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No Chef in America Cooks Dinner Quite Like Phillip Foss


Chicago might be America's most important food city.
Is a BYO spot in an empty industrial corner its most important restaurant?

I

've never done blow, but many of my ex-girlfriends have, and so when Phillip Foss hands me a mirror, a razor, and a gram of white powder, I know what to do. Sort of.

I'm sitting at a table at EL Ideas, Foss's restaurant in a warehouse-filled corner of Chicago's near south side. Against a backdrop of an empty basketball court, a juvenile detention center, a shuttered animal shelter in a condemned building, a freight train yard, a bar that serves strong drinks to strong train yard workers, and a gas station convenience store whose clerk sits behind bulletproof glass, a tasting-menu-only restaurant with a Michelin star stands out. But this isn't your ordinary tasting-menu-only restaurant. For starters, there's the cocaine course.

"Of course, it's culinary cocaine," clarifies Akiko Moorman, the restaurant's director of operations. "So it goes in your mouth and not up your nose."

I pick up the tiny straw that accompanies the dish and use it to orally inhale the powder, which turns out to be a mixture of dehydrated coconut and lime. The taste is clean and clear. It evokes a high-end riff on Pixy Stix, the powdered sugar candy that my rough-and-tumble friends and I would eat (and occasionally snort) before high school track meets in the mid '90s.

As I use the razor to separate the powder into narrow lines, Moorman nods her head toward an adjacent table, where a pair of diners — a young man with a black mohawk, and a woman who I recognize as a manager at one of Chicago's most heralded restaurants — are making sharp, studied, chopping motions with their razors.

"That's how you know they're experts," Moorman jokes, explaining that the practice grinds out any lumps in more potent versions of the powder. The cocaine course reveals a lot about people. "We actually just had an incident," Moorman says. "A guy came here who had been to rehab not too long ago. When the cocaine course came out, he briefly left the restaurant to call his sponsor."


E

L Ideas — the name begs to be pronounced with a Spanish accent, but don't: "EL" refers to Chicago's elevated public transit system — is an atypical restaurant in an atypical location. It's officially in an area called Douglas Park, tucked into an industrial corner that feels miles away from everything, but to consider it a neighborhood restaurant, one must take an expansive view of the word "neighborhood."

A roomful of diners ingesting the dish is so collectively suggestive that the performance wouldn't be out of place on Cinemax After Dark.

At EL Ideas, sometimes one must also take an expansive view of utensils. Sure, there's a fancy scallop course with arugula puree, and a lamb course with olive sauce, both consumed traditionally, with knives and forks. But then there's that inhaled coconut-lime powder. On some occasions, there's a "Twix Bar": a chicken liver-topped crouton dipped in chocolate that's eaten with the hands. On other nights, there's a raw milk course served in a baby bottle. "Foss was going through this infantile stage," Moorman recalls. "I've never seen so many uncomfortable men! Foss told everyone to pinch the nipple, shake it, and suck."

On the night I'm there, patrons aren't asked to suck anything, but they are asked to lift a small, clear glass bowl to their faces and lick a caviar-topped, solid-state White Russian off of it. Why a glass dish? "So you can see person licking in front of you," Foss says. "And who doesn't enjoy that?" Indeed, a roomful of diners ingesting the dish is so collectively suggestive that the performance wouldn't be out of place on Cinemax After Dark. Is it the best way to appreciate good caviar? Not necessarily. But it loosens you up for the cocaine to come.

It's not quite what you'd expect from a forty-five-year-old Milwaukee native who speaks with a proper Midwest accent and a mouthful of curses. Foss is five-foot ten. He's dirty blond. During service he wears a blue button-down whose design has more in common with an auto mechanic's uniform than it does with traditional chefs' whites. His cooking has been exuberantly praised by the Chicago Tribune, but you won't find his spot on a national or global best-restaurants list, nor will you read much about it in national publications run by out-of-town food writers or gastronauts. For all its brilliance, EL Ideas is still very much under the radar, still very much undersold.

This may be because Foss is very good at underselling. "I'm not going to kid myself; this will never be a three Michelin-star restaurant, ever," he tells me before dinner service. Guests are starting to fill up the room; it's warmly lit with lots of exposed brick, roughly divided into dining room and kitchen by a waist-high wall. "We're so far outside the box. We play loud hip-hop. We do not give a fuck."

