Phillip Foss has never had much of an internal censor. A gentler way of putting it is that he’s always worn his heart on his sleeve. The chef arrived in Chicago in 2007, taking the top job at Lockwood, the Palmer House’s fine-dining restaurant, during a time when chefs had become public figures rather than faceless, nameless galley drudges. Foss also launched the Pickled Tongue, one of the first and most consistent chef blogs, and was a prolific Twitter scamp. In fact, it was an attempt to broker peace between two battling chefs that got him canned from Lockwood three years later when he tweeted: “Why can’t we all just smoke a bong?”
That didn’t shut him up. He went on to narrate, with equal irreverence, the saga of opening and running his Meatyballs food truck—the double entendre a standard trick of his trade—as well as the opening and early years of his chef-driven prix fixe restaurant, El Ideas. But with growing acclaim for the last, he seemed to hush up. Seven single Michelin stars later—the first in 2013, the latest September’s for 2020—he rarely pops up on social media anymore, an absence that has camouflaged the dramas of divorce, arthritis, anger issues, and an employee theft that almost buried El Ideas.
“I ran the restaurant like it was anarchy,” says Foss. “I wasn’t at a place where I wanted to lead. It ended up backfiring.”
Foss always had literary ambitions—I’ve read chapters of an unfinished memoir—but over the last three years he, along with his cousin, illustrator Tim Foss, have been working on a graphic novel, titled Life in El, that’s a fictionalized hallucination of the chef’s existential angst.
The opening panels depict off-duty chef “Josh” waking his young daughters with the intoxicating aroma of thousands of dollars’ worth of white truffles—much to their disgust and his cost-conscious wife’s disapproval. From there a trip to the chiropractor elicits a vision of a giant anthropomorphic truffle goddess (“All chefs worship truffles”), and then a longer, lysergic trip to the neighborhood cannabis dispensary, where Foss encounters the ghosts of his dead heroes—partial stand-ins for Charlie Trotter and nouvelle cuisine chef Jean-Louis Palladin.
So what’s that all about?
Basically, the Michelin man made him crazy.
“Once I got a Michelin star, I wanted two,” Foss told me. “And the first year we didn’t get two, I was devastated. This whole thing has been a long process of learning to be OK with what we receive and trying to put into perspective the importance of awards and accolades and try to figure a way to not use them as a measuring stick.
“I guess the reason I became a chef in the first place is because I didn’t feel accepted. Cooking food filled me up with a sense of acceptance, but also in the process I learned some really bad habits to escape my anger.”
Or to put it another way, from an early preface:
“When guests recall their meals with us at EL, they likely begin by speaking of some memorable dishes, the overall vibe, or close interaction with the culinary team. Unless there was some serious digestive issue, nobody ever recalls anything about the crap they took afterwards. But lo and behold, no matter how much effort went into making the food beautiful for your eyes and delicious for your mouth, every morsel we make winds up as a nondescript, ugly brown mass that meets a most inglorious ending we’d rather not even think about. There’s a duality to all beautiful art for sure, but I don’t think any is consumed or decomposed faster than in the culinary art.
In many ways, this story is the decomposition of my ego . . . “
Life in El goes on sale next week at elideas.com or at the restaurant. An excerpt follows. v