Michael Crouch is like a lot of chefs: proud of his food, grateful for its fans, but not particularly compelled to seek the spotlight. As executive chef and partner at Bistro 1860, he operates a bit off the mainstream media radar, though his Facebook page is stuffed with images of his food arranged and photographed as you’d expect Crouch, a trained graphic designer, would. Some of those pics are so enticing, you’re tempted to lick your screen.
When Bistro 1860 opened three years ago, I didn’t understand Crouch’s menu. Lineups at most chef-driven restaurants are obviously thematic, centered on some specific ingredient (beef, seafood, etc.) or ethnic influence. Crouch’s collage of dishes, most of which are served in bite-size, appetizer and entrée portions, seemed scattered. I couldn’t find the thread that knitted it all together as a complete offering.
When I returned a year later, nothing had changed. Still no thread, no culinary continuum that made sense, to me at least. But there were customers. Lots of them. And atop his wandering menu, there were typically a dozen nightly specials — a dozen! So many restaurant servers can’t seem to memorize the soup of the day, yet Crouch’s crew has to master a dozen or more dishes on a daily basis.
The fact is his culinary philosophy, whatever that is, has worked extremely well. Bistro 1860’s fans love the variety and its kitchen’s excellent food. Perhaps no dish is as emblematic of Crouch’s cooking style than his stinging nettle soup, served in the early spring. There are weeds that just look ugly, and there are mean weeds that prick your feet and scratch your legs just out of spite. Nettles are the worst, and fishing in shorts one summer evening years ago, I learned just how meanly they sting.
Yet from these, Crouch makes a delicious soup, one that actually hurts his hands to make. Still, he says it’s worth doing because nobody else is. He likes it that way.
This month, Crouch is preparing an 11-course dinner whose menu is made up of dishes he’d have for his last meal. Originally the dinner was a one-night offering on Thursday, May 26, but when that sold out quickly, he added second date on Wednesday, May 25. We caught up with him to talk about the restaurant, his cooking style and that compelling themed dinner.
Insider Louisville: Do you and your partners ever think, “Our restaurant is as good as or better than a lot of others around town that get more attention?”
Michael Crouch: I don’t see it as a lack of attention. We’re busy. We don’t have a group of people who we pay to get our name out there — though I’m not saying I don’t want that. We’re a small operation, and that’s not in our budget. Sure, I’d like to be out on the road more doing some of that stuff. But I’m not going to jeopardize my food to push myself out there. My food will speak for itself.
IL: Since Bistro 1860 opened up three years ago, we’ve seen dozens of restaurants open. Are there too many now, and has this restaurant been impacted by that growth?
MC: I haven’t seen it (harm us). We’re always busy, but at some point it’s going to have an impact on the whole market, which I say is beyond saturation. These young folks (He’s 40.) who want to open up restaurants one after another … I don’t have the energy for it. We just do our thing.
There’s no room for mediocrity in food in this city because there are so many options. But really, I say the more, the merrier. The weak will fail and the strong will prevail.
IL: Last year, you were going to open up a Nashville hot chicken restaurant right behind the bistro. Is that no longer in the works?
MC: That was a done deal, and then, just like things do sometimes, it fell through at the end. So we decided to hang it up on the concept. But we’re currently working on other concepts.
IL: What sort of clientele does Bistro 1860 attract?
MC: It really is all kinds. It’s a mix of all ages and all types of people. Just food lovers.
IL: Speaking of lovable food, did you make your stinging nettle soup this year?
MC: Definitely did that.
IL: Is it hard to make?
MC: Yeah, it’s a pain. I have to double stack gloves so I can tear the leaves off the stems. But even then, about five minutes in, it feels like they’re tearing through the gloves.
IL: So why do it?
MC: Because nobody else does, and it’s good. And you can use (the stems) to screw with people in the kitchen, shove them up the back of someone’s shirt. … People who know me know I like to clown around. That’s just me.
IL: I chatted with a chef recently who said his company was overwhelmed with fund-raiser requests. I’m sure Bistro 1860 is, too, since I see your team at several each year. How do you manage those requests?
MC: It’s always too much, but we do what we can. You have to focus on specific events that mean something to you. We pick something within our group we all want to support, because we can’t support everything. But we’re asked daily for sure.
Chefs also do them because we get to hang with our peers, chefs you don’t get to see on a regular basis. And we’re known to drink a couple of whiskeys together at those things.
IL: Your daily specials list: Why so many? It used to be that six was a big deal, now three seems the norm. You’re doing 10 to 14.
MC: It’s fun. It’s me. There are just so many options out there now that I don’t like to limit myself.
IL: You do a lot of themed dinners, too, and your next is the “Death Row Dinner.” Why that theme?
MC: I don’t know, frankly, other than it’s a good excuse to do a lot of foods I like, things my mom and dad and grandmother made for me — done my way, of course. People always say to each other, “What would be your last meal?” So I guess this is my idea of that.
My mother’s biscuit and gravy is on the menu, and I’ll have pancakes because my dad made pancakes and peanut butter. I’ll just happen to drop a little chunk of foie gras on top it. We’re doing a cheese course, some sashimi, oysters on the half shell, king crab, my grandma’s red velvet cake, lots of stuff.
IL: Any chance those choices were inspired by others’ death row meals?
MC: I’ve actually done some research on this, read a coffee table book all about people’s last meals. One guy ate an olive with the pit in it so that when he was buried, that pit would grow into an olive tree as a sign of peace. Interesting, right? I’m crazy, but I’m not that damn crazy.
But really, as far as food goes, this is all about me and what I like. I’ve even got chicken wings on there, too. And if you don’t like chicken wings, there’s something wrong with you.
To make reservations for the Death Row Dinner, call 502-618-1745. Base price is $99 per person, $130 with paired drinks.