Ask chef Graham Elliot Bowles of Avenues Restaurant in Chicago about how he creates his delicious, adventurous and strikingly beautiful dishes, and he’s as likely to talk about negative space and monochromatic palettes as he is to discuss artisanal ingredients and avant-garde techniques. Bowles, an F&W Best New Chef 2004 who trained at Chicago superstar restaurants Tru and Charlie Trotter’s, is an art lover who leads his kitchen crew of four on regular excursions to the area’s many excellent museums, from the Art Institute of Chicago to the Milwaukee Art Museum. While the field trips are ad hoc, they have a clear mission: to inspire the chef and his staff in their cooking. "There are two kinds of chefs," Bowles says. "Those who view cooking as a craft, in black and white, and those who view it as an art, a gray area open to personal interpretation. We’re in the latter camp." Here are some of the artworks that have spurred his creativity, and the dishes that are their culinary counterparts.
Avenues at the Peninsula, 108 E. Superior St., Chicago; 312-573-6754.
Van Gogh’s brush work & Bowles’s hand-painted sauces
The Dutch Post-Impressionist is one of Bowles’s heroes: "I think his colors are amazing. You look at them up close, and they’re so intense you can’t believe they’re a hundred years old." Bowles loves Van Gogh’s self-portrait in the Art Institute of Chicago for its vivid hues, thickly laid on with thousands of tiny brushstrokes. Bowles aims for the same intensity in his sauces, whether garnishing a plate with avocado "paint," raisin essence, horseradish fondant, butternut squash puree, sassafras barbecue sauce or fava mousseline. With Van Gogh as a model, the chef has his cooks add texture to the sauces on the plate with all kinds of tools, from combs to palette knives to actual paintbrushes.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s cancan dancers & Bowles’s foamy seared scallops
After catching an Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, Bowles created a dish in homage to the artist’s famous cancan dancers. On a background of pumpkin puree to match the yellow backdrop of Mademoiselle Églantine’s Troupe, the chef dolloped a bubbly eggnog foam on sliced scallops to evoke the frills of the dancers’ petticoats; the scallops’ seared edges resemble black stockings.
Mondrian’s compositions & Bowles’s riffs on three colors
Bowles admires how painter Piet Mondrian’s works have such remarkable energy and variation, given their restrained palette, so he challenged himself to create as many dishes as possible using only red beets, yellow beets and arugula. Composition No. 1: a golden beet roulade with red beet coulis and arugula salad. No. 2: golden beet borscht with red beet marshmallows and crystallized arugula.
Thiebaud’s diner-inspired pies & Bowles’s whimsical flight of pies
At the Milwaukee Art Museum, Bowles became smitten with Wayne Thiebaud’s representations of classic diner dishes, especially his famous pies. Back in Chicago, Bowles and his pastry chef invented their own whimsical flight of pies: pecan pie with chocolate sauce and chocolate tuile; Meyer lemon meringue pie; and Granny Smith apple pie with cinnamon sauce and apple chip.