Phillip Foss did not expect to win a Michelin star on Tuesday. I can say that because I was taking pictures (slide show after the jump) in the kitchen at El Ideas on Monday night, as he held a special collaborative dinner with Erik Anderson of Nashville's acclaimed the Catbird Seat. It came up a couple of times, and at least once Foss looked wistful about getting the recognition, but he was pretty clear about what he expected: that Elizabeth, which has a similar open-kitchen layout and tasting-menu format, likely would win a star, and he would not.
And then he did. This is significant because if any restaurant subverts Michelin's upholding of fine dining tradition, it's not Next, the chameleon whose colors supposedly changed too often for Michelin to judge by its consistency-prizing criteria, but El Ideas, which simply kept the parts of fine dining Foss liked and threw out the parts he didn't. Foss, if you haven't followed his frequently food-news-making career, started in Chicago as chef of the Palmer House's Lockwood, clashed with the hotel's ways and got fired for a bong joke on Twitter, started a food truck back when that was the hot thing . . . and then discovered that he was less interested in making $8 sandwiches in plastic wrap than in serving fine food in his food truck prep kitchen located in a near-south-side middle of nowhere.
"Kind of amazing it took so long to figure out what I should be doing," Foss said at one point, of the months before he gave up the food truck idea and went back to fine dining—on his own terms.
El Ideas became a permanent pop-up in the space, and soon replaced the food truck entirely. Nightly Foss and whatever chefs have felt like spending time jamming with him in between other gigs have turned out dozen-course tasting menus while blaring hip-hop, inviting diners to come into the kitchen to hang out, and sharing in the liquor his diners bring in to go with their dinner (it's BYO). Part of the point was to erase the boundaries between kitchen and dining room, and while some people probably can't handle that (and it seemed last year like Michelin inspectors were among them), the crowd of frequent El Ideas diners that came out for a special dinner on Monday night seemed to love it—a fine dining spot you can treat like your clubhouse, wandering in and out of the kitchen, taking pictures of whatever you like, chatting up the chef as he plates your food. It's fine dining stripped back down to its essence—good food, a good time, and actual people, not hidebound roles, on both sides of the kitchen-dining room divide.
Here's the slide show of a night at El Ideas.