Iliana Regan’s memoir “Burn the Place” is the first food book to be long-listed for the National Book Award since “Julia Child and More Company,” in 1980.
In 2008, after nearly a decade or so fighting her way up through Chicago’s restaurant trenches, the chef Iliana Regan quit her job at Alinea—the Sistine Chapel of American culinary modernism—to open a farmers’-market stall selling homemade tortillas and from-scratch ranch dressing. One Sister, as she called the endeavor, was a hodgepodge of ambitious apartment homesteading: buttermilk fermenting on a shelf, mushrooms (the good kind) unfurling in the humidity of her bathroom. In “Burn the Place,” her brutal and luminous memoir, Regan writes, “Mom wasn’t excited about the milk curdling in the pantry or the mushrooms growing in the shower, but she was glad I wasn’t stumbling in drunk out of my goddamned mind every night. I was still drinking, of course. But this other passion, to pursue my ideas, was beginning to change me.”
It’s no spoiler to say that Regan’s four years of kitchen-sink experiments grew into something worthwhile: she got sober, she found love, and, in 2012, she opened the doors to Elizabeth, a Chicago restaurant that immediately established itself as one of the jewels of American fine dining. A happy ending is almost a given in books like these, even if the happiness is tenuous. You wouldn’t be writing a memoir if you weren’t in a place from which you can look back with some degree of comfort; a reader who somehow doesn’t already know how it’s all going to turn out can flip the book over and read the author bio. Memoir is the art of shining a light behind you, picking at the stitches of your life to see how it was made. “Burn the Place” is a remarkable exploration of the form—it was recently long-listed for a National Book Award, an honor that has not been given to a food title since 1980. (The last one was “Julia Child and More Company,” which went on to win its category.) Regan’s book unfolds in episodic snapshots, their chronology ricocheting like a pinball; the effect is less a life story than an exacting, often disquieting exercise in excavating the self.
The arc of “Burn the Place” begins in Regan’s wild childhood, in blue-collar northwest Indiana, where every mote of her life was colored by family alcoholism and her own perpetual gender agony. She wears a suit and tie to her fourth-birthday party; she marvels at and is repelled by her older sisters’ breasts; she creates and inhabits a private alter ego named Damon, whose family is rich and whose parents aren’t around. She comes to believe that if she feels so wrong in this world, maybe it’s because she belongs to another one. “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,” Regan writes. “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.”
The U.F.O., alas, never arrives. Regan embarks on the slow business of accepting that, when it comes to home, this is all she’s got. The youngest, by more than ten years, of four sisters (Regan writes them as individuals, but the over-all impression is a beautiful, feminine flurry of limbs and hair), she spent her early years in a ramshackle farmhouse with a permanently flooded basement and only partial electricity. Regan is desperately in love with her childhood, but she pushes back fiercely against the gothic allure of casting dysfunction as romance. A family pig roast, a visit to the fair, a trip to the woods to forage for mushrooms—these semi-rural episodes are steeped in magic, but it’s the terror-edged kind, from fairy tales of the dark forest, with all the gore and shadows that would be stripped from a Disney adaptation left ominously intact. The house itself, with its hidden corners and kitten-filled barn loft and reliably cyclical moods and temperatures, becomes a soothing counterpoint to the volatility of the adults in Regan’s life: a predatory uncle, an alcoholic sister, parents in an unhappy marriage. When Regan is ten years old, her parents, recently separated, take her to a Chinese restaurant to inform her that they’re getting back together. She’s indifferent to the renewal of their union. Instead, she fixates on one of the terms of their reconciliation, which is selling the farmhouse: “Losing that house would cause me the same grief as losing a best friend. It would be my divorce, and I’d never be the same again.”
“Burn the Place” is divided into three parts, focussing on Regan’s childhood, her alcoholism, and her present-day recovery and restaurant ownership. The sections are constructed of scraps and vignettes, fragmentary pieces of memory that hop around the time line, following their own ordinal logic. Regan’s recollections are concrete and achingly precise—she is particularly attuned to scent, conjuring wafts of decaying oak leaves revealed under thawing snow, the earthy, fungal funk of a sourdough starter, the sharp tang of a metal key bearing a bump of cocaine—but they break and flow with a dreamlike disorientation. Regan is careful to mention the calendar year or her age in most of the vignettes, but I would often find myself in the middle a scene with no sense at all of where or when it belonged: if it’s 1984, 2003, or 1997; if she’s sober or blackout drunk; if she sees her parents as heroic or tragic; if her eldest sister, Elizabeth, after whom her restaurant is named, is living or dead. The effect, uncanny and thrilling, is that of directly inhabiting Regan’s mind. We love what she loves, we resist what she resists, we don’t know what she refuses to know.
