Journey to the Center of El

Michael Nagrant / 02.18.20

The greatest Chicago chef stroked out on his couch, alone, in the dark at 54 years of age. Right now, if you are a young social media food influencer, and especially if you didn’t grow up in Chicago, you may not even know who I’m talking about. 

Maybe you’d dispute that he was the greatest.  Though in this town, there is really only BC and AC: before Charlie and after Charlie. Before Charlie Trotter, we were provincial pig slaughterer to the world. After Charlie, we were, at one point, America’s greatest food city.

Ok, so maybe you don’t identify with this, or again, even know who I’m talking about. This proves my point. We all die, and most of us, despite our greatest efforts, will be forgotten. If you don’t know Charlie Trotter, then you probably know Anthony Bourdain.  He too, I know you think I’m crazy, will probably be forgotten. Hell, in five hundred years, Elvis will likely be forgotten. Don’t believe me? Just ask Guillaume de Machaut.

I think about this a lot. 

I deeply believe the message that life is not about who other people think we are, or even what we think we should be. I believe life is instead most enriched by loving oneself, those around us, and broader humanity, (obviously I also believe in the Oxford comma) as perfectly as possible. And yet, I lose sight of that idea every waking millisecond. So much of my existential despair is spent trying to transcend the idea of the eternal meaningless, often at the expense of the things that truly matter.

It is why I find myself wandering the aisles at Target multiple times a month, my heart aloft that there’s a special edition Jean-Michel Basquiat hoodie or Michael Graves teakettle available that I didn’t know I could live without. It is why I refresh the Nike SNKRS app a thousand time a day in search of Virgil Abloh-collabs.

It is why in the last year, I have purchased Persol sunglasses and currently covet a Tag Heuer Monaco chronograph. Bourdain wore those things, and he is timeless, for now. Certainly, by owning them myself, I too can be timeless.  Bourdain wore these things because he idolized Steve McQueen, who too was once timeless.  Steve who?

It is why, as a father, I have been exceptionally and unfairly tough this year on my 12-year-old son. I have been trying to imbue a sense of stress management, ownership, responsibility, hard work, and goalsetting that I personally have yet to perfect in my 40s, because Chicago Public Schools is a wasteland that rewards the rare pre-teen who can master these things in a high school selection process arguably more competitive than the Ivy League. Heck, the examples of so many billionaires suggest that my children have a better chance at timelessness or happiness if they fail at traditional academic pathways.

Losing sight of what really matters is why many days I wake up sad, and go to bed sad, and somewhere in the middle, make those around me sad, and sometimes set an example that sadness is the only possibility.

Hell, this sense of facing nothingness is why I am writing this paragraph right now. Although I believe that trying to make sense of being is also one of those worthwhile endeavors that do matter in the long run. But, what the fuck do I know?

I do know that I have been lucky, and that my self-destruction, self-hatred, and hopelessness have been limited enough that, except for some manageable impacts on my health, they have not created something I have yet to come back from or transcend. Others have not been so lucky or privileged. On those rare moments that I stop mourning for myself, I mourn for them. 

One of the other lucky ones has been Phillip Foss, Michelin-starred chef of Chicago’s El Ideas, a guy who has, in an effort to escape self-hatred, dabbled in self-sabotage all of his life.  I know Phillip, because, years ago, in one of his destructive modes, he attacked a fellow food writer for writing a bad review. The short story is that I defended the food writer by breaking down Foss’s anger in a blog piece. This opened up a dialogue between Foss and I that led to mutual respect and a few additional articles. The longer story is Foss wasn’t entirely wrong about that other food writer, a person, I sometimes suspected of stirring up shit just because it was amusing to them.  And, while I had good intentions at the time, defending the tired kneejerk “you’re not in the arena” critique of a critic by a chef because they didn’t like your food, I was also exactly Phillip Foss.  I was a young and angry writer, as he was a young and angry chef, trying to get mine amidst all the injustice we perceived of the outside world.

