When Your Restaurant Is Yesterday’s News

On buzzworthiness, food media, and no longer being the hot new reservation

Phillip Foss
6 min readMar 2, 2020


Photo: Walter B. McKenzie/The Image Bank/Getty Images Plus

Though more fragile than the bone china we use as a canvas for our cooking, a chef’s ego is the last line of defense. When all else fails, as it so often does in restaurants, putting blind pride front and center has rarely failed in a moment of crisis. Though that pride defends us in some places, it leaves us very vulnerable in other ways. Attention and acceptance, or lack thereof —from guests, colleagues, and mostly food media — is the elixir that fuels our resolve or the toxin that crushes our souls. Though I may have learned a lot about cooking in cooking school, not one minute was spent in discussion on how a chef should build relationships with the media. At some point, you’re no longer the hottest ticket in town, and feelings of inferiority come gushing like a geyser. A lot of chefs have to absorb the acceptance of being yesterday’s news.

To be real, most chefs and restaurants don’t get any time basking under the warm glow of media love, so please note this viewpoint is one perched from a privileged plateau of chef-life. It’s an amazing rush the first time you see journalists crushing on you in the headlines. You feel like you’re a sexy new convertible, and everyone wants to take your gastronomy for a joyride. But eventually, that new car smell fades, the seat cushions start to lose their bounce, and the vehicle starts feeling its age. Unlike cars, which roll out every year, nobody gives us an exact date for when you will be last year’s model. But sure enough, the next flashy restaurant comes off the assembly line and everyone gets in line to check it out. As a chef, my ego tricked me into believing my Chicago restaurant EL Ideas would always be a shiny new hot rod that writers would never get enough of. But it doesn’t work like that. If you’re one of the lucky ones that make it past the five-year mark, as we have, don’t be surprised if you feel more like a beaten-up jalopy than a shiny Porsche.

Though there is admittedly some truth to it, I don’t want this to come off as, “Poor Phillip can’t handle being irrelevant.” EL Ideas and I are doing just fine, thank you very much. It’s just that accepting my place in life has always gone against every grain of my being, and I feel very strongly that my cooking — and our EL Ideas experience as a whole — is better than ever. But that alone isn’t newsworthy. I get it. You can’t have the words “news” without n-e-w.

There’s no expectation that food media must write about you every few months (unless you’re Next Restaurant, which gets a full-blown review from the Chicago Tribune three times a year!). I wouldn’t expect a film critic to review a movie from 2006. But restaurants aren’t static, one-and-done works like films. Restaurants constantly evolve and reinvent. I’d like to think I’m doing the best cooking of my life right now—leagues better than that three-star review I received in the Tribune in 2013.

I fear the idea of being left behind. Like a teenager, I acted out for attention: Serving a white powder reminiscent of cocaine on mirrors complete with razor blades and straws. Forcing guests to drink a course from a baby bottle. Weird themed dinners.

I fear the idea of being left behind. Like a teenager, I acted out for attention: Serving a white powder reminiscent of cocaine on mirrors complete with razor blades and straws. Forcing guests to drink a course from a baby bottle. Weird themed dinners. Even our tradition of making guests lick their plates to begin their meal without using their hands. This attention-seeking wasn’t something new for me. When I was cooking at The Palmer House hotel in downtown Chicago, I was shameless about going all-in for media attention. I renamed Asian carp as Shanghai bass and sold it to hotel guests. I attacked a food critic who gave us negative review, and took a food truck fight to City Hall. Even the opening of the Meatyballs Mobile food truck after the hotel finally got sick of my antics and fired me. It seems so obvious to me now how much of this is based on my warped vision of what feeling accepted means. That, and my mom was right about my marijuana use stunting my emotional growth as a teenager.

Still, the dividends for being outrageous paid off: A segment on “The Today Show,” Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods,” a Michelin star for seven years running, even multiple James Beard nominations. And as long as our guests at EL were happy and my name was in lights, that was reason enough to be outrageous. We were partying ourselves a lot back then, and the shine felt like it would never wear off. But an unchecked ego serves as paint thinner to the psyche, and sure as shit there were some cracks on my once-shiny exterior.

When I finally reached the bottom and began to more clearly identify the flaws in my character through therapy and meditation, some changes needed to take place. The first action was to back off social media. It sounds like a pretty easy step, but as a restaurant owner doing his own PR work, social media is probably the fastest route of marketing we have. How would potential clientele be interested in coming to EL if we didn’t post pictures of our food and experience? Sales began to diminish in this process, and I began to really see and feel what it was like not to be the new kid on the block anymore. Anticipating that my lack of presence on social media would result in falling off the James Beard list, I built that scenario as a subplot into my just-finished comic book collaboration with my cousin and comic artist, Timothy Foss.

Illustration: Timothy Foss

Two years into scripting the story, the piper came calling and the plotline played out; I fell off the Beard finalist list. Most of the chefs I know struggle to maintain a healthy balance with their egos, and awards and accolades are about that first. But a second reality is that real dollars are made or lost with or without nods from James Beard and Michelin. Even local critic reviews, Yelp, and a simple social media presence translate to potential dollars at the end of the day. If I wanted to do anything other than huddle into a corner and rock fetal-style in acceptance of my lessening relevance as a chef, I would need to refuel the vehicle and get back on the track.

I don’t really have a proven recipe for how to deal with fading into the backdrop, but the stew I’m cooking up is a couple parts vulnerability, mixed with a cup of denial, a teaspoon of acceptance, and a dash of blind pride. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but essentially I have to be OK with what’s under my hood, even if those bright and shiny guys are hogging the headlines and social media feeds.

The prescription is this: Just cook the best food I can and hope the dishes speak for themselves. There’s a fine line of knowing what can and can’t be changed, and I feel I do my best when I’m backed against a wall. The comic book came from that energy, as do these words. I’ve spent almost 50 years building a wall around my feelings of inferiority, so toning down has been no small task. But fading into the background is only a matter of perspective, and believing I am more than all that bullshit really just might be enough. So my new perspective is that being a more balanced father, husband, boss, friend, and person is a more reliable means to feeling valued than the tidal wave of the collective culinary conscience. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I sometimes feel like that angsty, pothead kid pretending like he doesn’t give a fuck. We may not have the same polish and roar like we did when we first hit the road, but with a rebuild and fresh coat of paint in perspective, I’m sure I can travel my sweet ride into the sunset.

I dedicate this writing to the memory of Chef Matt Dubois. Though his passing barely made the food newswire at all, Matt was an immensely talented chef and a big contributor to our menu the year we earned our first Michelin star at EL Ideas. Matt also went on to earn the same accolade for Band of Bohemia. Please visit his family’s GoFundMe page.



Phillip Foss
Writer for

Phillip Foss is chef/owner of Michelin starred EL Ideas & co-author of the graphic novel Life in EL.