Menu artist leaves his mark at Atlanta restaurants

There are some curious forms of modern art in the world today: dirty car art, painting with body parts, menu art.

Menu art? Yep, it's real. As real as Patrick Nguyen sitting down at Victory Sandwich Bar to transform a piece of paper that lists cheap eats and lots of sammies into an image of a deer, then signing the design with his artist name, Dozfy.

Nguyen loves to doodle. And he loves the Atlanta food scene. Put the two together, and you’ve got a menu artist in the making. Well, kind of.

Nguyen, 32, hails from a family of engineers, physicians and lawyers. “I was scared to mention that I wanted to be a full-time artist,” he said of his aspirations during his youth.

Thus, when Nguyen attended the University of Texas-Austin, he started out as an architectural engineer major. Not for him. He switched to biochemistry. Not for him. He switched to art. Bingo. But what would Mom and Dad say?

“They said, ‘Make it a hobby,’” Nguyen recounted.

Upon graduating, he secured a job in the health care profession. That took him from his native Texas to Fresno, Calif., then to Atlanta in 2012. Once here, he fell in love with the city’s dining landscape.

And it dawned on him he could leave his mark, so to speak, when he stood face to face with the chalk walk at Honey Bubble, located on Ponce de Leon Avenue near Ponce City Market. For six months, Nguyen would go to the tea and dessert spot after work and draw on the chalk wall — but he never signed his name.

Someone finally nudged him to sign his artwork. Dozfy, he decided. I’ll be Dozfy. “I was using that name so my parents didn’t know I was doing it on the fly,” Nguyen said.

Writing on walls with chalk soon led to writing on menus with pen and ink at the Decatur eateries he frequented: Makan, Leon’s, No. 246 and Butter & Cream.

“It’s this whole idea of transforming something you take for granted — like a receipt or menu. Transform it into something that is appreciated,” Nguyen said of the philosophy behind his menu art.

He’s turned the Superica menu into an image of a flower, the BeetleCat carte into a shark, 4th & Swift’s into a fish.

Nguyen frequently draws plants and animals because he is attracted to nature, but when he takes a seat at the table, he never knows what he’ll draw. “It’s whatever subject matter fits for the restaurant at the time I am there. It’s a spontaneous, fun project,” he said.

Sometimes, the ambiance is what inspires him. Other times, it’s the food.

Nguyen said that use of color is one way for him to express on paper the food he tastes. He uses red ink to relay spice. For food that tastes sweet, he might pick up a green or blue pen. If texture — particularly something grainy or with nuts — plays a key role in a dish, he often draws an object like a rock or a mountain.

“Rocks are sharp or obsidian. Then there is fine grain. But they are all coming from the same source,” Nguyen said of his process of association. “That’s the fun part: How can I stretch the thought?”

What do people think of this?

“Kids always watch and ask their parents, ‘Can I do that?’ I’m a terrible example,” Nguyen said with a chuckle.

The wait staff, he said, gives him odd looks when he asks for menus. “I am still trying to learn to ask for menus without it seeming too weird,” he said, especially since he needs multiple copies. “I need one or two menus to warm up,” he said.

Curiosity among servers turns to concern when they see Nguyen defacing an entire menu with black marker to create what he calls a “chalkboard effect.” After a few minutes, the ink dries and he draws on top of that black foundation.

But surprise turns to delight when, upon completing a piece of art, Nguyen hands it to the staff. “I give it to the kitchen staff, because they are the unsung heroes and don’t get to see how people react to the food. I like the idea of exchanging art forms as appreciation.”

In fact, Nguyen has been known to be so generous that he’s made menu art for all 25 of the employees at the front and back of the house at St. Cecilia, and he did the same for the staff at Fred’s Meat & Bread and Yalla’s at Krog Street Market. It typically takes him between 5 and 8 minutes to complete a piece.

While Nguyen has been handed checks for commissioned artwork — like his mural of a map of Italy at newly opened Il Giallo in Sandy Springs, or for his chalk mural in the tasting room at Second Self Beer Co. — he refuses to even think about charging for his menu art.

“I don’t ever want to sell that. Menu art is my way of giving back.”

Six months ago, a job transfer led Nguyen to Seattle. He returns to Atlanta from time to time, but he's primarily putting pen to paper at haunts in the Emerald City. Yet, as more eateries across the country find out about Nguyen's art through his Instagram account, @Dozfy, they are inviting him to dine there and doodle on the menu.

Don’t worry, he pays for every meal.

“I don’t want to eat for free, because I know how much it costs to run a restaurant.”

Freedom just to be a menu artist. That’s enough for Nguyen.

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