By Michael Nagrant
Do you like pinball?
What do you mean?
You know, do you play it? Do you find it fun?
A minute or so passed without an answer from one of Chicago’s mega-celebrity chefs, as he faced a local food reporter while they stood near a pinball machine. The chef was usually so prepared that he’d given the same answers to many questions for almost twenty years with almost no variation in delivery or syllable. His ability to stay on message made even the disciplined Barack Obama look more like the drunken political godchild of Gerald Ford and Sarah Palin.
But that’s when the chef expected to be interviewed. The reporter had not given the chef a heads up that he’d stop by this particular photo shoot. And when he did, the chef was so befuddled he couldn’t even answer a simple question about an arcade game without calculating what the answer might say about him.
Sure, chefs are the new rock stars, but rarely have they acted like them. I chose to write about chefs and restaurants in no small part because I had no interest in profiling celebrities so doped up on fame that their paranoia and control made Kim Jong Il look asleep at the wheel.
In looking for a beat, I wanted interview subjects who’d be interesting and inspiring, but also forthcoming. That’s not to say I was looking for scandals or poorly worded off-the-cuff remarks to exploit. Rather I just wanted someone devoted to their craft, someone willing to explore and exchange ideas and answer questions irrespective of their public relations impact.
I loved cooking, eating and learning about both, and I wanted to cover chefs because, unlike rock stars, politicians or octuplet-bearing whack jobs, they were one of the last bastions of honesty in this country.
And for a while things were alright. About three-and-a-half years ago, I started doing podcast interviews on my Web site hungrymagazine.com, and I think to a lot of chefs, I was like some geeky dude in the basement with the digital equivalent of a ham radio that no one, save a few other sweaty pork-loving foie gras-licking basement dwellers might listen to.
But while I grew as a reporter, so did the restaurant industry and the money people made, and thus the stakes for guarding one’s public identity. New York super-chef Daniel Boulud, acting less like Escoffier and more like Oprah, recently told New York magazine he might have his employees sign non-disclosure agreements, saying, “I think we’re going to have to have the staff signing affidavits where they can’t do anything out of the house or they will be pursued, where everything happening in the house, with customer, with anything is non-public.”
But that was New York. Here in Chicago, things were different, right? And yet, more and more, I’ve found chefs have been restricting access while their PR people shake me down for approved interview questions or try to sit in the room during our exchanges. This all started to wear on me a bit, until I came across Lockwood executive chef Phillip Foss.
Foss had come to my attention because he’d called Heather Shouse, food editor at Time Out Chicago, to the carpet for a negative review she’d written of his food. Foss, posting on his blog, said, “Anyhow, I built this restaurant up for months on end with blood, sweat and tears. Then with a few taps on the keyboard of her laptop, it seemed as though all the anticipation and excitement came crashing down to Earth with her venomous criticisms.”
I’d disagreed in part with Foss’ accusations because I thought they were a bit of wounded response grounded more in personal attack than fact. I’d written a response to Foss, defending her, and the idea that as critics we generally don’t callously disregard a chef’s work with a “few taps” on the keyboard.
And while I disagreed with his blog piece, I really loved that Foss had the cajones to stand up for his work so boldly. I’ve always felt that critics might start the conversation about a restaurant, but that we should never be the last word.
I started reading Foss’ blog at thepickledtongue.com, where his bio proclaimed that he “Smoked a lot of pot during high school and didn’t know what I wanted to do. Needing money, and having been fired from almost everything else, I got a job in a diner as a short order cook where I learned the technique behind grilled cheese sandwiches.”
I loved it. Foss was the antidote to his fussy peers, a straight shooter and, judging from a meal I ate at Lockwood a few weeks later, an incredible high-level cook. While most chef bloggers were putting up glamour shots of their work with robotic ingredient descriptions or technique dissertations, Foss was comparing raw mussels to female genitalia and telling naughty, engaging tales about his time as a young cook working at New York’s famed Quilted Giraffe. Of owner Barry Wine and his penchant for women he wrote:
“Once he had one of the girls lay out across the expediting station during a busy dinner service and mouthfed her our famous beggar’s purses (crèpes filled with crème fraiche and beluga caviar) while we were plating up around her. The next time [Wine did something odd with a woman] was one evening after the service and the kitchen had been cleaned when I walked back in for a missing knife and found a gorgeous Asian girl clad in nothing but plastic wrap lying in our tilt skillet.”
Foss also called himself a “tree hugging sonofabitch” and discussed how the perspective of having a young daughter had convinced him to print new menus on the blank backsides of old menus to save paper.
