What’s THE FUSS OVER FOSS?
Just Get The ’EL In Here!
By Robin Jay
Chef Phillip Foss is to Chicago’s foodscape what Jim McMahon was to Chicago Bear’s football in 1986, when Ditka’s ‘Da Bears’ danced the Super Bowl Shuffle on their way to winning Super Bowl XX. The break-all-the-rules McMahon was a hunky, controversial media darling – perhaps most notably for mooning journalists when they asked about an injury to his buttocks. This in-your-face, take-me-as-I-am chutzpah is exactly the refreshing exuberance of Chef Foss at his adventurous but unpretentious small-dinner-party style eatery, EL Ideas, in the rather incognito Chicago neighborhood known as Douglas Park.
Given that Foss is a Green Bay Packer’s fan (he’s originally from Milwaukee – I won’t hold it against him) he may take my comparison to his rival team as an intentional dig. Consider it tongue-and-cheek payback my friend. You see, the first time I entered EL Ideas last December (as a gift from my brother and sister-in-law), Foss insisted we ‘lick the first plate clean – no utensils allowed – or else get the hell out.’ That was right after his dry-witted headwaiter, Bill, handed me a slip of paper, said he wasn’t asking for my phone number nor trying to pick me up, and said within earshot of the other guests, ‘just use this to spit out your gum lady.’
It’s all part of Foss’ dinner party schtick. And a brilliant one at that.
Here’s the Dish
“My quest for EL Ideas [shortened from ‘Elevated Ideas’ and an homage to the elevated train system in Chicago] is to make fine dining cuisine and service approachable and fun instead of pretentious and stuffy,” said Chef Foss, whose gas-station style
uniform shirt is donned every day with a pair of shorts, without exception. When it’s bitter cold outside, he simply adds a pair of wool knee socks to his ensemble.
Once inside the unmarked building at 2914 West 14th Street, guests encounter a venue not usually associated with restaurants serving upscale cuisine. No walls separate diners from chefs. Foss wants guests to expect the unexpected when served the fixed 13-course molecular gastronomy tasting menu.
“Interaction with the kitchen team, and other guests at our small 10-table-top establishment throughout the meal, is not only welcome, it is encouraged,” Foss said. “I love that I’ve got a place that is really an extension of my personality. Guests will come in here feeling a little bit stiff and stodgy, and by the time they leave, they’re all smiling and happy from eating some great food, having a few laughs and hugging the host goodbye as if they attended a dinner party.”
The unconventional business model at EL Ideas involves a BYOB approach – with no corking fee. When guests arrive, they find an iced bucket adjacent to their table, ready to chill whatever beverages they have in tow. Bill and the other waiters are like stealth
snipers, swiftly slipping in without guests noticing to ensure glasses are always topped off. It’s an approach that allows guests to unwind and let their hair down.
“I’ve always had a pretty devious sense of humor,” said Foss who is not unlike a radio shock jock in the kitchen. [And while we’re on the subject, I would be remiss not to mention a fun anecdote – one told to me not by Foss, but a story he also doesn’t deny. It’s the time when Chicago’s real shock jock, Mancow Muller, arrived at EL 30 minutes late, holding up all the other guests. A young lady at my brother’s table who had previously worked for the radio hotshot, thought he was a lousy boss, and being a bit under the influence, stood up to give him loud lambasting for being tardy. I’m told the local celeb took the scolding like a man, and dinner service returned to business as usual.] While it’s true that EL’s online reservation website insists guests must be prompt for their seating time, Foss swears there’s no truth to the notion that he locks the front door the minute a scheduled serving session has begun. A jerk? No. A prankster? Yes.
Sometimes, however, the joke can be on Foss. One EL Ideas tasting menu includes ‘culinary cocaine’ – dried coconut and lime powder plated on a piece of mirror with a razor blade to cut it and a straw to suck it in through the mouth. It was a dish intended to poke humor, but one that nearly backfired the night an Illinois State Representative was a guest in the restaurant and raised an eyebrow at the unusual presentation. Fortunately, in the end, the congresswoman had a sense of humor and playfully rubbed some powder under her nose.
“I’ve never done anything as far as professional performing is concerned, but I’m not afraid to be up on the stage and I’ve been told I’ve got a voice that resonates,” Foss said. “I think that is our niche. I mean, the food is great and I’m very proud of what we do, but I think the thing that really separates us from everybody else is the performance aspect and the connections that I’m able to make with the guests. I don’t like to feel like a corpse in rigor mortis sitting in my chair. So we just make it a point to take people out of that element and keep them out of their preconceptions as soon as they come in. That’s why, more times than not, the first dish that we give guests is to make them lick their plates – sometimes clear plates to make sure everyone can see each other licking them. Who says a little humiliation can’t be fun? The crowd is very much a part of the performance. If the crowd buys into it and the crowd is willing to let go, the evening usually becomes more and more exciting.”
