If You Follow One Chef on Instagram, This Chef-Turned-Illustrator Should Be It
William Brown just does things differently. When he overheard college classmates confusing ribeye and T-bone, rather than explain it, he quickly drew the two cuts of meats on accounting exercise papers to show them the difference. When he was assigned five desserts to make in his advanced plated desserts class at Johnson & Wales, he mapped out his ideas in doodles instead of listing ingredients like the other culinary students. And whenever he clocked in for a shift at restaurants he worked at, he brought sketchbooks and pens along with his knife kit. William Brown is a nose-to-the-grindstone student, head-down kind of cook, but most of all—an artist.
“I know the glossiness of the sauce, the texture of meats, how things plate,” says Brown. “With each dish, I’ll focus on a different technique. My goal is to get better.”
For the last three years, the 22-year-old has filled nearly three notebooks with 150 drawings or so, illustrating dishes that fascinated him, like Massimo Bottura’s famed lemon tart at Osteria Francescana, as well as pure, unadulterated ingredients, life-like roosters, and diagrams of whole hogs. They became his passion projects when he wasn’t working on the line at Dallas restaurants, the fruit of a few hours before he rolled in for dinner service. Grinding colored pencils to paper to mimic an apple’s sheen. Switching out markers to get the right shadows.
Now, he’s finally uploading his work for the public to see with his Instagram account @wbrown34 and the recent launch of his website, Culinarian Designs—and chefs are already hitting him up for collaborations. Jeremiah Tower emailed him, asking if he had an agent. Local chef John Tesar has messaged him, as well as Next’s Jenner Tomaska. Even Frito-Lay has reached out. His insanely detailed illustrations are not only mesmerizing but give a cook’s insight into the intricacies of the dish.
Brown is slowly but surely become a brand, a name to remember, but first, he was a cook.
Growing up on Long Island, he was surrounded by arts, both culinary and visual. His aunt is a letterpress artist, while his grandmother commanded the free flow of watercolors. As a kid, he hung out at his grandmother’s studio, drawn to very detailed endeavors, like individual grains of rice or wispy tendrils in a feather. “Whereas anyone else would half-ass it, I would draw each individual line,” says Brown. “My grandma thought I would go to art school, but I didn’t.”
Instead, the kitchen called to him. His mother’s job in pastry eventually moved the family to Dallas when Brown was a pre-teen. Though she warned her sons to avoid the food world due to the hard work and long hours, both Brown and his older brother fell in love with cooking. During home-ec classes in high school, Brown could chiffonade, julienne, and whatever else he learned through osmosis from his mom. It made him stand out. It led him to help cook at private events and country clubs in Dallas at the end of his high school years before heading to Providence, Rhode Island. There, he had to choose between art school at RISD and culinary school at Johnson & Wales. Instead, he merged his two passions into one, with those dessert drawings. They eventually caught the attention of the faculty at Johnson & Wales, leading to opportunities to draw dishes for the university president’s dinner events.
After culinary school, Brown staged at restaurants like Gramercy Tavern and The Modern in New York City and Bouillon in Dallas. He took careful notes along the way. “I always look for new things, that’s why I keep my notebooks on me all the time,” says Brown. “I’m one of the only people, based on talking to chefs, who asked to stage for free at as many places as I can for no other reason than to see what’s going on.” But he also totes his notebooks along to dinners he goes to, like Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, where he’ll draw a dish he likes and hail down someone to staff so he can show the work to the chef.
“I think chefs appreciate seeing their work on paper through someone else’s eyes. It’s like a mutual appreciation of each other’s work,” he says.
Brown is shy, but he speaks through his drawings. It’s his way of explaining something complex to others. It’s his way of expressing reverence and gratitude to chefs he admires. It’s way to dream of new dishes. It’s his way to connect with others.
He’s left the restaurant kitchen to focus more on his art and grow Culinarian Designs, and he’s taking opportunities as they come up, seeing where they take him next, not sure where exactly they might lead. One thing is for sure, however: “I don’t ever want to completely be out of the kitchen,” says Brown. “I want to have that balance of seeing new trends and being around people doing it to keeps me going.”