Culinary Creativity

By Graham Pilotte

Photos by Nathan Pedigo, Poster photos by Andrew Kung

The creation of Bistro 1860 has transformed a turn-of-the-century, Mellwood Avenue farmhouse into a French-American fusion restaurant. Executive Chef Michael Crouch has crafted a delicious menu, but his creative gifts also manifest themselves in another way: a series of themed dinners that have quickly become renowned throughout Louisville’s independent restaurant scene.

“It’s all community-suited,” Crouch explains. “It’s really all about people getting together and meeting new people who enjoy and appreciate innovative cuisine. It’s absolutely a creative outlet.” He started his themed series two years ago with a dinner he dramatically titled “Death Row,” which included a menu full of his favorite foods. “It was 12 courses – what I would have for my last dinner,” he says. “Everything from chicken wings to lobster lasagna; my mom’s biscuits and gravy, my dad’s peanut butter pancakes, my grandmother’s red velvet cake. It was a lot of family things, and other stuff that I like.” The seemingly random assortment was tied together by his controversial theme choice. “Each course also had a drink menu,” Crouch says, “so you did the full dinner and you could have champagne, whiskey on the rocks, gin and tonic, beer or a shot of tequila. It was ridiculous, but if you go out,” he jokes, “you might as well go out right.”

This first themed dinner was a hit so he decided to continue. “It was a one-time dinner, but I sold out and then had a lot of requests,” Crouch explains, “so I did two days of it. I did a Thursday and a Friday evening, and those sold out.” He continued to plan creatively, expanding his dinner themes to include a garden party, a carnival night and even a creepy Halloween dinner with fog machines and sirens.

“I don’t stop, I go further every time,” he says. “Most dinners are four, five, six courses, but then I just did the Titanic dinner – I did the exact last dinner they had on the Titanic, which is eleven courses.” He took care to perfectly recreate the details. “I did everything from the same color lens they had on the ship that went down to the same flowers they used, and we had a string quartet.” Guests could even participate with costumes: “That one was actually a dress-to-the-era event,” Crouch says, “although, I mean, you could dress up in torn jeans and a t-shirt and be a peasant.”

Guests consistently approach the dinner series with a sense of humor and enjoyment. “We definitely have a regular group that comes, but we also get a little bit more diverse,” Crouch says of his regulars. “We shut the restaurant down and cap off at about 70 people.” His dinners are always the last Thursday of the month, so any weekend diners can expect their usual fare, but coming in for a special Thursday-night theme has extra benefits. “It’s not just coming in for dinner,” Crouch says, “it’s more than that. I did a Honolulu Luau with a pig roast one time, so we had people around the patio, fire throwers, people walking around with ukuleles and gift certificates and dinner. It was like a circus out there.”

Crouch arrived at Bistro 1860 after a long series of creative adventures. “I grew up in Shelby County and left to go to school. I jumped around; I actually didn’t go to college as soon as I got out of high school because I hated school with a passion, but I went.” His original plan was artistic. “I thought I was going to pursue art,” he says frankly, “but I just liked to draw on canvas and not on computers so I didn’t think I would make any money painting until I was dead. So I started a job cooking at a country club.” Luckily, he wasn’t afraid to make the leap into something new. “I had never cooked before, so I just started out making some salads,” he says. “I was promoted to sous-chef after maybe a year.”

The job sparked his interest, and he began to learn more about working in the culinary arts. “I moved to a French restaurant that closed, and the owners moved back to Geneva. So my buddy and I flew into Paris and got a car and drove through France and up in Geneva; we messed around with some of their restaurants for a little while. Then I came back.” Crouch moved into work at local cafés and bistros, working around Louisville for over 10 years before finally finding his way into a partnership that would create Bistro 1860. “I put my notice in on 12-12-12, and we spent seven or eight months working on this place before we opened it up,” he says. “It was crazy.”

As the head chef, Crouch now has complete autonomy over his menu, and he is taking advantage of it. “I have full control food-wise,” he explains. “The other restaurants I’ve been at, they’ve established what they were going to do, so I came in and had to absorb the menu, the style and the ambiance they were trying to produce. Coming in here, I was offered the chance to start from scratch with the feel of the food, and the ambiance – what I wanted to do.” Having his own agency has allowed him to take creative control. “You can tell that my food from the past, my innovation levels, have been pushed a little further than before,” Crouch says. “I’m constantly creating. That’s why I have 10 or 12 specials on the menu at a time; I just have too much stuff that I want to execute.”

Although Crouch’s creativity may seem unusual, it’s actually an integral part of his background. “I got my degree in commercial art and graphic design, and I write, and play instruments,” he says. As a chef, Crouch is relishing the artistic experience. “I’m trying to do innovative food, offering a variety of portions so people can explore my flavors and enjoy my view on food –  not just sit down and eat to fill their void. My head’s always spinning, so I’m always trying to create.”

His dinners are also notable for their accompanying posters, featuring Crouch in a detailed, relevant costume. “We have a lot of fun with them,” Crouch says with a laugh, recalling the first Death Row promotion. “I called the photographer one day and I said, ‘How would you shoot me in this jail outfit? Ripping a lobster in half, sitting on a metal table in the studio?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, come on down.’ So he did it, and we haven’t stopped since.” Without a doubt, their creative partnership has helped promote the dinners. “We’ve done one every month since then,” Crouch says. “I’m grateful that he does them for me, and at the same time I think he enjoys them too.”

Each poster is different and is sometimes a labor of love for the chef. “For the ‘Steak’ poster, it was a hundred degrees that day, and I was dying in that coat!” he says. “Obviously, ‘Titanic’ was a great one. That was a true-to-period uniform from the era that I got at the costume place around the corner here on Story.” His other posters, which appear online at bistro1860.com, include titles such as “Rosé Soirée,” “Tomato Tomatoe,” and “One Fowl Dinner.” They feature Crouch wearing everything from friendly overalls to an eerie clown costume for Halloween. The ideas are all his own: “Some shoots are a little crazier than others,” Crouch admits. “It’s a lot of work, but they’re fun to do.”

Themed dinners aside, Bistro 1860’s menu is creative in itself. Dishes are offered in the classic à trois niveaux style, meaning guests can select from bite-sized, appetizer and entrée portion levels. Instead of ordering a single entrée, customers can sample a variety of dishes, or share with friends and family. Bistro 1860 also offers an extensive wine list for sommeliers, as it houses one of the largest cruvinet systems in the country. By infusing its wines with nitrogen, this amazing system can keep up to 54 bottles as fresh as if they had just been uncorked. Additionally, Bistro 1860 offers a variety of speciality cocktails ranging from classics like margaritas and sangria to the more modern “This Drink Needs a Name.”

Between its unique menu and its innovative dinner series, Bistro 1860 has firmly established itself as a must-see in the Louisville restaurant scene. Chef Michael Crouch’s creative vision has led the French-American restaurant into a perfect position. “I’m a creative person, and I need an outlet,” he explains. “This feeds into it.”

For more information on Bistro 1860 and the dinner series, call 502.618.1745 or visit bistro1860.com. Bistro 1860 is located at 1765 Mellwood Avenue in Louisville.