Success from Hard Knocks
Foss’ five-year-gig so far at EL Ideas is a success story that didn’t come easy. In fact, it came about pretty much by accident. When growing up in Milwaukee, Foss admits he was a rabble-rouser in high school, getting into more than his fair share of trouble. But in his senior year, his culinary teacher took notice of a raw talent he saw in Foss and suggested he go to cooking school to become a chef. His mom agreed and insisted her son, deserving or not, attend the very best culinary school possible – and she paved the way for him to attend the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York.
At first when asked how he got the culinary bug, Foss says it was a fluke. “My idea of cooking was to follow directions on a box of mac and cheese,” he said with a laugh.
But when probed a little further, the truth comes out. “When I was a little boy, around 2 years old, there are pictures floating around that showed I enjoyed watching my mom cook – so much so that my dad decided to build a little stovetop out of cardboard, put it on the couch, and then take pictures of me sitting and stirring pots. It was a passion that just kind of went to sleep for the next 18 years until my mentor reawakened the interest.” Foss graduated from CIA in 1991 and managed to land a whirlwind of impressive opportunities in the Big Apple, including Lafayette, Oceana, The Quilted Giraffe and Le Cirque. But with a loud mouth in an industry that demands respect for higher- ranking chefs, Foss found most of his stints short lived. In 2001, he relocated to Chicago to work briefly at Tru and Bistro Margot, before jetting off to Brazil for a couple of years. The culinary gypsy returned to Milwaukee, then went on to Maui, then to Israel (where he adored the food – and the women – and found his wife), then off to Bermuda, back to Milwaukee and – holy smokes – to the esteemed Palmer House in Chicago in 2010. But that, too, wasn’t meant to be for long. The opinionated chef, argumentative with his colleagues, was let go for tweeting, “Can’t we just smoke a bong?”
Out of Necessity Comes Invention
“At that point, I was out on the street,” Foss noted with humility. “I had two kids by this point, was very young and needed to get up and working really quickly. I kind of pioneered the food truck movement here in Chicago; at the time there weren’t any. I went about changing laws to make it easier for mobile vending to be allowed. I was lucky enough to find the kitchen here on West 14th Street, and was lucky enough to find a truck that I could rent to open up a food truck concept. That’s when my Meatyballs Mobile was born.
“We did a lot of fun takes on meatballs and anything that was in the form of a ball,” Foss reminisced. “Our dishes had a lot of puns to them – like schweddy balls, bulls’ testicles and chocolate salty balls. The clever concept took off but eventually led to another setback: A swindling employee had skimmed the books to fund her wedding. Fortunately, there was a silver lining to the misfortune.
“I was getting a health inspection at this location where we made the meatballs so that I could get the kitchen’s license turned into my business’s name,” Foss said. “At the end of the health inspection, the inspector wasn’t sure what kind of a license to give us. She saw this little dining area in the front and decided to give us a restaurant license. As soon as she said that, it was like lightning striking, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, why didn’t I think about doing my restaurant here?’ That was it. Two months later we were open.”
Hitting the Big Time
Foss says his culinary ideas presented at EL Ideas are crafted with a modern sensibility that expresses his experience, palate, humor, and honest approach. Before each course, Foss or a member of his crew gives a description about the inspiration, stories and guest interactions that went into creating the dish at hand. Take the French fries and milkshake course, for instance.
“It’s kind of a Midwestern thing to dip French fries inside an ice cream or Frosty,” Foss explained. “One of my daughters’ babysitters took them out for it and the kids loved it. The next time I took them out, they ordered it and I sat there watching them eat it. I was thinking, ‘Wow, you’ve got hot and cold, that’s fun; sweet and salty, that’s fun.’ And then I just thought of a different way to make it happen in the dining room.” The signature dish is served in a tall old-fashioned milkshake glass with a long spoon. Foss instructs the guests to stir the ice at the top of the dish, and when they do, the concoction combusts with an explosive plume of liquid nitrogen. Plenty of ‘awwwwes’ and smiles ensue. That’s the sort of sweet applause Foss cherishes.
“I don’t consider myself a mad scientist at all,” Foss said. “I love to make people happy by just thinking outside of the box. I think of it as taking a commonsense approach to ingredients and figuring out a way to implement them in a way that is interesting to the guests.
“What we do is we have stage, and when people come in, they don’t know what to expect. We’ve got a really strange location, no signage on the outside of our doors, and we dead-end adjacent to a train yard. People walk in and see it doesn’t look like any other restaurant that they’ve ever been in before. They’ve already made the leap of faith; they’ve paid all of the money up front because we charge everybody before they arrive here. They’ve already brought themselves to the ledge, and once they walk in the door, it’s our job to kind of push them off the ledge. We want to make it fun. It turns into a party every night.”