Foss spoke candidly of the trials of working in a hotel restaurant in the middle of the Loop, saying, “It seems that no matter what we do here with the cuisine, that to jive amongst the ‘Gold Coasters’ or ‘meat packing’ restaurants is a feat not unlike climbing the Alps in the Tour de France without steroids.”
He spun philosophy on the blog, saying, “What I really hope to avoid throughout my career is not to be stuck in yesterday or dream too much about tomorrow. Instead, I try to be pragmatic and keep a healthy balance of both.”
Foss was a great storyteller and a great chef.
In person, he is just as entertaining. Meeting him was important, though, because I got to see that Foss was not just some brash personality or loud voice clanging around in the echo chamber of the Internet, but rather a really humble, fun guy, who was just as good at making fun of himself as he was others.
When Foss was named chef of Lockwood, the Palmer House Hilton was being renovated and they hung up huge billboards of Foss in a hip embroidered dress shirt and jeans sitting in a hotel ballroom and staring out with smoldering bedroom eyes on the plywood-boarded construction entrances. Of those shots, Foss told me, “Of course you’re flattered, but they could have decreased the size of that billboard by twelve feet and they would have gotten their point across. I remember my mom came to visit and I took her around the corner and when she saw the photo, she almost had a coronary.”
The occasion of my newest visit to Lockwood was to taste Foss’ Chicago Style Lobster Dog. Foss’ “haute” dog was made with diced lobster folded into a scallop mousse (precisely poached at 140 degrees Fahrenheit for twenty minutes so that the albumen or egg white barely set), seasoned with smoked paprika, cayenne and tarragon, and topped with juicy teardrop-shaped pear tomato slices, a perfect brunoise of sweated leeks, green pepper curls and saffron-ginger beurre blanc, all nestled in a buttery, super-toasty potato bun.
Foss had created the dog in response to Menupages Chicago food blogger Helen Rosner’s query as to why no high-end chef had deconstructed the basic Windy City salad dog. One bite, and I felt as if a Hot Doug’s sausage dressed up in a tuxedo and had sex with a Maine lobster roll. Not only was it a revelation in terms of taste, delicacy and balance, but it solved some of the problems with the original. It’s almost impossible to eat a Chicago dog without having condiment overload and having to eventually deconstruct the thing and eat the pickle, tomato, etc., in separate bites. Foss’ ratios, on the other hand, were perfect and you could easily pick the whole thing up and shove it in your mouth.
Foss had also recently created a set of foie gras “sliders” and deconstructed chicken wings. His contemporary American cuisine was just as unfussy as his blogging. Unlike many controlling chefs, Foss is confident enough to engage his sous chef Jens Muenchenbach, a molecular gastronomy whiz, as an equal partner. Foss says, “He’s [Muenchenbach] the chemical wizard. I’m like Jean Banchet [legendary chef of Le Francais] old school.” Muenchenbach responds, “Yeah, I’d tend to go a little crazy with the science on my own, but we balance each other out.”
Though he embraces the science, Foss is cautious about it too, saying, “I worry new cooks won’t understand the roots of cuisine. Using a thermal circulator, where’s the technique? Cooking will become like a Betty Crocker cookbook devoid of passion or craft. I still love building a stew or a braise. There’s no love or soul in sous vide if you don’t understand the roots of cuisine.”
At Lockwood, peaches get deconstructed into to seven different forms, including cream, meringue, sorbet, gel and leather, and while the combo sounds extremely self-conscious, it’s actually very tasty and soulful. Foss’ chicken wings, a roulade of chicken stuffed with Roquefort mousseline, are so classic, Escoffier would recognize them, and yet they’re paired with a refreshing shooter of Corona beer topped with slightly gelled lime foam. Outside of Laurent Gras’ work at L20 and Grant Achatz’s work at Alinea, until Foss, I hadn’t seen anyone combine classic French technique and modern molecular gastronomy with such subtlety.
This isn’t too bad for a guy who’d once been fired from a Baskin-Robbins and cooked Kraft Macaroni and Cheese slavishly according to the directions on the blue box. Foss says, “I was a lost little kid, spending a lot of time experimenting with drugs and acid and all kinds of fun stuff.”
The lost little kid took a job at a diner, and soon after his father took him for a meal at the English Room at the Pfister hotel in Milwaukee, where he had Crevettes en Baltimore: saffron rice and shrimp in cream sauce flambéed tableside. He says, “I would never make anything like that now, but it blew me away.”
