We are on a conference call with Phillip Foss at the Ball Cave — the code name given to the complex where he cooks the food for the Meatyballs food truck empire by day, and his brand new fine dining concept, EL, by night. Also in the room is Andrew Brochu, the former Kith and Kin chef, whom he is partnering with for this experimental new venture. Experimental may be the wrong word — Foss prefers to call it a “Micro Restaurant” — but it’s hard to think of another way to describe a restaurant with eight seats and two head chefs, located in what is essentially an industrial park on southwest side of the city. Chefs collaborate all the time, but we wondered how a kitchen runs with two top talents, especially ones with such different styles. Foss’s last job had him cooking in the luxe lobby of the Palmer House at Lockwood, while Brochu just came from the cozy neighborhood restaurant, Kith & Kin. We decided to talk through every course to see how the pieces of this intricate puzzle all fit together.
Phillip Foss is not afraid to drop a ball joke into a random conversation, no matter if you’re talking about his successful Meatyballs venture or the delicate dessert course at EL. Regardless, each joke is almost invariably followed by a detailed discussion of the intricate preparations involved in, say, perfectly deboning a chicken wing, or freezing lobster roe to grate with a microplane. Andrew Brochu is less likely to do so, but still okay with admitting that many of his dishes for the restaurant came in the after hours, when he was goofing around with other chefs from Kith & Kin.
Together they are hoping for a mixture of improvisation and inspiration. Many of these dishes came from ideas that the two had been kicking around for awhile, but never had the right opportunity to realize before now. Other courses came up on the spot, as the two focused on an ingredient and tried to find the best way to showcase it.
Below is the making of the restaurant’s second menu.
Two top talents of the Chicago food scene are partnering up for EL.
El is very small, and the chefs are constantly appearing from the kitchen to help with service.
Phillip Foss: “I wanted to respect the origins of the caviar, but still take it in a new direction. This started as a more traditional dish, but then it morphed when I found into these ingredients. I added some kohlrabi, which I realized wouldn’t overpower the caviar, and would also add a nice texture and crispness. Then it is served with a Yukon Gold blini. I think this is a great preparation, and takes caviar to a new place.”
Foss: “This is the first dish I conceived for EL. I made this saffron risotto and then flew it over to Greece. So that explains the golden raisins, oregano, pickled beets, and yogurt. I wanted something light and summery, which also wouldn’t bury the saffron.”
Andrew Brochu: “I’ve been working on the dish for a while, before I got on EL; now I finally have an outlet for it. The terrine is actually pretty straightforward and very classic. I was originally going to do a cylinder one and went to Home Depot to get PVC pipe. But I couldn’t find anyone to help me. Instead, I found these demi-spheres by mistake, and now it looks like a perfect little globe on the plate. It looks really beautiful and has been really well received.”
Foss: “I’ve been doing this for a while. The chicken is cooked separately and the bones are used like a lollipop. Originally, these were served with a buffalo sauce, but I wanted to take it more in a spring direction. There are a lot of flavors going on in that one bite. It is served on a square of cheese, and mound of cooked celery and rhubarb, and candied walnut, which also has a decent spice.”
Brochu: “It’s a refined version of a smoked oyster dish I’ve been playing with for years. Oysters are smoked for 30 seconds in a small dutch oven over cherry wood chips, and then brought to the table and placed on cedar stands. Nothing else would withstand the heat. It actually burns the wood a little bit, so you get the aroma of the cedar, too.”
Foss: “I wanted a forward-flavored fish offering. First thought was sardines to go with this bouillabaisse I had already made, but there were none available. But I could find octopus, which were about three pounds each. They are braised down with garlic, pepper, and wine. Then they are cleaned up and grilled. By the end you have one very tender tentacle.”
Foss: “This is the cool off between bolder courses. The red currants are juiced, and then a little gelatin is added to increase the viscosity. That’s placed in a little shot glass. Cabernet Verjus is then put into a whipped cream canister, and foamed on top.”
Brochu: “This dish actually started with turnips, and it evolved from different stages of finding ingredients. The final is both really simple and also complex in technique. The lobster is butter-poached, and then shells are used to make a nice stock, which is reduced down to almost a demi-glaze. It’s not necessarily soup, but not a sauce. The roe is poached, frozen, and then grated right on it.”
Foss: “This dish actually originated back at Lockwood, when I was doing an osso bucco tortellini, with a Madeira sauce. We also wanted to do a truffle course, and also wanted to grate it in front of the guest. Then my good friend Frank Brunacci comes by with these Australian truffles, and they were perfect for the course.”
Foss: “The dish was born around the idea of garlic. When spring came, I got a whole bunch of green garlic and pickled it. We are growing garlic scapes, and we also found the tiniest heads of garlic I’ve ever seen. Then we combined it with this herb called borage, which has this bizarre seafood flavor – it smells more like an oyster than anything that doesn’t come out of the sea. That brought us to porcini, and then finally to lamb tongue.”
Brochu: “This dish is really complex with loads of components and techniques, but essentially it is just duck, onion, cherries, and Szechuan pepper. I was just playing around with Szechuan peppercorns after work with one night at Kith & Kin, and we just made some simple Chinese food. But the dish really evolved while talking with Phillip. Playing off the red flesh of the duck, we added the red cherries.”
Brochu: “Fresh burrata cheese doesn’t really need anything. Normally, I would serve it with olive oil and salt and pepper. But Foss wanted to play around with that. Instead of olive oil, we went with minced olives. Then I found some gooseberries and cherry tomatoes. It’s the simplest plating we have going out, but the fatty cheese makes everything pop.”
Foss: “We saw some great plums and raspberries at the market, and that’s where it was born. My idea was to introduce a fennel theme. I made candied fennel leaves, and then used some fennel pollen with the simple syrup. Of course, there is one of my chocolate salty balls at the end.”