We’re sitting down with chef, restaurant owner and author, Phillip Foss, to discuss his newly-published Life in EL and how it reflects upon the foodservice industry today. As we all know, labor continues to be one of the biggest pain points across the industry. In Life in EL, Foss delves into his day-to-day life and challenges as a BOH chef, which can provide valuable insights and implications into how restaurant owners can help employees care for themselves, ultimately leading to a healthier and more retained workforce.
National Restaurant Association Show: Thanks for taking the time to meet with us today, Phillip! First off, can you tell us a little bit about your new graphic Novel, Life in EL, and what it’s all about?
Foss: Life in EL is an autobiographical culinary fantasy, telling the story of the lessons I learned from hitting rock bottom, and what those lessons said about my life in the restaurant industry. In the story, the day begins in a pretty chaotic fashion, but really turns sideways when my character walks into a medical marijuana dispensary that just opened. Expecting to buy pot legally for the first time, instead I am confronted by two legendary chefs who have ‘popped up’ from the dead. They’ve been sent from the Great Beyond by a “white truffle goddess,” and they’re trying to convince me to save the future of not only gastronomy, but eternity itself. The dilemma is that none of us know why that person would be someone as flawed of a chef as I am, so we need to dig deep to see how I got this way, and what to do get me back on track.
National Restaurant Association Show: What inspired you to share your story?
Foss: The kitchen, like it is for many chefs, is where I could run away from my problems. I had troubles in my personal life, and I had trouble being an effective boss at EL Ideas. So my first steps into creating Life in EL started after I had begun an anger management class. My counseling suggested meditation and to take a step back from the spotlight, which wasn’t easy as a James Beard-nominated chef with a Michelin star restaurant. Instead of attending industry events or getting lost in the social media vortex, I channeled my creativity and need to communicate into writing. So I started a writing a memoir, but that felt heavy, and I was concerned that it wasn’t going to reach people the way I wanted it to.
Then I met my cousin, Timothy Foss, at a family reunion, who had just received his Masters of Fine Art. Timothy suggested making it a graphic novel, and after that point, Life in EL came to life with Timothy as my co-writer and illustrator.
National Restaurant Association Show: What gave you the courage to share such a personal story?
Foss: In so many ways, it was my kids. Throughout my life I’ve struggled to stay grounded, but I feel that I need to lead by example. Many chefs struggle because of the way they’ve been brought up, and I myself have not had the greatest examples growing up. Life in EL is what I’m doing to address pain in my life, and I hope that it inspires my kids to do the same and go through the process of finding forgiveness.
National Restaurant Association Show: How has the industry responded to Life in EL?
Foss: It’s been so inspiring. I feel the restaurant industry is in a crisis mode, but people are really starting to offer up answers and solutions to address it. Many restaurant workers have not received lessons in how to deal with hardships and struggle, and to say that alcohol and drug abuse is widespread in our industry would be an understatement. We’re constantly nurturing others but we can’t seem to nurture ourselves.
National Restaurant Association Show: What is the best way restaurant owners can champion self-care for their employees?
Foss: I think meditation is one of the least expensive and most effective means to being able to center yourself. There are so many coming out and talking about how meditation has become an essential part of their life. Access to therapy is another–whether you’re at the top of the totem pole or not–you need someone to talk to who will listen.
National Restaurant Association Show: Restaurant owners are having more difficulty hiring and retaining staff than ever before. Do you think providing therapy and meditation resources could help restauranteurs hire and retain employees?
Foss: It certainly couldn’t hurt. Nobody in struggle goes through meditation or therapy and says their life got worse because of it. It can be hard to convince restaurant owners to find the time or money, but my main focus is trying to forge that path. Restaurant workers donate so much of their time and energy to their trade, but there are very few resources to help them in their times of need. I think we do need to look at the culinary education system and figure out how to address the industry’s very real challenges that are often glamourized.
National Restaurant Association Show: You’re a long-time attendee of the National Restaurant Association Show. Looking towards the 2020 Show, what types of education or resources do you think will be the most important for the industry today?
Foss: First off, simply having face-to-face conversations about the real life challenges chefs and employees face is an important opportunity for our industry to learn how we can improve staff retention and our overall quality of life. I would love to learn about mindfulness, and resources that employees can turn for addiction support or life crises.
National Restaurant Association Show: Can we look forward to seeing you at the 2020 National Restaurant Association Show?
Foss: Absolutely! When I first told my mom I wanted to be a chef, (after she got over her giddiness that I had discovered what I wanted to do,) she actually brought me to my first National Restaurant Association Show in 1988. It gave me an overwhelming and exciting feeling that fueled me to continue my journey as a chef.
You can learn more about Phillip Foss and purchase Life in EL at lifeinel.com. Phillip will be onsite at the National Restaurant Association Show, where you can learn more about strategies on workforce development in newly-introduced Deep Dive Workshops or Hiring & Retention education sessions.
Returning to Chicago’s McCormick Place, the National Restaurant Association Show will boast over 2,300 exhibiting companies and a robust roster of industry thought leaders to ensure every attendee leaves with new knowledge and inspiration to incorporate emerging trends into their businesses. Mark your calendars now for May 16-19, 2020, where the industry will once again reunite for learning, product discovery and networking. Registration is open now – visit nationalrestaurantshow.com/registration today!