He enrolled and eventually graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and took a job at the Lafayette restaurant in New York City just as the famed Jean-Georges Vongrichten was leaving. After Lafayette, he moved to the Quilted Giraffe, and then on to the famed Le Cirque under Daniel Boulud. Boulud moved on shortly thereafter, but as Foss says, “So much of his philosophy permeated that place and I was subjected to his cuisine without getting the wrath.”
Even without Boulud, there was still plenty of wrath to go around. Foss says, “The restaurant was a circus, heads were bouncing off walls. Chef Sylvain Portay once threw a plate across room and cut a cook’s throat. Cooks would walk off the line crying, and you’d try to help them, but you’re saving your own ass. The energy was awesome. I once got kicked off line, but I wouldn’t leave. I’d work harder. In New York, you’re either predator or prey. I very much had a predator mentality.”
Foss was at Le Cirque in 1993 when then New York Times reviewer Ruth Reichl wrote her infamous double review that said Le Cirque treated famous people better than average diners. (Reichl dined in disguise and was treated indifferently and then also visited the restaurant as herself and was supposedly treated better than the King of Spain.) She downgraded the restaurant a star. Legendary owner Sirio Maccioni lashed out at Reichl in the press. It was a lesson that informed Foss’ own retort to Shouse. Foss says, “He was very vocal about his dismay about the review. He taught me that you have to fight for yourself, and that as long as they’re talking about you, it’s good PR. It doesn’t matter what they say.”
Living, breathing, drinking, eating and cooking twenty-four hours a day at Le Cirque eventually took a toll and Foss ended up getting divorced from his first wife. But that experience provided him some perspective. He says, “I realized that as much as I loved cooking I couldn’t have a conversation with my profession. I couldn’t put my arms around it.”
Burned out, he traveled to Europe, Brazil (where he says the generosity of spirit of its citizens, the culture and the beautiful women transformed him from a boy to a man) and Hawaii. While in Hawaii, he bought himself a guitar and taught himself Dylan classics like “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and The Beatles’ “In My Life.”
He eventually got island fever and joined his brother in Israel where he says, “I remember it was a sunny day in June, and there were so many drop-dead gorgeous women and I thought I might be able to make my Jewish mom proud after all.”
Foss took a job as the chef of the kosher kitchen at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem where he cooked for Condoleezza Rice and Tony Blair. In his first week, the supervising rabbi threw out a whole pot of Foss’ soup, because he hadn’t inspected a bag of lentils used in it to see if they were kosher. To work in accordance with Jewish dietary laws, Foss had to substitute aioli for butter in risottos and chocolate mousse. He says, “My saving grace in that kitchen was duck fat and foie gras, which just happen to be kosher.”
Foss met his current wife, who was working in finance at the hotel, and they moved to Bermuda for another cooking job. Foss eventually found it miserable, and decided to relocate to Chicago or Milwaukee. Foss had heard about the job at Lockwood through a Web site and sent his resume in. A few weeks later, while he was in Chicago, Foss figured he’d follow up on the resume and snuck in to the Palmer House Hilton main kitchen and found the executive chef and asked about the job.
The chef told him the new restaurant was technically separate from the hotel and said the general manager for the hotel was in charge of hiring. So the executive chef called up the GM on Foss’ behalf. During the call, Foss’ own phone rang, but he turned it on vibrate so as not to disturb the Palmer House chef. The Palmer House chef hung up and said he could not get ahold of the GM, but that he’d leave him a message on Foss behalf.
Foss left the kitchen, checked his messages and found that missed call was from the GM, who’d coincidentally called at that moment to talk about his resume. Foss called the GM back, and the GM asked him if Foss was still in Bermuda. Foss told him that he was actually in the Palmer House lobby. The GM came down and Foss’ hiring was set in motion.
Remarkably, after so many years of being an itinerant, at Lockwood, Foss is back on the path he left behind at Le Cirque. It’s rare the chef who can turn the ambition off and on like a water spigot, but Foss somehow has. He’s still competitive, and though he’s not quite the taskmaster like Portay or some of the folks he’s worked for, he says every once in a while, “When my standards aren’t met, I’ll scream a primal scream, not at anyone in particular, but the whole kitchen will go silent, and it gets the point across.”
The setting of the Palmer House is Foss’ muse these days. He says, “It’s so inspiring, the beautiful artwork and the décor, but it’s also a challenge. This isn’t the W or the Trump, some kind of Van Gogh or Dali-esque setting. You gotta fight to be a contemporary cook here. It’s not like I can rest like some other chefs who haven’t changed their menu in years.”