It’s already been two weeks since EL Ideas began carryout, with chef Philip Foss running out meals to vehicles waiting outside his Douglas Park restaurant on the city’s West Side. Foss has operated EL Ideas for nine years, and is respected for his thoughts on the industry. In recent months, he’s taken to writing the occasional column for the Takeout and has published a graphic novel.
Foss says his restaurant “is taking a beating” financially. Other industry members, from Alinea to Hamburger Mary’s to the Tamale Guy, have changed their strategies during the pandemic. There’s a part of Foss that’s a bit self-conscious. EL Ideas avant-garde tasting menu doesn’t easily lend itself to takeout. Even in these difficult times, Foss doesn’t want his loyal customers feel like he’s compromising the creativity and quality that made EL Ideas a Michelin-starred restaurant.
“You can still hold onto the integrity of food on a lower-cost level as long as it speaks to customers,” Foss says. “It’s the soul of cooking.”
The impact isn’t just a financial one. Foss’s wife is studying to be a nurse, and last month she came down with a cold. That put Foss on high alert, forcing him to stay away from the restaurant as a safety precaution. When his spouse’s test came up negative for COVID-19, he returned to work.
When Foss covers his face with a mask (decorated with EL Ideas’s name) and walks out to drop off food, he sees each customer process anxiety in different ways. Some will get out of the car and help Foss put their orders in the back seat. Some aren’t as fearless, Foss says they look at him like he's “a walking bacteria virus conduit.” They’ll pop their trunks and he’ll place their bags inside.
Right now, chefs like Foss are desperately searching for positives. Foss says he’s inspired by the challenge of operating a carryout restaurant. Making larger portions means using larger pots and that’s physically more demanding than cooking a tasting course menu. The challenge also allows Foss to lean on his varied experiences. He compares the carryout operation to when he ran his Meatyballs food truck. He’s also added to EL Ideas’s carryout options by offering a bouillabaisse that he made years ago as a young chef at New York’s Le Cirque. Foss is assisted in the kitchen by chef Josh Mutchnick (Longman & Eagle). There are four more team members.
Foss said they’ve managed to keep everyone employed with benefits, though all six — including Foss — took pay cuts. That makes Foss worry about the future of his industry, but, like everyone else, he’s trying the best he can.
“It’s a new world out there and we don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring anymore,” he says. “Not that we ever did.”
EL Ideas, preorder for curbside delivery on the restaurant's website, (312) 226-8144. 2419 W. 14th Street, open Tuesday through Saturday; if meals aren’t listed, put in a request online. Graphic novel available for 25-percent off with code LIFEINEL.