You won’t find anything about it on the menu at Mes Amis, but an unusual add-on during dinner is wowing guests at the new Hollywood brasserie from chef Lincoln Carson and the Ten Five Hospitality group: A roving artist quietly sketches diners as they eat.
Most customers don’t even realize they’re being drawn by Therese Gardiner — find her at @theresegardinerr on Instagram — since the petite and discrete portraitist keeps a distance as she works. But the delight on faces as she presents the finished renderings lets you know how special the experience is for those lucky enough to be chosen.
By the time my wife and I noticed Therese was sketching us last month, she was almost done with her drawing.
We loved the simple lines and Paris throwback vibes, although we do look kinda serious for two people who did a lot of laughing that night. It all left me with many questions so I reached out to Therese to learn more.
What’s the secret to being a roving artist at one of L.A.’s hottest new restaurants?
Therese Gardiner: No secret, I just show up in full Therese mode. I’ve been painting, drawing, sketching, and then gifting art to people I find in coffee shops and restaurants for years. When I’m not at home working on commissions or a piece for myself, you’ll most likely find me with a book and pen propped up on my knees, intensely staring at someone. A large percentage of the time I will walk up and give it to the person, but if I’m feeling shy, I’ll leave it at the table, never knowing who the drawing will end up with.
A few months ago a friend sent me the job description for Mes Amis, and I was stoked that someone would want to pay me to do what I enjoy most – leisure time creeping on people, illustrator-style.
That’s funny. What’s your background?
Therese Gardiner: I grew up in an alternative, verging-on-hippie family, and spent the earlier years of my life moving around the United States. We did a fair amount of traveling to South America and Europe and a year-long stint in an RV caravaning around the U.S. My parents felt it very important that we were kids alive and engaged rather than distracted. I didn’t watch a lot of TV and spent a lot of time outside immersed in imagination. My mom homeschooled us all the way up to high school along with my three sisters, allowing me from a young age to engage in my interests and unique rhythm of life.
Therese Gardiner: From a young age, I would spend hours locked in my room working away on my art. I’m thankful no one ever stopped me because my life looks almost identical to that now. My parents never pushed me onto one path, so I’ve taken the experimental sample of life and tried on many different skins – modeling, going to school and an embarrassing selection of odd jobs and lifestyles.
I’ve learned to trust my natural inclinations, most of this being aided by a high functioning autism diagnosis. I’ve been able to accept that my life will look different and I can follow my heart and my desire for extensive alone time, structured daily rituals of creativity and almost all of my time spent in some form of focus in art, reading, writing, music – things that calm my brain down. I feel overwhelmingly blessed that I’ve learned to support myself from the fruits of my focus and work, and live completely off those proceeds currently. Mes Amis is now a vital part of this, giving me a place to show up and connect as I am.
Wow. Thank you for your open and honest answer. More than I was expecting. And fascinating. What about your technique? How do you do the work so quickly?
Therese Gardiner: The speed is definitely from practice and discipline over the years. I’ve spent great time developing portraiture and gesture drawing – trying to capture the angles and shapes that make faces recognizable and distinct, and accentuating them. But it’s mostly trusting my hand to follow my eyes, as I usually spend more time looking at the person than I do at the paper. The link between fine motor function and sight strengthens, and I can usually map out the face with a pencil in a few seconds and then just hone in with the pen.
What percentage of people notice you’re drawing them?
Therese Gardiner: I am in a constant game of trying to finish the piece before someone notices me, so I don’t have to spend the remainder of the portrait awkwardly staring into their soul every few seconds while I’m forced to keep observing them until I’m done. Good thing is I don’t believe I am very scary or intimidating, so the optical intrusion is usually forgiven and laughed off.
Any favorite reactions or interactions or quotable compliments so far?
Therese Gardiner: A girl cried once, I thought she was beautiful and quirky and wanted to draw that. I dropped it off at the table and glanced back for a reaction and she was crying. I thought she was upset by the drawing and didn’t like my representation of her, but our manager checked in and she said she was moved by it. And I suppose this is why I love this so much, it makes people feel special and noticed and worth drawing.
In your opinion, how does your work add to the overall experience of dining at the restaurant?
Therese Gardiner: It gives the space a feeling of importance or the 18th century equivalent of paparazzi. I think it drawspeople’s attention to noticing more closely and wholly—where they are; and why this place should be significant to them personally, especially when you receive something to take home like a drawing. In short, I’d say that it makes the dining experience feel personal and intimate between patron and restaurant in a way not attainable through a classic sit down, eat, leave evening.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.