2015_04_23_eater_elideas_highres-006.1.0

Except he very much does give a fuck. He lives with Moorman in the apartment above the restaurant (the two have been a couple since 2012). He produces intelligent, whimsically modernist food that's studied enough to earn EL Ideas one Michelin star, if not yet three. He talks about the expansion of his empire with more circumspection than some policy analysts lend to prognostications of nuclear war. He admits to being very stressed about my presence in the dining room. He hasn't left the country since EL Ideas opened, has barely left the city. Chicago is one of world's most important food cities, and he's one of Chicago's most important chefs.


M

ore than any other city, Chicago is the heart of America's experimental dining movement. A progressive, inventive philosophy underscores many of its best restaurants, one that isn't found with the same intensity or focus elsewhere.

To be sure, other major cities have their own culinary stories. The tasting menu spots dotting the San Francisco Bay area, from Manresa to Saison to Meadowood, fit into the region's ethos — celebrations of Pacific seafood and odes to vegetables — as befits both a region that is (current drought notwithstanding) the country's largest supplier of agriculture, and a contemporary restaurant lineage that stretches back to Alice Waters' mission to teach diners to value their beets as much as their beef. In New York, fine dining has long been driven by the city's financial titans, whose risky market behavior doesn't always extend to their eating habits; for the most part, the Big Apple palate remains neo-classical, inoffensive, and indulgent, anchored on restaurants like Le Bernardin, Daniel, Jean-Georges, and Del Posto. Despite the city's recent trend towards lighter, longer, let's-have-a-slice-of-pizza-afterward set menus, New York generally plays to the center, rather than pushing the envelope too hard.

In Chicago, all bets are off. Think: helium-filled taffy balloons at Alinea, edible menus at Moto, ice-encased old-fashioneds that you crack open with a slingshot at Aviary, psychedelic king crab terrariums at Grace, spruce juice-filled test tubes at Elizabeth, and at EL Ideas, spearmint ice cream that's nitro-frozen to such an intensely frozen hardness that it mimics the texture of a candy cane. "I do think Chicago is the food capital of America," says Moorman. "It has the most interesting food. The most soulful food. The most thoughtful food."

"I do think Chicago is the food capital of America. It has the most interesting food. The most soulful food. The most thoughtful food."

But it takes more than soul and thought to run an experimental restaurant — Chicago's plentiful and relatively affordable real estate (paired with a good number of affluent, open-minded diners) seals the city's position as the avant-avant-garde. "The rent is the biggest factor," Moorman explains. "Coming here from New York, it's like traveling to a country with a favorable exchange rate. You don't have to put a burger on your menu to be successful here. You don't have to pay back $1.4 million dollars that you borrowed to open your restaurant. There are truly chef-owners here, in a way that nobody in New York can say they are. In New York, they're slaves to their investors."

Indeed. Foss doesn't rely on a single dime of outside capital at EL Ideas. Thanks to the restaurant's out-of-the-way location, he can afford to be the business's sole owner. He doesn't carry any real debt on the restaurant's equipment; paying off all of any major purchases within the month, from the immersion circulators to the high-tech Pacojet that makes sorbets so clean and stable you can go out for a mid-course smoke and your dessert still won't have melted by the time you come back inside.

All of this enables Foss to take risks he couldn't elsewhere. But the other advantage of being experimental in Chicago is that the city is used to it. "You have a dinership that is forgiving and incredibly adventurous," Moorman says. The proof is on the books: Nearly four years after opening, tables at EL Ideas are still mostly all booked up two months out.

Foss seems surprised by his own success: "It was never meant to be sustainable on its own," he says of the restaurant. "I was always just expecting this place to be a stipend, financially, to the food truck." He ran that food truck, a mobile protein purveyor called MeatyBalls, from 2010 to 2011, regularly attracting lines two dozen deep. But his career didn't necessarily point to a career selling Saturday Night Live-inspired lamb-and-pork "Schweddy balls" out of a service window on wheels.