With her life of vice and sorrow, it’s tempting to consider Regan as a swaggering antihero, the archetypal badass chef. She refuses this reading, however—her addictions are never glamorous, her failures are never righteous, her lens of memory rejects any smear of Vaseline. Regan writes about the difficulty of being taken seriously as a woman running a kitchen; her life story also illuminates the struggle of being taken seriously as a woman with a gritty past, unless that past is fully atoned for. “Burn the Place” owes a great deal to the 2011 memoir “Blood, Bones & Butter,” in which the chef Gabrielle Hamilton took aim at how little space there is in the culinary world for an imperfect woman. The industry’s “essentialist drone” of girl-power rah-rah—“women are smarter than men,” “women have better palates than men”—demands a certain spotlessness of identity, Hamilton wrote, and flattens female chefs into nothing more than female chefs. “Badass is the last thing I am interested in being,” Hamilton, by any definition a god-tier badass, declared. “Badass is a juvenile aspiration.”
Regan also rejects this idea that damage is a crown of glory, though the way she writes about her own descent into substance abuse is tinged with exultation. As her narrative drifts forward into adolescence, she comes to an uneasy détente with both her gender and her family, aided considerably by alcohol. She writes about her first drink, a strawberry daiquiri downed, at age fifteen, in the kitchen of a neighborhood heartthrob, with the tenderness and awkward precision of a first kiss. (Her actual first kiss with a girl, some thirty pages later, is far less cinematic.) Regan almost revels in her inability to refuse another drink. High school runs by in a haze of rum and malt liquor: a secret girlfriend, a few car crashes, a few arrests. At sixteen, to make money to buy booze, she takes a job busing tables at a local Italian restaurant, an entrée into the parallel reality of restaurant life. It’s stopgap, subsistence work, but there’s more than enough room for Regan’s drinking and drug use and her increasingly volatile romantic life; over the years, moving through dozens of restaurants, evolving from busing to serving to cooking, food eventually comes into focus as Regan’s driving passion. In the decade or so between leaving home and getting sober, her life is a pas de deux of working and using, and she leaves the beauty of her disarray behind, unspooling her litany of drug- and alcohol-fuelled breakdowns with the practiced, unsparing dispassion of a veteran of Alcoholics Anonymous. Her talent as a cook rockets her upward; her love affair with her addictions yanks her back down again.
“Burn the Place” is a “chef memoir” only in the sense that the author turned out to be a chef. More rightly, it belongs on a shelf with the great memoirs of addiction, of gender ambivalence and queer coming-of-age, of the grand disillusionment that comes from revisiting, as a clear-eyed adult, the deceptive perfection of childhood. But the facts of her culinary upbringing do have that glitter of predestination. She writes with unsentimental beauty about the labor her parents devoted to feeding their family. Her father hangs cows in the barn to slaughter, setting out buckets to catch the blood and viscera. Her mother makes pasta from scratch: “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.”
Regan’s own cooking, throughout the book, is given less resonance, less inherent perfection; to Regan, it seems, what she makes now is just a stage-lit version of the things she learned at her parents’ sides. At Elizabeth, each night, a tiny group of customers is treated to a few dozen courses, ranging from foie gras to bear jerky—her cooking drawing more or less equally from the earthfulness of her childhood and the wild materials-science experimentalism that she picked up in her time at avant-garde restaurants like Alinea. But Regan gives little insight into how she creates her dishes, how she fuses the solidity of her past with the haziness of culinary futurism.
At this point, as her story enters the present day, Regan’s authorial voice changes. In this final third of her memoir, she’s sober, she has a small but thriving restaurant empire, she’s found love and some measure of stability. She writes, “I know I am in the right place at the right time. This is why I’m here.” It’s almost a different book entirely: Regan leaves behind her literary tricks of turning the everyday into the magical and plumbing the deep histories beneath her actions and choices. The prose is no longer a formal disquisition of the self but becomes a forceful assertion of control: a chef in her own kitchen, a woman who knows how to find the answers.