supple. I got closer. It was aromatic. I fell in love."
Despite the bucolic qualities of her upbringing, Iliana is deeply ambivalent about her childhood. On one hand, she recalls fondly the memories of family pig roasts, trips to the county fair, a barn-loft filled with kittens, and journeys into the woods to forage for wild mushrooms. Even her recollections of her family house's perpetually flooded basement, spotty electricity, and wild temperature fluctuations are painted in hues of nostalgia. Part of this is because these memories act as a counterpoint to much of the torment she experienced as a child. Characters from her upbringing include an alcoholic sister, a predatory uncle, and unhappy parents who split up and reconcile in a vicious cycle.
Her childhood was also a time of extreme gender confusion. Unlike her sisters, who are paragons of femininity, Iliana often feels that she belongs in someone else's skin, or even on someone else’s planet. For her fourth birthday party, she insists on wearing a suit and tie. She invents an alter ego named Damon who has wealthy yet absent parents. She fantasizes about a U.F.O. coming to spirit her away to another world: "On the day I began waiting for the mothership to come take me back home, I was barefoot on the lawn, packing with a pair of socks in my undies. My little boy shorts bulged. I was shirtless and had on a tiny white baseball cap. I looked west; there were huge clouds forming across the sky, the sun was against my face, and I had the strangest feeling that I didn’t belong there."
Not until her teenage years does Iliana find a way to reconcile her family strife and gender confusion. Unfortunately, that coping mechanism is alcohol. At the age of 15, Iliana downs her first drink, a strawberry daiquiri offered to her by a high school heartthrob. She proceeds to barrel through her high school years in a haze, crashing cars, being arrested, and carrying on relationships with women in secret. A year after her first drink, Iliana gets a job at an Italian restaurant busing tables, chiefly as a way to earn money for alcohol. Nevertheless, her humble initiation into the food industry is the spark that eventually leads her to become a top restaurateur.
As she moves up the ranks through dozens of restaurants, from bussing to serving to cooking to being a full-fledged chef, Iliana eventually releases that she must abandon her drug and alcohol habits if she is going to have a happy life and a fulfilling career. To help break these habits, Iliana temporarily quits the restaurant industry, leaving behind a much-coveted position at the top Chicago restaurant Alinea. As she stumbles her way through recovery, Iliana opens a farmer's market stall called One Sister. To create her wares, Iliana engages in all sorts of novel schemes of urban homesteading.
In 2012, Iliana's sober-minded embrace of her passions leads her to her open Elizabeth, a restaurant named for her deceased oldest sister. In only its second year, Elizabeth is awarded a coveted Michelin star, making it one of the most beloved restaurants in Chicago.According to The New Yorker
, Burn the Place
is a "thrilling, disquieting memoir of addiction and coming-of-age."