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1991, Foss accrued a serious lineup of fine dining merit badges on his resume, including stints at New York's Quilted Giraffe and Oceana in the early 1990s, a five-year tenure at Le Cirque that same decade, as well as some time at seminal Chicago-modernist restaurant Tru in 2000. But then things get muddy: Foss, rather than staging at Ivy League restaurants like Noma or Mugaritz, spent many of his pre-EL Ideas years at hotel restaurants that weren't exactly known as incubators of promising gastronomic talent. He put in two years at the Four Seasons in Maui. He logged ten months at The King David in Jerusalem (Foss, a non-observant Jew, speaks Hebrew). He bounced around Brazil ("best time of my life") and Bermuda (where he unhappily cooked old-school French fare).

"I thought my dreams of being a respectable chef who would ever have a nice restaurant were drifting," he says of that period. He came back to Chicago in 2008 to run the show at Lockwood, the fine-dining restaurant inside the Palmer House Hilton, where he pulled in critical raves but was fired two years later after making a lighthearted pot joke on Twitter. Now, he makes cocaine jokes on your plate.

Given all the boundary-pushing, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Foss is positioning himself to become the next Grant Achatz or Heston Blumenthal.

The story Foss tells is that EL Ideas happened by accident. The building that now houses the restaurant was being used as a commissary for his meatball truck; the twist that transformed it into a sit-down dining room was the result of, of all things, a health department inspection. During a routine check, Foss recalls, the inspector said, "I'm not really sure what type of license to give you, but you have a dining space over here, and so I'll give you a restaurant license." That was all it took. Says Foss: "That was the epiphany. And two months later we were open."

At first, Foss ran EL Ideas and MeatyBalls simultaneously. The early days were rocky. A week after EL Ideas opened, Foss and his wife separated. (His two daughters, six and eight years old, stay with him on Sundays and Mondays.) Six months later, the restaurant was on the verge of closing, an outcome Foss averted by taking on a zero-interest loan from an angel investor (which he has since paid back in full). Shortly after that investment, Foss found out an office manager had siphoned off around $30,000 in funds to pay for her wedding.

So he closed the food truck and focused all his energy on EL. The extortion "turned out to be quite a blessing in disguise," Foss says. Running two businesses at once was taking its toll: "I was getting up at four a.m., I wasn't coming home until after midnight." Shutting the lights off on the meatball business "gave me my sanity and energy back."

With nothing else competing for his culinary attention, Foss was able to double down on those elevated ideas that give his restaurant its name. Given all the culinary boundary-pushing that happens in this corner of Douglas Park, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Foss is positioning himself to become the next Grant Achatz or Heston Blumenthal. But then you watch a staffer dressed up as the Dude from The Big Lebowski stroll through the dining room, the entertainment portion of the White Russian caviar course. Foss explains that the preparation was inspired by a regular who took advantage of the restaurant's BYO policy to mix up the namesake cocktail for himself during dinner service.

Nope, EL Ideas is definitely not the Fat Duck. And Foss not is not Blumenthal. Nor is he Achatz. Nor — his suggestive coconut-lime intermezzo notwithstanding — is he your standard coke-addled cook, despite the drug's ubiquity in the hospitality industry. ("I never understood chefs who do cocaine," he says. "It numbs your mouth. You can't taste anything.") And while the easy answer would be to say he's his own man, offering his own wacky take on the avant-garde, Foss's brilliant-slacker approach to fine dining is in fact the product of a thread that started in Chicago's restaurant community back in 2005.


I

f really you want to understand Phillip Foss, you have to understand Michael Carlson. The famously mercurial chef, proprietor of Chicago's famous (or perhaps infamous) restaurant Schwa, can arguably be credited more than any other figure for influencing what EL Ideas — not to mention the city's entire laid-back approach to high-minded cooking — has become. If Alinea is the flagship for Chicago's culinary avant-gardism, Schwa is the restaurant that, in Foss's words, helped "take the stuffiness out of fine dining," launching a new generation of more affordable, more low-key tasting menu establishments. "We all certainly owe a tip of the cap to Schwa," Foss says. "They really are the beginning of the genre."

