NEWS

Chef cooks up a creative storm

Chris Bergeron

Jeffrey P. Fournier cooks like an artist and paints like a chef.

Whether pan searing watermelon steak or decorating his Newton Highlands restaurant, he treats every little detail as an act of self-expression.

The owner and chef celebre of 51 Lincoln, the eatery he opened last January, Fournier seasons his dishes and art with a signature mix of passion, innovation and subtle flourishes that dazzle the senses.

"I think you have to have a vision of what you're going to accomplish," he said. "I have a history of taking on big challenges and succeeding."

Now 39, Fournier owns a highly regarded restaurant, is chef and part owner of another one in West Roxbury and is starting a catering business with two friends.

Not bad for a kid whose guidance counselor thought he would make a good plumber. Although he had dreamed of being an architect or painter, Fournier got his start in the restaurant business making pizzas in a local sub shop.

A rising star in Boston's uber-competitive culinary scene, Fournier has put a personal stamp on his restaurant as a place to satisfy customers' tastes for fine food and deeply personal art. His menu reflects heartfelt respect for dining as a nurturing ritual for family and friends that comes from growing up in a French-Canadian and Armenian clan.

"There's three things I hold as core values: creativity, tradition and hard work. Put them together and you can accomplish a lot."

After seating two customers who had arrived without reservations, Fournier said, "I want to combine food and art so there's a kind of balance. The whole place is a statement that food matters. When my food and art meld together, they give our diners a seamless experience."

Seating 65 diners upstairs and 25 in the stately downstairs Wine Room, Fournier's restaurant offers a potpourri of cuisines including South American, French, Italian and New American. Fournier calls the pastiche of styles "Contemporary American."

Visitors can sample a deliciously eclectic menu from rigatoni bolognaise to braised rabbit Sancocho while feasting their eyes on the chef's distinctive prints, paintings and installations.

Like visual hors d'oeuvres, Fournier's prints, bearing atavistic designs, hang on the walls. A translucent screen marked with calligraphic figures separates the cashier and several small tables from the main dining area.

For the piece de resistance, a five-panel mural aflame with burnt orange tones and Mayan-style patterns covers the rear wall. Extending 28 feet, the mural titled "Charles River" might suggest undercurrents linking Fournier's new venture with Latin American and Western culinary styles he picked up in California. Entering the restaurant's restrooms is like relaxing in a private gallery decorated with Fournier's bright bold prints.

Not surprisingly, his tasty cuisine and tastes in art reflect an often zigzag journey from his native Amesbury to L.A. with serendipitous stops in the kitchen of celebrity chef Hans Rockenwagner who taught him Austrian-Californian cuisine. Heading back East he held plumb positions at Sophia's, a Latin restaurant in Boston's Fenway district, and the Metropolitan Club, a Chestnut Hill steakhouse.

While living in Santa Monica, Calif., Fournier continued to paint and make prints, showing his works in galleries whenever he could. He estimated he has shown his work in about 25 solo and group shows.

He regards food, a blank canvas or a print block as "mediums for creativity."

Observe the vivid splashes of color on his prints and the seductive organic shapes that draw you in. Then see his love of harmony and complementary colors in the way he presents signature dishes like flash-sauteed scallops with chili broccoli rabi and celery root puree.

"When I was in California, I began to understand what a really creative, professionally prepared meal could be like. It would look like art. I think that was the first time I connected with the artistic side of food," he said.

Growing up, Fournier "drew before I cooked." A self-taught cartoonist and illustrator, he studied art briefly at Northern Essex Community College before joining the Army National Guard from 1988 to 1990. But even before his military service, his stint at age 18 slicing subs and twirling pizzas "showed me what the restaurant business could be like."

"I was excited by the rush, the pace," he remembered. "I get bored easy. At that point, cooking wasn't on my mind as an occupation. But looking back, I realize now cooking and art come from the same place in me."

Painting a soothing impressionist mural across the wall of his restaurant, he recalled the "texture of the acrylic paint reminded me of purees and sauces."

Asked to identify a link between his cooking and painting, Fournier thought a moment and said, "There's something intrinsic in me that wants to create.

"Most of my best stuff comes from playing with ingredients. For me, it's all about working in a creative way," he said.

Married to corporate attorney Alyssa Huber, Fournier is expanding his restaurant and art businesses.

He is now part owner of the Vintage restaurant on the VFW Parkway in West Roxbury, which he plans to change from a steakhouse into a "contemporary American restaurant." And he is launching with two friends, chef Eric Bogardus and entrepreneur Mark Stein, Citrio Catering and Provisions. Based in an adjacent storefront, it will sell "classically prepared" foods, sandwiches and breads for takeout.

While Boston provides lucrative opportunities for ambitious restaurateurs, Fournier said, "If all I cared about was money, I'd have been an investment banker."

"I want to do the right thing," he said. "I want to take the high road."

That's what's led Fournier - and satisfied customers - to 51 Lincoln St.

THE ESSENTIALS:

51 Lincoln is located at 51 Lincoln St., Newton Highlands. It is open for dinner Sundays, Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m.

It is wheelchair accessible. Reservations accepted.

To contact, call 617-965-3100, e-mail at info@51lincolnnewton.com or visit www.51newtonlincoln.com.