Since then Foss, who at that time had one of the rare lucrative, but also stultifying, hotel chef gigs, lost that job by tweeting about a bong. He went through a divorce. He slogged in the early Chicago food truck trenches hand-selling (fabulous) meatball sandwiches clandestinely like a drug dealer out of the back of a roach coach on lonely street corners.

However, Foss also went on to open the Michelin-starred El Ideas and marry again. His most redemptive act, however, might be writing a graphic novel called Life in El with his cousin, the artist Timothy Foss. 

Foss has always been an entertaining writer and thinker, so I am not astonished that he’s written a book. I am however surprised how Life in El, foregoes the honesty with consequences (criticizing a business and losing a job, criticizing a writer and losing coverage) Foss has generally dabbled in, in favor of an honesty of consequence, aka writing a comic book that distills what we all, as humans should really be doing as we live, i.e. thinking about and pursuing what’s really important, like loving ourselves first and then others, and rejecting the measuring of ourselves by shifting notions of success.

Part of the reason I started this essay with the example of Charlie Trotter, is that in Life in El, Foss does the same, using Trotter (under the thinly veiled pseudonym Emilio Walker – I didn’t ask Foss, but I like to imagine he substituted the name Emilio for Charlie in some weird subconscious Charlie Sheen/Emilio Estevez brain blip) and Jean-Louis Palladin (aka Jean Pierre Le Pain in the comic) as mocking chef stand-ins for the Dickensian ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future.

Trotter and Palladin basically get the pseudo-fictional Foss/Jacob Marley character to realize the errors of his self-sabotage, the meaningless pursuit of perfection and success as defined by others, and even the folly of trying to mold his own children in his own egotistic image by making them white truffle lovers. Foss does this by using the fictional ghost toques as a mirror, that two of the commonly acknowledged greatest chefs, still had a lot of regret and died young and tragically.

At one point in the narrative, Palladin and Trotter mock the Foss character as not only not being a great chef, but not even being the best chef in Chicago. Foss points out that he has one Michelin star, but he pines for two. Foss concedes, in a moment of realizing how lucky he is, that Eater once wrote he cooks like no one else, but then jokes that he is no Michael Carlson of Schwa (or as in the book: Carl Michaelson of the restaurant Schwawa).

It’s completely understandable how humans and chefs derive happiness from these graduated signposts and awards that have been set up by, wait for it, fallible and idiosyncratic humans. But, it’s also tragic, given how subjective and fine these distinctions between the graduations are, that so many in the culinary world live and die by and grant them so much power and agency. 

As a somewhat more objective outsider (than Foss would be of himself) who has eaten Foss’s food in addition to Carlson’s, Grant Achatz’s, Charlie Trotter’s, Joel Robuchon’s, Thomas Keller’s and so many more great chefs work, I say, with no irony or intent of provocation, Foss is literally in the same class. That Foss doesn’t have two stars, is because Michelin is in the business of refinement while Foss is in the business of enjoyment.  Some of those other chefs have been in the business of intense self-promotion and self-mythologization, while Foss was a CEO of self-preservation and self-doubt. But, there is no doubt, just because he does not fit in to certain boxes, that Foss puts food on the plate that can win a head-to-head battle with those giants on any given day. In some ways, Foss is my favorite of all of them, because, to me, he has expressed who he is the most honestly, whether that was good or bad, for so long.

That such a simple and powerful self-realization is arrived at through Foss’s own personal and public flaying of himself in this book, is worthy of a James Beard award. But, that is not likely, for the Beards are an establishment, and this being a Foss production, is anti-establishment, full of dick jokes, drug trips, and exotic dancer allusions like, “When girls have daddy issues they become strippers. When boys have daddy issues they become chefs.”

In the end, who cares? As is, the lesson of the comic, cooking and life aren’t game shows or competitions to be won or lost. Making food and living are, rather, at their best, an act of nurturing the self and others.

You can buy a copy of Life in El here