And if you want to eat at Schwa, you need to learn the rules. First: call often, as the phones are not answered on a terribly regular basis, and Carlson has a history of closing the restaurant entirely — for a night or two occasionally; one time for a whole six months — with no warning. Second: come bearing gifts. "Should I bring a bottle of booze?" I ask Foss before I head to the restaurant. The booze isn't for me; it's a gift for the cooks. "It never hurts," he replies. "You may find yourself with a little more attention." And so I show up to Schwa, located in a three-story building so unremarkable I'm half certain I'm really walking into a Knights of Columbus hall, with a bottle of Elijah Craig twelve-year as a welcome gift. The kitchen accepts it graciously.

Now here's the thing: America's best-reviewed and most expensive tasting menus tend to go hand-in-hand with the country's most expensive wine lists. The conventional wisdom is that restaurants want to offer a beverage experience that's as haute as its culinary counterpart. You wouldn't want to drink boxed wine with your multi-hundred-dollar dinner even though you might chug it at home in your sweatpants, so you get the multi-hundred-dollar wine pairing.

But that's a generous way of looking at things. The larger truth is that the razor-thin margins that accompany high food and labor costs mean that restaurants often rely on pricey beverage options to turn a profit — selling a dozen tasting menus won't make a restaurant nearly as much money as would selling hundreds of pizzas. Wine, which commands markups often measured in multipliers rather than percentages, helps offset that imbalance. If a tasting-menu restaurant has no liquor license, it means it can't get one. No normal restaurant would turn that revenue stream down.

But Schwa isn't a normal restaurant. A liquor license isn't that hard to obtain in Chicago, yet there's no sign that Carlson has any plans to obtain one. Instead, he lures entry-level diners (and wine buffs attracted by his next-to-nothing corkage fee of $2.50) to an off-the-beaten-track block where a small staff (there are no servers; the cooks run the food to diners) and low rents allow him to stay in business despite the lack of alcohol (and despite running a reported sixty percent food cost). Whether Carlson actually makes any money is a different question, but the Schwa model paved the way for other affordable(-ish) tasting-menu-only venues with BYO policies to open in other un-frilly neighborhoods. Among them, the Michelin-starred Goosefoot in Lincoln Square, the two-Michelin-starred 42 grams in Uptown, and of course, EL Ideas.

"I always thought we wanted to be like Schwa," Foss says of his restaurant. "But just with a little more attention to the front of the house, and the service aspect, and not to be so punk rock." He pauses to consider. "Maybe we're a bit more rock-and-roll."

All guests dine at once, and Foss addresses the room before each course. A teacher, an announcer, a preacher.

Maybe. Walking into Schwa feels like stepping into the studio apartment of a bunch of guys who play a lot of Grand Theft Auto, eat a lot of Lucky Charms, and smoke a formidable quantity of expertly rolled blunts. The restaurant is staffed by laconic, heavily bearded men dressed in aprons and sweatshirts; they're the cooks, but also the servers, delivering plates of food to the bare-walled dining room at irregular intervals. EL Ideas, by contrast, is a light, bright, dinner party of a restaurant, with a dedicated front-of-house manager helping the courses land on time. The seating plan, like at Schwa, is table-only, which is somewhat retro-revolutionary by modern fine dining standards, where chef's counter seating is increasingly the norm. EL Ideas books in seatings — all guests dine at once — and Foss addresses the room before each course. A teacher, an announcer, a preacher.

Foss's explanations and segues are illuminating, informal, and, when appropriate, concise. As a roomful of diners faces down a one-bite course of dark chicken meat filled with blue cheese mousse, a side of hot sauce, and a shot of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Foss introduces it by saying "This time of year is all about football. And football is all about cheap beer and wings."

A few minutes later, Foss invites all dozen or so of that's night's guests into kitchen half of the space. We gather around a long silver prep table that runs the length of the cooking area, ready to sample what Foss later describes as a "French onion soup ball" — it's beef stock encased in a crouton, topped with gruyere. Once we're all done slurping it up, Foss keeps the party moving. "Okay guys, that's the end of this course," he says. "So you can pretty much get the fuck out of the kitchen."

Up next is a bite-sized square of Miyazaki Wagyu wrapped in matsutake mushroom leather, an edible napkin of sorts, which comes with neither knife nor fork. The result is that you end up eating one of the world's most exalted pieces of beef with your hands, as you would an hors d'oeuvre at a cocktail party.

If you didn't know what was in them, none of these unassuming-looking courses would appear out of place at an Applebee's — or inside a cardboard box in the freezer section of your local supermarket. But when you experience their clarity of flavor — the concentrated poultry punch, the airy assertiveness of the blue cheese, the fattiness of the Wagyu — you know you're a restaurant where serious things are happening.

Yes, Foss is a product of the Chicago avant-garde movement, and he's an upstanding and popular member of the set-menu BYO scene. But what defines him as a chef, most of all, are not his techniques or his liquor policies, but rather his allegiance to both ennobling and subverting the everyday American dining experience, without deconstructing things to the point where they're unrecognizable. (To underscore this point, the French onion soup ball is presented as a surprise: patrons are handed the bite-sized sphere without explanation, and asked to guess what they're eating. It tasted so purely, exquisitely like the bistro staple that I guessed in about two seconds.)

Foss isn't the only one reimagining the American fast food and casual dining palate through a sophisticated lens: Christina Tosi draws on similar references at the Milk Bar bakery chain, with her cereal milk ice creams, Thanksgiving croissants, and birthday cake truffles, and every other fancy chef has a elevated riff on the creamsicle these days. But no one except Foss is so consistently fusing the nostalgic and the innovative in a high-end sitting — and with such aplomb and accessibility.

The playfulness is built into the foundation. I haven't had a more entertaining dinner in years.

Pack that all in with Big Lebowski guy and the baby bottles and you've got yourself a proper dose of interactive performance art, or as Moorman calls it, "dining-tainment." In the past, that phrase has evoked hokey theme restaurants geared toward little kids or bad first dates. In the modern era of dinner as theater, however, such frivolities are a more seamless (if not subtle) part of the evening. Think of the card tricks at New York's Eleven Madison Park, or watching smoke come of a fellow diner's nose after the nitro-lime mousse at The Fat Duck. At EL ideas, the playfulness is built into the foundation. I haven't had a more entertaining dinner in years.


T

he best course I try at EL Ideas is one Foss tells me is inspired by his daughters, who have cottoned on to the classic Wendy's off-menu pairing of dipping french fries in a chocolate Frosty. In his homage, Foss pours liquid nitrogen-chilled vanilla ice cream over a classic potato-leek soup, turning the vichyssoise into a creamy slush for a split second, before the heat of thrice-fried yukon gold nuggets at the bottom of the bowl melts everything back to liquid. The changing textures and flavors paint a culinary sine wave, starting at one place, rising up, and falling back down again. Ferran Adrià would wish he thought of this. But I bet Adrià never wished his beloved El Bulli, in its picturesque stone farmhouse on Spain's beautiful costa brava, was situated here, in a rundown part of Chicago.

Wander south of the restaurant, and you'll pass anonymous buildings with faded signs and indistinct names like Midwest Folding Products, Midland Warehouses, and Top of the Line Total Auto Repair. Walk to the northwest and you'll eventually hit the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. There's little residential housing over here. Pedestrians are rare too, but cars are not — there are plenty driving through, they just don't stop. "We're in a vortex of Chicago," Foss tells me. "More like a black hole," Moorman adds, joking that there's no reason to come to the neighborhood "unless your child is in jail."

Strolling the streets around EL Ideas evokes stories my father used to tell me about working in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick in the 1980s, back when that part of town was an industrial area full of warehouses and the junkies who'd squat in them. Now, thirty-five years later, Bushwick's warehouses have been turned into desirable (and increasingly costly) loft apartments, and the neighborhood is full of young, artsy types. This is thanks in part to the anchoring effect of a single groundbreaking restaurant: in 2009, a place called Roberta's started wooing in residents from Manhattan and other parts of Brooklyn with ambitious, Italian-accented small plates and some of the city's best Neapolitan pizzas, all served in a cool, quirky, stripped-down setting. It turned out to be the type of restaurant you could build a neighborhood around.

It's not clear if EL Ideas is cut from the same cloth. For all its friendliness and inviting appeal, a tasting menu-only format doesn't create the same kind of vibe as Roberta's expansive fiefdom, which started with pizza but now — behind just one door — includes a hip pizza shop, an outdoor tiki garden, a shipping-container indie radio station, and a high-end chefs' counter tucked away in the very back, where a handful of lucky diners each night get to have one of New York's most acclaimed tasting menus. Nearly four years into EL Ideas' run, there are few new businesses nearby, and no new residential housing. The closest a la carte eateries are a Burger King and a dive called Watering Hole, whose website boasts "Our pizzas aren't frozen!"

But Foss has plans. He says he's toying with the idea of opening a barbecue joint in a shipping container across the street, and a cocktail den in the same building as the restaurant. To his mind, the key to any expansion would be proximity to EL. "I couldn't do something on the north side of Chicago," he says. This is because he is, to use his phrase, a control freak: "If I don't have control, I wind up not being happy." He also believes in his neighborhood, placing his faith in a Field of Dreams-style determinism. "This place is a little freak of nature," he explains of the success of EL Ideas. "I call it the Costner project: 'If you build it, they will come.'"

"This place is a little freak of nature. I call it the Costner project: 'If you build it, they will come.'"

The real heart of Foss's strategy isn't necessarily what he plans on doing, but how he plans to do it: with his own money. And while the chef is relaxed on the issue of financing, Akiko Moorman is not. "I've been a very strong advocate of getting others to understand that need to start self-funding in this industry," she says. "Letting outside investors control what the chef does, where the chef cooks, what goes on the menu — really, that's one of the industry's biggest downfalls. And until we have enough successful chefs who are willing to give back and start funding younger chefs with an angel investment group, we are not going to see what this industry can do. We're not going to see artists really flourish, because they'll still have a money man saying 'I want a TV in the bar, and I want a loaded baked potato on the menu.'"

Moorman walks the talk: a former bookkeeper and line cook, she manages the restaurant's payroll, as well as the entire restaurant's finances. This gives her less of an urgent eye towards profit, and more room to understand how to help the restaurant grow organically. "Most of the time, investors are money men or real estate guys," she points out. "At the end of the day, they don't give a shit. They want their money. And that could be the death of a restaurant."

It's hard to imagine an investor approving of Foss's wacky "Tastes like Teen Spirit" dinner series, during which he collaborated with other local chefs on 1990s inspired dishes (the late Homaro Cantu, of Moto, made a Clintonian Cuban "cigar" sandwich course, served in an ashtray). I also wonder what a backer might think of Foss doing shots of bourbon (poured from a bottle bestowed by a guest) in the kitchen with a crowd of diners, as he does at end of our dinner service. No one's doing that with Joshua Skenes at Saison, I'd guess. Foss knocks back his drink quickly, Schwa style. And this is when Foss tells me a bit more about his wonderful culinary cocaine.

"We had a state rep in from Illinois recently," he tells me, a few steps away from the crowd. "And she saw the cocaine back here, where we keep it in a jar, and she just put a little bit in her nose. And I'm like, 'No, don't do that, don't do that! You put it in your mouth!' And so she goes to put it in her mouth, and she's rubbing the cocaine on her gums."

He pauses for dramatic effect. "A fucking state representative!" He's thrilled, delighted, a little disbelieving — exactly how I feel after a night spent eating the man's food. Foss turns back to the crowd of adoring diners, says his goodbyes, and heads upstairs to his apartment.


Author's Note: It's impossible to talk about avant-gardism in Chicago without talking about Homaro Cantu, the Moto chef who pushed boundaries (scientific, culinary, and more) like no one else. On April 13, after I reported, wrote, and filed this story, Cantu committed suicide. It turned out that the '90s dinner on which Foss and Cantu collaborated happened to take place on the same day that Cantu was hit with a lawsuit by one of his investors. I called Foss shortly after I heard the news. "I half expected him not to show up," Foss recalled of their dinner. But show up he did, and the evening was a wild success. Upon learning of Cantu's death, Foss told me that he had all his cooks come to the front of the house before service, and raise a glass to the chef's memory. —RS


Ryan Sutton is Eater's chief critic and data lead, and the 2015 recipient of the James Beard Foundation's Craig Claiborne Distinguished Restaurant Review award
Lucy Hewett is a food and portrait photographer based in Chicago
Editor: Helen Rosner

EL ideas

2419 West 14th Street, , IL 60608 (312) 226-8144 Visit Website
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